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Prophet's Rock head winemaker Paul Pujol has vague memories of the bad old days of New Zealand wine.
He recollects the ubiquitous cask wine on top of the fridge when he was growing up, and laments what his French father, must have made of the local product then. But within the space of a generation the New Zealand wine industry has evolved into something unrecognisable to what it was only a few decades ago. And Pujol is now one of those at the forefront, with his Rocky Point Pinot Gris 2020 featuring in the New World Wine Awards Top 50.
‘‘At Seresin they had Pinot Gris, but it was just finding its feet really,’’ Pujol says. ‘‘So it was surreal to be able to work in the kind of homeland for it in France, where they’ve been growing it for centuries. Where I was working, which was quite an old domain founded in 1795, they had holdings of Gris and a whole lot of different soils and slopes and elevations. To be able to work with it in such a different range of terroir was an incredible learning experience.’’
Aware that he was the first ever non-family winemaker, he felt the pressure, which became even more acute when it was suggested Pujol may have been the first ever foreign winemaker to work in Alsace. He relates that it was an amazing experience though, with the family that he worked for being very welcoming, and getting to work with old vines, and vinifying the grapes in 200-year-old oak barrels.
‘‘That’s just an experience you’re not going to get anywhere in New Zealand,’’ Pujol says. ‘‘It’s quite something. And it’s nice to bring back a similar approach and apply it in a Central Otago context.’’Having also worked in Oregon in the United States for several years, he returned to New Zealand with his young family 15 years ago.
Prophet’s Rock launched in 1999, and they now have two vineyards, one where fruit for the Prophet’s Rock label is grown, the other the north-facing stony slopes of the Rocky Point vineyard. While Central Otago conditions are ideal for Pinot Gris, it’s always going to be markedly different to those produced in Alsace.
‘‘Whereas there are climatic similarities, it’s never going to match exactly the conditions and the soils and the vine age,’’ Pujol explains. ‘‘You can’t even make wine that tastes the same as your neighbour’s in Central Otago, let alone somewhere on the other side of the world. But in Central we have the ability to make an aromatic Pinot Gris that has freshness and a lot of the kind of classic hallmarks that you’ll find in Alsace.’’ And as the farming and the winemaking in this country progress, he says the wine will get better and better.
Last year Pujol was involved in building a new winery for Prophet’s Rock, on a high terrace above the Bendigo Station on the edge of the Dunstan Mountains. Their first vintage was 2019, although it was still under construction, so he relates that it was far easier completing the 2020 vintage.
‘‘It was fully complete before this last harvest, so there wasn’t a 40-tonne crane in the way,’’ he says. ‘‘You’ve got a really short transit time for the fruit to the winery, and everything is laid out in line with how we make the wines. We’re the first winery in Bendigo, and it’s cool to have something in that part of Central.’’
Pujol is particularly proud to have the Rocky Point Pinot Gris 2020 in the New World Wine Awards Top 50, especially as this is the first year Prophet’s Rock have featured in the Top 50.
Check out the full list of New World Wine Awards winners at newworld.co.nz/wineawards and find the Top 50 wines at your local New World store.