Getting back to the roots of the process

Like many of its winemakers, Central Otago is maturing as a wine-growing region. Photo by...
Like many of its winemakers, Central Otago is maturing as a wine-growing region. Photo by Charmian Smith.

The 11th Central Otago Pinot Noir Celebration late last month was its usual mix of good wine, good food, good company and thoughtful presentations. More than 200 delegates, replete with fine food and wine are wending their way home to the US, Europe, Asia, Australia, and of course elsewhere in New Zealand. Charmian Smith reports on the maturing of the region.

Central Otago is maturing; it's visible not only in the second-generation family members now becoming involved in vineyards and wineries, the tinges of grey on the heads of some of the winemakers, and the thickening trunks of the vines, but also in the way the winemakers are exploring the many threads that go to make up the character and quality of Central Otago wine.

The Central Otago Pinot Noir Celebration is always a well-balanced mix of superb food and wine, tastings, parties and thought-provoking sessions.

Interspersed with lunch at wineries and Queenstown restaurants, a winemaker's party at Jack's Point and a grand tasting of pinot noir from 37 participating wineries, were a particularly intriguing masterclass and formal tasting.

They focused on the shape and feel rather than the flavours of wine, and explored whether this could be related to the type of soil the vines were grown in.


Maybe, but fascinating to wine growers, wine geeks, connoisseurs and interested amateurs, nevertheless.

The masterclass, especially, was presented with humour and fun, gently mocking the serious nature of the material put forward by Blair Walter and his team, no doubt a result of the friendship and easy camaraderie between the winemakers.

Their hypothesis was that vineyard soil has a demonstrable effect on the structure and shape of the wine, and, judging from comments during and after the tasting, it struck a chord with many people.

It certainly did with me.

It takes a mindshift to think about the structure and shape of a wine.

Mostly we describe wine in terms of the aromas and flavours we find in it.

This is easy to relate to, as most people who give any thought to what they are tasting can recognise at least some flavours and aromas.

It also suits the youth of the New Zealand wine industry, because young vines usually make fruit-forward wines.

However, there is more to wine than fruits and flowers.

Once vines mature and the roots get well down into the subsoil these other aspects, many of them expressions of the terroir, the soils, exposure, climate and people, come into play.

While you cannot taste the soil minerals, they can affect the wine's structure, texture and shape.

This is to do with tactile sensations: the feel of the wine in the mouth, the tannins, the way the wine may burst on to the palate then fade, or may slip quietly on to the palate then open like a peacock's tail, or as the finest wines do, continue consistently through the palate to the end and linger afterwards.

The quality of the tannins in pinot noir is also part of the shape, whether they are fine and dusty, chunky, chewy or harsh and edgy.

Roger Gibson, of Lowburn Ferry, gave a succinct rundown of the geology of the area.

His thesis was that wines from river terraces of the same age, whether in Bendigo, Bannockburn or Pisa, will have a similar structure and texture.

This was clearly demonstrated in three 2013 pinots from the high, 450,000-year-old terraces, Gibbston Valley Schoolhouse from Bendigo, Doctor's Flat from Bannockburn and Prophet's Rock from Bendigo, all of which were finely textured with dusty tannins.

Wines from mid and lower terraces were not quite so distinctive, but the concept had everyone talking afterwards.

The formal tasting built on this concept, taking it into the wider world.

Central Otago's schisty soils are metamorphic, unlike the limestone and clay which are believed to be ideal for pinot noir.

Matt Dicey, who organised this tasting, looked for other pinot noir-producing regions with similar soils and found one in the Aconcagua Valley in Chile, and several in Germany on slatey soils.

Five top German pinots (spätburgunder) were presented by German MW Frank Röder - one of them came from sandstone soils of Franconia and was definitely the odd one out compared to those from the Ahr, Rheingau and Mosel.

The others, even the very different Chilean one, showed similar fine-grained tannins and lively acidity that are evident in some of the Central Otago wines.

The soils and the textural character they contribute is but one thread woven into a complex fabric that makes up the finished wine.

It shows the maturing winemakers have not lost their passion to understand their region and the many strands that go to make it up.

Charmian Smith attended the event as a guest of Central Otago Winegrowers.



Be there


Central Otago will hold another pinot noir celebration early in 2016. Check for more information as it comes to hand. The Wellington pinot celebration will be held in 2017.



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