Central Otago in the south of New Zealand’s South Island has almost too much going for it: great scenery, great lifestyle, and now almost freakishly good, if not (yet?) great, Pinot Noir.
A few weeks ago I took the regular wine producer’s commute between Central Otago’s varied subregions through a gorge at least as dramatic as Glencoe in the Scottish Highlands, but the road was virtually empty, the sunshine was blinding, the tumbling riverwater was a brilliant turquoise, wild thyme filled the clear air, and a succession of bungy jump stations and derelict gold miners’ huts would have kept the most truculent young passenger quiet. The area round Queenstown – some of the most scenic in a scenic country as witness the coachloads of (chiefly Asian) tourists – is now home to nearly 100 ambitious wine producers who are watched over by snowcapped peaks in summer and accept an hour or two’s skiing before work in winter as their right.
The nearest traffic light, as they are keen on pointing out, is 200 kilometres away over the mountains. So is the nearest hospital, making helicopter services one of the area’s other prime activities, and I did wonder whether the substantial recent influx of American investors here had taken this into consideration. Central Otago’s wine community is a very particular mix of young, remarkably cohesive Kiwis with a passion for red burgundy and partying, and well-heeled retirees attracted by the much lower cost of settling here than in the Napa Valley. Some reckon that as much as 15 per cent of Otago’s vineyard is now in American hands.
There is concern that too much has happened too fast in Central Otago, whose exuberantly fruity, not-especially-burgundian but immediately likeable Pinot Noirs have won plaudits in New Zealand and, increasingly, beyond. There are now 10 times as many vines, the great majority of them the red burgundy grape Pinot Noir, as there were 10 years ago, which means that the average vine age is remarkably low for a region making such an impact. Only vicious frosts, the region’s climatological Achilles’ heel, saved the 2004 crop from being embarrassingly large. That there is winemaking dedication here is not in doubt, but there is a distinct shortage of commercial expertise. Only the estimable Felton Road has established a solid international reputation and distribution system. With so many new labels sprouting, at retail prices rarely less than NZ$35 (£15 or US$30) a bottle, one has to wonder how all this new wine is to find a willing buyer.
“Some of my clients may fall by the wayside, and there’ll probably be some consolidation,” predicted Dean Shaw, winemaker at the Central Otago Wine Company, the unglamorous contract winery responsible for a significant proportion of Central Otago wine. Shaw is arguably the single most important person in the efficient functioning of this exciting new wine region. If he were not as committed to making distinctive wines which genuinely express the vineyards they come from, the quality of Central Otago Pinot might not be as consistent as it is.
Shaw is an unlikely character. In charge of COWCo since 1999 when he turned 30, he has a mop of dark curls, a keen eye for the latest if most casual in fashion, eyes which readily contract into dark slits, and a deceptively weary drawl. During vintage time when he frequently has to work 20-hour days to make 33 different wines in a remarkably short time, he must have to rev up somewhat. Shaw has a quarter share in the winery along with actor Sam Neill, whose Two Paddocks wines are made there. According to Neill, “a fair bit of the winery budget has gone in to speakers to keep Dean amused while he has to spend such long periods in the winery.” Shaw claims that if he can stand his mid ‘90s e-era music, the wine can too. But he is not just a party animal. Neill again: “He pretends to be naive but he’s actually very intelligent, and he has enough of the poet in him to make him a gifted winemaker.”
He has worked in Burgundy, Champagne, Austria and South Africa and has his sights set on California and Oregon later this year since he regards their Pinots, rightly, as Otago’s main competition. Pascal Marchand of Pommard’s famous Comte Armand estate describes Shaw, godfather to his son, as “a hard worker with a great sense of honour, a terrific climber on top of vats – he will always be free”.
Unlike many consulting oenologists and contract winemakers, Shaw is intimately involved with the vines throughout the growing season. “Dean is very good at telling his clients what’s wrong with their vineyard,” says Rudi Bauer of Quartz Reef approvingly. The reasons are clear. “I don’t especially want to do a whole heap of winemaking,” Shaw told me. “Don’t get me wrong. I will if I have to, but ideally the fruit should be right when it comes in.”
The challenges in Central Otago are generally to make interesting wines from such young vines. Yields are kept deliberately low which helps. Summers are very dry and soils are very poor, often just a thin layer of fine loess, so irrigation is essential. The climate is extremely continental so the coolest subregion Gibbston can have difficulty ripening even Pinot Noir some years, though when it succeeds, there’s a finesse that can be lacking in the more bumptious fruit grown in Bannockburn or Alexandra, for example. Exciting new subregions include Bendigo and the one young enough still to be known variously as Lowburn, Pisa and Wanaka Road. There are also experimental plantings in Waitaki in North Otago where there is, unusually, limestone as in Burgundy.
As practically everywhere else on the planet, winemakers here are finding their wines are increasingly alcoholic. A Central Otago Pinot can easily be a 14 per center. Thanks to Otago’s run of hot summers, not to mention the hole in the ozone layer there, Dean Shaw like many Otago winemakers is now routinely having to add acid to the wines to keep them fresh – even though this is the world’s southernmost wine region. “We didn’t use to. I wish I knew what we were doing right then. Maybe it’s partly the young vines struggling to get into balance. I hope we’re ultimately not going to have to do it. Otherwise we’re in the wrong place. We’re just caretakers at the moment. We won’t really know for 20 or 30 years whether we’re in a great region or not. My son Enzo is three at the moment. Will he be happy we’ve planted here? We just don’t know yet.”
See purple pages for tasting notes on more than 120 NZ Pinots.
Some promising Central Otago] producers
Quality is remarkably consistent and quantities of individual bottlings are small but all of these have some seriously interesting 2003s, the current, relatively elegant Pinot Noir vintage.
Useful NZ specialists in the UK include Boutique Wines of New Zealand of Gloucester (email@example.com); *Fine Wines of New Zealand of London NW5 www.fwnz.co.nz; Hellion Wines of Lancs WN6 0AE www.hellionwines.com; *Kiwi Cellars of Brentford TW8 9JN; KiwiWines of London SW18 www.ozwines.co.uk; Lay & Wheeler of Colchester; *Must Wines (firstname.lastname@example.org); New Zealand House of Wine of Haslemere www.nzhouseofwine.com; and New Zealand Wine Distribution Co of London SW6 www.nzwdc.co.uk
( signifies an NZ specialist who doesn’t happen to have any or many Otago wines.)
Specialist US importers include Charles Global Imports, McDevitt & McDevitt, New Zealand Pure, New Zealand Wine Imports, Pacific Vine International, Via Pacifica and Station Imports.