I’ve tasted a lot of different Central Otago pinot noirs, but I never imagined how extreme a climate it is for this temperamental grape to grow until visiting the area firsthand. “How do these New Zealanders pull it off?”, I asked myself.
They get lucky, for starters. The frosts here in the world’s southern most grape growing region can spoil fruit set in the wink of an eye, but in general there is excellence abound, and contrary to my French friend at Fleur’s Place, Gilbert, there is much to choose from. I drank excellent wines at Mt. Difficulty, Carrick, Bannock Brae, Dry Gully, Chard Farm, and Peregrine. Felton Road was releasing one of the best NZ chards in history with their 2006. Look for it, you will love it.
The first thing you notice after driving to Central Otago is that it’s high desert mountain terrain. There is snow on the surrounding mountain peaks. In fact some of New Zealand’s finest ski fields are here within a few kms of Queenstown. It just doesn’t seem like it’d be a friendly place to grow grapes. But what happens is that the area has many microclimates that catch the warm summer sun and allow for the pinot to ripen slowly with the cool nights into Autumn and to develop balance and complex flavors. In particular, many vineyards are shaped like a catcher’s mit, working as a suntrap and also protecting the vines from the strong winds. There are few pests or disease problems here, except for birds, and like anywhere else, they are carefully controlled by firearms and plastic explosives. Central Otago also grows a lot of cherries and apples, so the birds have been frequent diners down here for many years.
The view from Mt. Difficulty’s cellar door was the best for panoramic views of the Bannockburn sub region. They also have a decent kitchen so you can enjoy a meal with a glass of pinot outdoors on their lofty veranda. Carrick Vineyards also makes good food and has a different riverside vista of the sluicings left behind from the goldrush era here not to long ago. The people of Otago are proud of their wines. I was met with deep sighs when I referred to Gilbert’s “lollipop” comment about the sweet fruity style the area gets pigeon holed for having. There were “many different styles!”, as Jenny at Central Otago Wine Company told me with visible perturbance. What did I know? But I was asking the big questions and learning as I went.
My journey itself was loosely organized, I’ll admit it, but a loose game plan creates lots of room for spontaneity, and having a car meant I could make up time if I got off the trail too far or had a lead point me in a new direction quickly. And it wasn’t a problem to criss cross the Otago region between Cromwell, Alexandra, and Queenstown exploring vineyards and meeting winemakers and viticulturists. For example, a chance visit to Carrick introduced me to 2 ladies. One was the wife of James Dicey of Mt. Difficulty fame and they were just beginning a pinot project known as “Ceres” that was still in development. The other woman was marketing a wine called Surveyor Thomson, which had its vines tended by Dicey, as well. So in a few moments I had a meeting with James Dicey the next morning and Jenny at Central Otago Wine Co. to taste the Surveyor wine. And of course, Jenny hooked me up with Annie Winmill of Dry Gully and she’s exporting Aussie wines to China and wanted to take a look at my Thorpe Wines. And I wanted her Dry Gully pinot that was not being exported to the US. It had fantastic fruit and a long hook and release on the back palate which made one stand up and pay attention.
I left Annie and her father in law Bill Moffet before sunset and had a long drive to Queenstown. If there was only one complaint about NZ, it’s driving at night. The roads wind and curve at a fast clip and I saw my life flash before my eyes more than once. It was Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride in a nutshell. Queenstown was buzzing from the skiiers staying there. Blair at Felton Road recommended The Bunker and I was lucky to get in. A small supper club feel and one of the best fireplaces I’ve had the pleasure to sit by. The food was top notch and the Peregrine pinot I had was just smoking. My table was facing the fireplace, and the combination of the heat and the red wine left my cheeks rosy and my head ready for bed.
The next day I escaped wine country and headed thru the mountain passes to the isolated west coast. It was a great place to explore glaciers and unusual rock formations, and I really wanted to make it back to Blenheim to Heidi Gibb’s Restaurant. But the West Coast’s real power was that the coastline roads offered some of the most mindblowing views and expanses I’ve seen since Vietnam’s road to Meo Vac. In fact, that was the other problem with New Zealand, and especially the South Island, was that over every rise and around every corner was another spectacular landscape to behold. After awhile I caught myself saying outloud “Aw, c’mon, you’re joking!” Granted, I almost ran out of gas at one point since there was only one service station over a 200 km stretch of road, but you couldn’t get mad for too long. New Zealand won’t let you.