Entry-level pinots making mark

McArthur Ridge winery planted its vineyards in 2002. PHOTO: SUPPLIED
McArthur Ridge winery planted its vineyards in 2002. PHOTO: SUPPLIED
Central Otago pinot noir has made a comeback in the New World Wine Awards this year, one winning champion pinot noir and another two making it into the Top 50. Rebecca Fox finds out what it takes to make a quality entry-level wine.

Last year Matt Connell made his first ever pinot noir for McArthur Ridge wines.

This year he is collecting the accolades, but not without paying tribute to the vineyard team responsible for growing the grapes.

"It’s all up to me to stuff it up, really."

McArthur Ridge Brassknocker Pinot Noir has won the champion pinot noir at this year’s New World Wine Awards which recognises top quality wines priced under $25.

"I’m stoked. It’s great McArthur Ridge is getting kudos for their wine. People might not know it now but they will in the future — it’s definitely one to follow."

But Connell is no stranger to awards. While winemaker at Bannockburn winery Akarua, each of his pinots from his first in 2009 to his last in 2015 won major trophies, including winning the Red Wine of Show and Pinot Noir Trophy at the Six Nations Wine Challenge 2012 and again in 2016.

The confidence he gained from those successes and his time at Olssens of Bannockburn led him to strike out on his own in 2016 to become a contract winemaker, now based in Cromwell.

"I enjoy dealing with a variety of people and vineyards, helping them with their projects. It keeps it challenging and interesting at the same time."

Frost-fighting at Alexandra winery McArthur Ridge.
Frost-fighting at Alexandra winery McArthur Ridge.
McArthur Ridge, which has been under new management since 2017, wants to further develop its own brand of wine.

Shareholder and marketing manager Jason Dellaca said they spent the first years of ownership concentrating on rationalising the landholding of the winery and getting the vineyards right.

Last year they decided it was time to turn their attention to their wine making and brought Connell on board.

They are about to release their 2020 Brassknocker pinot noir and to win the award on the eve of that and their first entry into the awards was "pretty exciting".

"It looks like we made the right choice. It’s really, really awesome."

As the winery is "humungous", the majority of the grapes are sold to major wine labels for their own wines but a portion is retained for their own wines — the entry-level Brassknocker as well as its next tier wine, Southern Tour.

"For a producer at this scale we have to be at that everyday drinking level, that approachable pinot — that is where the growth is for sure."

For Connell, part of the attraction of making wines for McArthur Ridge, whose vineyards were planted in 2002, was that its vineyards are in Alexandra and he wanted to work with more vineyards from the area.

"I’m pretty passionate about Alexandra wines. I don’t think they get enough attention for the wines they are. They are different stylistically from other pinot in Central Otago. They are more Burgundian, not as fruit intense as, say, the Cromwell Basin. They have a lovely savoury edge to them."

Due to McArthur Ridge’s size it has vineyards across a variety of different aspects and using different grape clones.

"That gives us a large palate to choose from. There are a lot of choices out of that vineyard, potentially."

Cromwell winemaker Matt Connell. IMAGES: SUPPLIED
Cromwell winemaker Matt Connell. IMAGES: SUPPLIED
Another bonus is having a full-time crew working on the vineyard which many Central Otago vineyards did not have, he says. That gave them consistency in the quality fruit being produced across the vineyard.

"The team is passionate about the site. It’s been nice to see the results coming through from those first wines — hugely encouraging for me but also they are getting the reward for their hard work."

That was especially important in these difficult times when staff are hard to come by and life is tough.

"It’s pretty hard to keep motivated every day for anyone, let alone on a vineyard."

Last year’s was a "tricky vintage" not only due to the challenges of Covid-19 but also as it was a cooler year, meaning the grapes took longer to ripen.

"Once again it comes back to the vineyard. They make sure they carry a decent crop but not too much of a crop. Growing their fruit to be quality."

The cool year added to acidity levels, which Alexandra wines already have, as it is one of the later areas to ripen, which meant they will age well.

"It’s the strength of Alex wines, and Gibbston, too. They are naturally more worthy of ageing but also have more complex aromatics. I just tried to highlight that through the vintage but it was challenging."

McArthur Ridge winey from the air. PHOTO: SUPPLIED
McArthur Ridge winey from the air. PHOTO: SUPPLIED
They did a mixture of machine harvesting and hand picking for the new wine to pick the wine at just the right time when it is tasting the best.

As it was his first year on the vineyard he took a "shotgun" approach to selecting the blocks of grapes to use for the wines, meaning they a mix of different clones.

"It’s a good approach. It brings different things to the party and gave me an insight into what we can use in the future."

While it is a "cheaper" wine, care was taken to make it just like more premium wines.

"It’s fantastic to see that level of wine be awarded."

Connell used a mix of wild and inoculated yeast to build richness and complexity in the wine.

"We’re trying to get the best out of the grapes."

He also chose to not "overdo" the punching down and pressing of the grapes that is sometimes done with wines at that level.

"We wanted quality over quantity, even at that price point."

Connell describes Brassknocker as the type of wine someone could take to a party and "not be disappointed".

"If people feel like rewarding themselves they won’t feel short-changed."

The next challenge is also making more premium wines focused on more single clone, site specific "ultra premium" grapes they hope to identify in the vineyard.

"It’ll tell the story about a specific block, whereas Brassknocker is telling a story about the vineyard."

Two other Central Otago pinot noirs also achieved top 50 placings in the awards: Toi Toi and Madam Sass.

Winemaker and viticulturalist Tim Adams. PHOTO: SUPPLIED
Winemaker and viticulturalist Tim Adams. PHOTO: SUPPLIED
Marlborough-based Toi Toi’s Clutha pinot noir also entered for the first time, so winemaker and viticulturist Tim Adams is "extremely excited" about the win.

"It shows what we are doing is right."

While Adams admits winemakers love to make special wines that age for 15 years, in reality that is only a small amount of the market, as most wines bought are drunk within 48 hours of purchase.

For this top wine, Adams says he took a gentle hand with the grapes that came from three Central Otago wineries, one on the Wanaka side of Pisa Moorings and two sites in Alexandra, Immigrants vineyard and blocks on Mt Dunstan.

He also had to come to grips with the quirks of harvesting grapes in Central Otago, such as the late ripening and frost risk.

Once picked, the grapes are trucked overnight to Marlborough for Adams to work his magic, arriving early morning, although after the earthquake struck disrupting road networks, it took until lunchtime for the grapes to arrive.

"When it came up I kind of let the wine make itself. It’s wild fermented and we did gentle plunging, treating the fruit with a gentle hand.

"We wanted to enhance the fruit, not over extract the tannins. We took the softly, softly approach."

Despite the "craziness" caused by Covid-19, which meant Adams had to rely more on his team in their winery "bubbles" to be his eyes and ears, it was a good year.

Normally he would check on the pinot fermentation twice a day but could only do a brief visit once a day.

"It was just a quick dash through. I had to trust the people working with the wines."

It was also his first vintage with the winery so there was a lot of "new stuff" that all came together for this wine, he says.

"Somehow the stars aligned."

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