ALMOST 10 years ago, my first article on New Zealand pinot in this column stated that if Martinborough had a serious contender to its mantle as New Zealand's most important pinot region, it would come from Central Otago. Since then, both the quantity and quality of wine has increased to such a degree that there is little doubt that more good pinot is being produced in Central Otago than anywhere else in NZ - all of which was emphasised at this year's Central Otago Pinot Noir Celebration in January, the sixth such event since 2000.
While grapes had been planted in Central Otago in 1864, the region's modern-day history didn't begin until a trial vineyard was planted at the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (DSIR) orchard near the town of Alexandra in 1972, followed in 1975 by experimental plantings at Rippon Vineyard, Lake Wanaka. The first commercial release was from Alan Brady's Gibbston Valley winery in 1987.
The rate of growth, over the past 10 years in particular, has been phenomenal. From 14 wineries in 1997, there are now 89 (only Auckland and Marlborough have more) and since 2000 plantings have increased by 500 per cent, with the total vineyard area in Otago Pinot Central Otago going from 280 hectares to more than 1,400 hectares in 2007. Nearly 80 per cent is planted with pinot noir.
The world's most southerly wine region (at 45.02 degrees south), Otago's semi-continental climate makes it the driest wine region in NZ and, with annual sunshine hours exceeding 2,000, getting pinot ripe while allowing it enough time on the vine to develop complexity is generally not a problem.
Central Otago's greatest strength as a pinot region and brand, though, is that, despite the differences of style among fruit grown in the subregions of Bannockburn, Bendigo, the Cromwell Basin or the higher altitude Gibbston Valley - where winemakers struggle to get the fruit ripe in cooler years - 'central' pinot noir can be defined by its exuberant, lifted and gently herbal personality. In general, that sets it apart from other NZ attempts at the variety.
And while detractors are keen to criticise Otago pinot for being simply too opulent and sweetly fruited (and therefore nothing like Burgundy) this is, I believe, the region's greatest strength: it has been able to forge an identity of its own - one which sets it apart from most of its NewWorld competitors, from Australia to Oregon
Tasting a number of 2006s in January, I couldn't help but be impressed by the overall quality of most of the wines on offer. From established stars such as Felton Road, Amisfield, Two Paddocks, Quartz Reef, Carrick, Peregrine, Mount Difficulty and Olssens, to name a few, to newer names such as Rockburn, Mount Maude, Prophe Rock and Anthem, the standard across the board was admirable and can only bode well for the future.
Rockburn Pinot Noir 2006 ($40) Rockburn's winemaker, Malcolm Francis, who did his apprenticeship under Blair Walter at Felton Road, has made an excellent 2006. Made from a blend of 88 per cent Cromwell and 12 per cent Gibbston Valley fruit, t his mediumbodied, bright and fruit· driven wine with its silky tannins is ready to drink now and should still be good in three to five years . [email protected]
Rippon Pinot Noir 2006 ($55) Nick Mills, who spent a number of years in Burgundy before returning at the end of 2002 to the family winery in Lake Wanaka - the most northerly region in Otago - has made one of the best Rippon pinots in years. Dark cherry fruit, a touch of lifted herbal complexity (from 20 per cent whole bunches in the ferment) and some earthiness lead onto a palate that, whi le more structured than your average Otago pinot, is perfectly balanced. A terrific candidate for at least another five years in the cellar. Tel:1800 637 776.
Two Paddocks First Paddock Pinot Noir 2006 ($50) This is an excellent example of how fruit from the Gibbston Valley, that can struggle in cool years, can make terrific wine when conditions allow. Lifted and quite floral on the nose, the'nicely complex, spicy and medium-bodied palate suggests a wine for now and the next four years. Tel: (08) 811 2 4265.
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