Why does Waitaki deserve its win?
The Waitaki Valley in New Zealand’s North Otago region has come of age this week: a Pinot Noir from this marginal region has been named the International Wine Challenge’s best Kiwi Pinot.
The region’s first vineyard, Doctor’s Creek, was planted in 2001 on limestone soils not dissimilar to Burgundy, and the first wines showed a mineral streak that attracted international praise. Since the initial rave reviews, many vineyards have sprouted up on lesser sites funded by absentee landlords, which don’t show that lovingly-nurtured mineral streak, but all the wines have a leanness and restraint that make this region stand out.
Yet it is still a small area and is often overshadowed by Pinot-producing Martinborough and Central Otago. But this week, it is having its time in the sun: John Forrest’s 2009 Waitaki Valley Pinot Noir took the title of best New Zealand Pinot Noir.
It’s affirmation that the region’s pioneers needed. Most New Zealand wine producers wouldn’t plant in the Waitaki Valley if you paid them. The region is nail-bitingly marginal and many of the country’s most successful companies have decided the risks are too high. But others who are braver, or possibly slightly unhinged, have put their money and love into this remote area of the south island.
As I wrote in the New Zealand Herald last year, the region excels at both aromatic whites, which include Riesling, Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminer, as well as reds from Pinot Noir. Production is small scale – at the last count there were just 110ha of vines in the whole region compared to Marlborough’s – which means these wines don’t come cheap. What’s more, Waitaki producers have to contend with hostile weather: rain, frost, wind and hungry birds make ripening rapes a risky business. If the handful of producers in the Waitaki Valley make it to harvest unscathed, the resulting wines show a restrained perfume, elegance and palate-cleansing acidity.
I am an unashamed fan of the handful of producers that are battling adversity to make some interesting wines. It’s also a part of New Zealand that remains unspoilt. Off the beaten track, the former post office in the small town of Kurow has been transformed into a tasting centre for the region’s producers and is worth a detour off State Highway 1 next time you’re in North Otago.