The evolution of a style

Feraud's Garden near Clyde, the venue for the annual Alexandra basin new-release wine tasting. Photo by Charmian Smith.
Feraud's Garden near Clyde, the venue for the annual Alexandra basin new-release wine tasting. Photo by Charmian Smith.
Despite the inclement weather at Labour Day weekend, Alexandra turned on a warm, sunny day for its annual Alexandra basin new-release wine tasting.

It was held at Feraud's Garden near Clyde, where the country's oldest winery building still stands. It was built by Jean Desire Feraud, a Frenchman who arrived during the 1860s gold rushes, and was the first person to plant vines and make wine in Central Otago.

Most of today's vineyards in the Alexandra basin are small and family-owned, and often are overlooked among the higher-profile wines from bigger companies in the Cromwell basin, so the growers have got together to promote themselves. The region even has a wine map, well worth using if you're visiting.

The day before the new-release tasting, the growers brought some 85 older wines from the region - the oldest was 1997 Dry Gully pinot noir - for wine writers Bob Campbell, Yvonne Lorkin, Cameron Douglas and me to taste.

It was tough tasting and making notes on so many wines in three hours or so, but it gave us an overview of the evolution of a regional style and the way the wines age.

Despite the variation of vineyard sites from the high Hillview Rd area to the warmer Earnscleugh sites, a characteristic Alexandra style seems to be emerging.

What stood out for me among the pinot noirs was sweet, succulent fruit in younger wines which develops more sweetness and richness with age. They also retain a lovely freshness for four or five years, and after that they tend to mellow gracefully. Bob Campbell described them as "fine-boned".

However, they can be unforgiving if the balance or ripeness levels are not as good as they could be.

It was a surprise, although it should not have been, the difference screw caps made once they came into general use around 2002-03. The wines under screw cap, especially in the transition years, were fresher than those under cork. We did not have any wines affected by TCA, which makes it dank, musty and undrinkable, but wines under cork can show great variability as they age, and who knows if the samples we tasted were good or not-so-good bottles.

And the older wines?

One of the oldest, Hawkdun Rise 1998 pinot noir, was fully mature, gamey and delicious, balanced with a fresh finish.

Among nine Dry Gully pinots from 1997, the 2002, '03 and '05 were drinking particularly well, charming, spicy, textural and still fresh.

Many of the 2006s and '07s were probably around their peak, delicious with intense fruit, some with savoury characters, texture and balance but still with that lovely freshness so characteristic of the region.

The aromatic wines shared that freshness. Rieslings are lively, steely wines that take a couple of years to develop that lovely limey, marmaladey character, similar to some of the wines from the Mosel in Germany - not surprising perhaps, as the Alexandra soils are so schisty.

However, my favourites were the gewurztraminers, especially the 2011 and 2012 from Schist Hills, which had that lovely fragrant fruit - mint, ginger, lychees with delicate rose perfumes - and are rich and mouth-filling, but had a freshness and crispness on the finish unlike some of the overblown, hot styles from Gisborne. Schist Hills makes its gewurztraminer from 30-year-old vines from the Black Ridge Vineyard.

Among 18 wineries at the new-release tasting on Sunday, there were two new ones, Omeo and Barrington.

Bruce Shaw has planted riesling and pinot noir in Hawley Rd, Earnscleugh, near Omeo creek. I tasted three of his riesling, the 2010, the new-release 2011 and a sample of the 2012. It takes a couple of years for it to develop real charm - the 2010 had lovely minerality and lively lime intensity while retaining a great balance.

Barrington, formed by Jerry and Judy Dowling and David and Karen Smythe, has vineyards in Muttontown Rd, near the Clutha. I enjoyed their bright, fresh 2012 pinot gris. They produce their wines in 375ml bottles as well as the usual 750ml size.