The region of Central Otago, in the South Island of New Zealand, sits astride the 45th parallel, making it the southernmost winemaking region in the world. This stunningly beautiful region is reminiscent of Switzerland with snow-capped mountains to over 2,000m, dramatic storybook-pretty gorges, and bright blue lakes as deep as the Empire State Building is tall.
So where are the vines, what are the flagship regions and wines – and are they any good? And what is the link with the University of Adelaide?
To answer these questions, I visited Queenstown around harvest time. Driving through the area between Queenstown and Wanaka, on flat fast roads on a clear sunny day, I was flanked by mountains on either side and soon by vineyards on the flat areas close by and up the sides of the hills. Autumn was setting in and the leaves on the vines were a collection of gold to bronze to crimson, making for the most breathtaking photos – see slideshow below.
Where are the vines?
They are located between 200 and 450m above sea level. The Central Otago region is the most inland winegrowing region of New Zealand and the only region with a semi-continental climate. There are large variations in temperatures during the day and night and also between seasons. Summers are hot and dry, reaching the 30s on a number of days. Autumn also tends to be dry and pretty chilly! The daily fluctuations in temperature is a contributor to the flavour intensity of the wines produced here…
What are the flagship regions?
There are four main sub-regions of Central Otago, the main one (70% of the vineyards) being the Cromwell basin stretching from Bannockburn in the south to Bendigo, Lowburn and Wanaka Road in the north. The second largest with 20% of plantings is the Gibbston area, which includes the dramatic Kawarau Gorge – any bungee jumper will know of the Kawarau River – see the slideshow for a photo of the Kawarau bungee jump. The third region includes Clyde and Alexandra (7%) and the remainder of the vineyards are around Wanaka (3%).
What are the flagship wines?
The main varietal produced here is pinot noir. Pinot lovers will be well aware of the raft of impressive pinots coming out of New Zealand, from regions including Martinborough in the North Island, and Marlborough, Waipara and Central Otago in the South Island, all with distinctive styles.
This grape is suited to the Central Otago climate, the warm days and cool nights allowing the grapes to ripen slowly and develop intense fruit flavours and soft tannins that typify the region. Pinot noir is a typically low cropper and a fickle grape to grow, making a relatively expensive wine as a result. But the wines here are truly spectacular and worth the effort and the cost.
Other grapes the region is becoming known for are riesling, gewürztraminer, pinot gris – and I also tried an amazing pinot blanc at Gibbston Valley – but pinot noir reigns supreme in Central Otago.
What is the link with the University of Adelaide?
One of the reasons for my pinot expedition was to visit Dr Stephanie Lambert at the revered Amisfield winery, where she is chief winemaker. Stephanie, originally from Wellington, studied for her PhD at the University of Adelaide, looking at co-pigmentation in red wines, and she has the certificate proudly displayed on her wall at the winery. Furthermore, the assistant winemaker Sam Hambour also studied at the University of Adelaide, and with such great ambassadors for the university’s winemaking prowess, I was also stopped on my tour of the winery by a cellar hand telling me he was intending to come to study in Adelaide too.
So the University of Adelaide certainly has a big foot jammed firmly in the door of Central Otago pinot noir!
Amisfield – ‘Grown not made’
The winery is located north of Cromwell (not to be confused with the cellar door which is more than 50km south, just out of Queenstown). It is nestled in the hillside, surrounded by vines. When I was there the vines were laden with dark pinot berries not far from picking, and were covered in nets to stop the birds feasting on them. With autumn setting in, the vine leaves were already dark golden and snow topped the mountains around. You cannot help but be impressed by the beauty of this region.
Steph gives me some interesting snippets about the lifecycle of the Amisfield pinots:
“Pinot noir is a delicate and quite fickle variety so you have to look after it well. It’s not about extraction, it’s about coaxing into line rather than pushing and punching it into line. We don’t have many anthocyanins [which give colour to the wine] to start with so we’ve got to look after them. We cold soak for five days at say 10 degrees which gets the colour going, leeching out from the skins. Then we ferment it mostly wild although some years we do some inoculations.”
The ferment is not what an Australian winemaker would be used to: “We learned at Adelaide to do slow steady controlled ferments at 28 degrees. Here with the pinot noir we start at 23 Brix and the next day it’s 10 – it’s been a shock to some Aussie winemakers who have seen this, they think something has gone wrong. But here we have hot ferments, we want it at 30 or 32 degrees and it’s all over in four or five days. Then we leave it on skins for up to two weeks.”
Also at Adelaide, there is not much consideration of wild yeast – the Australian approach is to inoculate and use specific yeasts identified as the most appropriate for that wine. This leads to cleaner and more predictable wines. As Steph says, “I think we did need the industry to clean up but now that it has been cleaned up, we can look at the wild ferments.”
Steph has seen a range of winemaking techniques including wild ferments as she has made wine all over the world: “I worked in Oregon and Burgundy, for example, and you see a different side of things. There are lots of different practices and experimentation, with winemakers from all over the world including Australia, New Zealand, France and South Africa.”
Walking around the winery I am given a taste of wild ferments underway – including sauvignon blanc and riesling. It gives an intensity and pleasant funkiness that I love. The riesling was just starting to get a peanut butter, slightly wild character and as Steph says “to me Central Otago rieslings get lots of orange”.
The Amisfield winery produces about 20,000 cases a year and about three quarters is the Amisfield pinot noir. It has had 10 months in French oak (30% new) – it is left alone, with no rack and return as is often the case with many wines in barrel.
Steph opens a bottle of the 2008 to taste – oh wow! It is so generous, the divine aromas jump out of the glass. This fruit is from the Pisa vineyards (between Cromwell and Wanaka), and gives big fruit flavours of dark cherry and plum. The mouthfeel is full and luxurious, the tannins are silky smooth, the fruit dark and concentrated, with an elegant touch of spice – and the finish is long and complex. This wine is stunning. It is incredible to drink now and will also age (if you can leave it alone) for up to a decade. These wines are truly impressive and reflect great care throughout the process with emphasis on getting the best from the grapes, not excessive winemaking influence – the wines are ‘grown not made’ as it states on the Amisfield website. This is refreshing for a winelover like myself.
The other pinot noir that Amisfield makes is the Lake Hayes, made from fruit from the Lowburn vineyards, and at a slightly lower price point than the Amisfield. It is given less oak – with a portion left out of oak altogether for maturation, and is made in a bit of a lighter style, and for earlier drinking – although it will also cellar well for a few years. Trying this at the cellar door, I tasted red fruits like raspberry, with a slight savoury, earthy influence. Again, tannins were soft and integrated with the berry fruit.
Central Otago had its first wine grapes planted in the 1860s, but these were soon abandoned. The commercial winemaking seen now started as recently as the 1980s – in fact on a visit to the Gibbston Valley cellar door I happened to arrive in the middle of a celebration of 25 years since Alan Brady established the vineyard and winery. The Irish-born winemaker was the first to plant winegrapes in the Otago region as far back as 1981 – now he is seen as a pioneer and respected founder of Central Otago wines.
A special mention goes to Waitiri Creek winery just outside Queenstown – a small operation producing excellent pinot noir typifying the region, and in a gorgeous setting that just screams – have your function here! Jason Moss at cellar door was amazingly helpful and informative – thank you! See the photo below…
Many thanks to Steph at Amisfield winery, Viggi at Amisfield cellar door, all the staff at Gibbston Valley cellar door for outstanding service and wines, and to Chard Farm for a superb gewürztraminer – and a terrifying drive to get to the cellar door! See photos below…