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Killer Kiwi Pinot from "Central"
By Gerald D. Boyd
Apr 21, 2009
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One of winedom's burning questions is if the search for the Holy Grail of Pinot Noir is still on-going.  Some wine lovers believe all this scratching around is much ado about nothing, while other Pinot-philes contend that somewhere there is a place, other than Burgundy, where Pinot Noir shines its brightest -- like Central Otago on the South Island of New Zealand.

Understand, Pinot Noir advocates are very protective, believing that such highly touted Pinot Regions as Carneros, Oregon's Willamette Valley, Russian River Valley, South Africa's Paarl and Elgin sub-regions, Santa Barbara County, Australia's Yarra Valley are where it's at when it comes to New World Pinot Noir.  But New Zealand winemakers have staked a claim to Pinot Noir and offer the very tasty Pinots of Marlborough, Martinborough, Waipara and Central Otago as examples of why they believe that the location of the Pinot Noir Holy Grail may be in the Southern Hemisphere.

On a trip to Central Otago a few years ago, I chanced by Felton Road, one of the region's premier wineries.  To say that I was impressed by the Pinot Noirs I tasted at Felton Road, especially Block 3 and Block 5, would be an understatement.  But thinking that Felton Road Pinots may just have been a one-off experience, I tried a few other Pinots from "Central" (as the locals like to call it) like Carrick, Mt. Difficulty, Olssens, Two Paddocks and Rockburn,  and found the same forward Pinot red fruit aromatics and flavors, supported by fresh fruit intensity, refined tannins and refreshing acidity; in short, the essence of fresh and fruity Pinot Noir.  You could ask for more in a red wine, but I don't know why you would.

Southern Hemisphere geography is normally not a front-burner topic for those of us who call the Northern Hemisphere home.  Before going to Central Otago, it never occurred to me that there are less than 400,000 people living in the east/west strip between 44 degrees latitude and 45 degrees, compared to over 100 million in the Northern latitudinal strip.  In the Southern strip there is only Central Otago and Patagonia and there is no vineyard in Central Otago within 200 kms (125 miles) of a traffic light; gee-whiz facts that give you pause.  For wine drinkers, Central's isolation and the absence of people and thus industry in the region means a lack of pollution and healthier vines. 

So, it was a no-brainer when an invitation to attend a Central Otago Pinor Noir seminar and tasting in San Francisco popped up in my e-mail in box.  Dean Shaw (the slightly irreverent winemaker for Central Otago Wine Company, a contract winery that makes noted wines such as Dry Gully, Sleeping Dogs, Two Paddocks, Three Miners and 26 other brands) brought along 2007 Pinot Noirs from 11 producers representing a range of styles from six of Central's sub regions. 

"You might call us a high priced prostitute or escort," Shaw quipped in his opening remarks.  Shaw also brought along a pair of Pinot Gris, including the delightful 2008 Peregrine, and two Rieslings, a variety that is gathering a lot of traction in Central and other parts of New Zealand.  Then, noting that the modern era of Central Otago viticulture only dates to the late 1970s, Shaw commented that he doesn't believe there are regional differences yet in Otago, "but then, if it's bullshit, just enjoy the wines."

Once Shaw had everyone loosened up, he explained that there are near-ideal factors for growing Pinot Noir such as a "sweet spot" from 850 to 1100 growing degree days, long cool dry autumn, low rainfall and humidity and free draining soils.  Central Otago's schist-based soils produce Pinots with fruit vibrancy, good fruit and tannins and balance, "fruit finesse, not power," says Shaw.  He added that the yields from Central are generally low and that the soils are low in vigor but high in mineral richness. 

The natural beauty of Central Otago, surrounded by mountains and dotted by lakes and deep gorges, sets the region apart as one of the world's most unique mountain vineyard settings.  There are four main sub regions including Gibbston (the coolest and highest of the sub regions and the first to be planted to Pinot Noir), Wanaka (a cool northerly sub region), Alexandra (the southerly sub region and one of the most topographically varied as well), and Cromwell (a large basin surrounded by mountains, set in the middle of Gibbston, Wanaka and Alexandra).  Additionally, three microclimate sub zones within Cromwell include the Pisa Area and Parkburn in Lowburn; Bendigo, recently planted and the warmest sub region; and Bannockburn, the most intensively planted microclimate in Cromwell.

Each of the sub regions in Central Otago produces Pinot Noirs with stylistic differences and distinct characteristics, although I find that many of the differences are subtle and more apparent to someone with extensive tasting experience of the wines.  Still, the following "wine typicity" notes from Central Otago Pinot Noir, a trade group, may prove helpful to the wine consumer: 

  • Gibbston, red fruit and dried herb aromatics with backbones of acidity;
  • Wanaka, red fruit aromas, savory tones, complexity and minerality;
  • Alexandra, spice notes with over fruit, rich in aromatics, lighter in fruit tannin structure;
  • Cromwell-Lowburn, high aromatic tones with red to darker fruits, ripe fruit tannins, delicate rather than structural wines;
  • Cromwell-Bendigo, darker fruits with structural tension from fruit tannins;
  • Cromwell-Bannockburn, spice, darker fruits and complexity, with well defined but fine tannin structure.

Shaw said that Central Otago Pinot Noirs, especially those from the 2007 vintage, show more elegance because of the youthfulness of the vines and the vibrancy of the fruit.  In comparing Central Pinots to those of Martinborough, he noted that the later are 'chunky, with more spice and less acidity,' while Pinot Noirs from Marlborough are between two, "diverse, hard to put a sign on them."   Which leaves Pinot fans with only one sensible option:  Buy a few bottles of Pinot Noir from each New Zealand region and make your own choices.  But I'd go with Central Otago.