Stony ground is lending its character to the wines of
Bendigo, writes Charmian Smith.
Rudi Bauer leaves the main road and drives through the dry,
matagouri-peppered hills on the north side of Lake Wanaka.
Above is the high country where Shrek the merino sheep roamed
before he became famous.
It is bony soil with no organic matter because the rabbits
eat everything as soon as it grows, Bauer, winemaker at
Quartz Reef and the first to plant vines in the Bendigo area,
He is taking the back way to the vineyards to show me what
the land was like before the widespread vineyard planting
12-15 years ago.
More than 20 years ago he and John Perriam, owner of Bendigo
Station, drove round looking for suitable vineyard land.
Perriam was losing his productive lowland farm to Lake
Dunstan and was wanting to diversify the high-country land he
was left with, and Bauer was looking for a place to plant a
Up another gully and over the brow we see the Bendigo
vineyards spreading widely across the lower slopes of the
north-facing amphitheatre. At the end of September when I
visited there were no leaves, although the first buds were
about to burst, probably the earliest in Central Otago. The
Bendigo viticultural subregion is said to be the warmest in
Central. Sheltered from the cold southerlies, it basks in the
sun and retains the heat.
Besides the lower slopes and flats, there are two higher
vineyard terraces, Chinaman's Terrace and higher up the hill
on the other side of the creek Schoolhouse Terrace, names
recalling the goldmining past of the once thriving settlement
I had come to have a close look at this area, hoping to learn
what made it different from other Central Otago subregions
and to see if I could discern any difference between wines
from grapes grown on the lower terraces, the slopes or the
As many of the vines are now 10-12 years old, they should be
starting to express some of the terroir, or so the theory
Bauer started planting his Quartz Reef vineyard in 1991,
fencing out the rabbits and applying irrigation. It was one
of the earliest in the Cromwell Basin - even at Bannockburn
and Lowburn planting was only beginning and pinot noir was
not yet the star of the region.
"It needed someone with vision to give it a shot," Bauer said
Other vineyards soon followed in Bendigo, especially once
irrigation water was available on the terraces. Soon the
unprecedented green of vines showed the difference water,
hard work and rabbit fencing can make to the dry bony soils.
We come down the track and into the Quartz Reef vineyard on
the lower slopes alongside Loop Rd. Sheep are grazing the
grass and weeds under the vines, manuring the vineyard at the
same time, but it is spring and the first leaves are starting
to appear. The sheep have to go before they start eating the
shoots, Bauer says and gets on the phone to organise their
Quartz Reef pinot noirs are grown on this steep vineyard.
Across the road on the flatter Loop Rd vineyard are pinot
gris, chardonnay and pinot noir for the sparkling wines, and
the nerve centre of his biodynamic operation with its large
compost heap and herbs for other preparations. Unlike other
regions, many vineyards in Central are biodynamic or organic.
Bauer makes two pinot noirs, a spicy, red-fruited Quartz Reef
with an underlying savoury suggestion of mineral, and a
richer, dark-fruited, silky-textured, firmly structured
Quartz Reef Bendigo.
Dominic Mondillo was another early planter in the Bendigo
As viticulturist for Gibbston Valley Wines for 14 years, he
was looking for possible vineyard sites and walked over a lot
of Central Otago. However, he kept coming back to Bendigo. It
is the warmest site in the coolest region, he said.
In the late 1990s he established vineyards for Gibbston
Valley Wines, two on the lower slopes alongside Loop Rd, one
on the high Schoolhouse Terrace and one on Chinaman's
He was attracted to the Chinaman's site because it was
protected and retained the heat and he liked its schisty
soils which give the wine a structural content, he said.
He liked the region so much, he also planted a vineyard for
himself on another, lower terrace above Bendigo creek, with
pinot noir and riesling.
His Mondillo pinot noirs, made by Rudi Bauer, are richly
fruited, velvety in texture with supple but definite tannin
From the top of his vineyard he points out other large and
small vineyards, among them Mudhouse, Zebra, Folding Hill,
Prophet's Rock, Van Asch, and the Gibbston Valley and
Sascha Herbert, Gibbston Valley assistant winemaker, explains
the differences in their four Bendigo vineyards.
The western vineyard on the lower slopes alongside Loop Rd is
on sandy alluvial soils and produces grapes for the fruity
Gold River pinot noir because it can handle slightly higher
crops. The eastern vineyard a few metres along the road, has
different soils and clones and produces darker-fruited, more
aromatic pinot for the premium wine, she says.
Up on China Terrace (they changed the name on their labels as
"Chinaman's" was offensive to Chinese, she said) there is
more clay with less silt and sand, and hence better water
retention. It has its own character and from it comes an
attractive, intense and textural single vineyard pinot noir.
On Schoolhouse Terrace, at about 450m above sea level, grapes
ripen 10 days later than on the flats below, she says.
Gibbston Valley's single vineyard Schoolhouse pinot noir is
more perfumed than wines I tasted from other parts of Bendigo
and hints of blueberry and cranberry with a mineral
Back alongside the road, Peregrine has two vineyards: Logan
Town vineyard is planted in curved blocks of riesling and
pinot noir laid out according to soil type, according to
viticulturist Nick Paulin. Nearer the creek is Peregrine's
Bendigo vineyard with pinot noir and pinot gris.
Winemaker Nadine Cross says the pinot gris here is rich, ripe
and floral with peach and brown spice such as cinnamon.
They blend it with wine from their Lowburn and Pisa vineyards
across the lake, which bring pear and apricot characters to
the finished wine.
Peregrine wines tend to be blends from many vineyards in
different subregions of Central as they believe the sum is
greater than the parts. They get aromatics from Gibbston,
soft plummy fruit from Bannockburn and other parts of the
Cromwell basin, and dark fruit and structure from Bendigo,
If you do not have vineyards in several areas, according to
Mondillo, you can get the complexity you are looking for by
using several different clones and rootstocks. He believes
these contribute more to the differences in character of the
wines from the different blocks in Bendigo than the soils.
However, Cross and Paulin from Peregrine think that with
younger vines the clonal characters are more important but
when older, vines will reflect the soils and vineyard
exposure. Even at a decade or so, the Bendigo vines are still
However, winemakers seem to agree that pinot noir from
Bendigo tends to show darker fruit and is more structural
with bolder tannins, compared with the lush, sweeter fruit
from further down the valley, and that's also my impression
from the few single-vineyard wines and samples that I tasted
on this trip.
But as always with wine, there are so many variables and so
many different opinions, that it's rare to reach a consensus.
That's what makes it so fascinating.