A blind tasting in London last week of 53 pinot noirs from Central Otago, the relatively new region at the bottom of New Zealand’s south island, was a revelation.
It was held in the penthouse suite on the top floor of New Zealand House, and one felt like an eagle looking down on the city.
Memories of the board game of Monopoly we played as children came flooding back. All of the places on the game lay spread out below. But the wines impressed just as much as the scenery.
The Central Otago region has only recently been recognised, though wine has been made there since the 1860s. A Frenchman who arrived with the hordes of people from around the world keen to find gold gave up his dream of riches for something more realistic.
Jean Desire Feraud planted the first vines in 1864. But interest in wine was low and subsequent settlers planted stonefruit and raised sheep.
Serious attempts to make wine did not occur until more than a century after Feraud. The first commercial wine appeared in 1987. Since then the region has attracted the world’s attention because of the quality of its pinot noir.
Members of the Central Otago Winegrowers’ Association pay respect to Feraud through an annual dinner that marks the major achievement in winemaking that year.
The main reason for the quality of the grapes is the climate and the unique terroir. A long and dry autumn separates hot summers and cold winters. This lets grapes ripen fully.
New Zealand is generally a rainy place. But the Southern Alps to the west of the region block most of the rain, leaving a distinctive semi-continental climate. The dry weather means low humidity which reduces the potential for disease, and means less need for spraying chemicals.
This combination of factors produces high quality grapes. Yields are also kept low to increase quality.
Central Otago has four sub-regions. Each has special characteristics. It will probably be many years before they become official appellations – the French term for a distinct area marked by unique terroir and climate. The Cromwell Basin produces 70 per cent of total output. Gibbston contributes 20 per cent with the rest from Clyde/Alexandra and Wanaka.
The fascinating thing about the blind tasting of 53 pinots was, as one colleague noted, “there were no duds”. Every wine was at least good and some potentially were great. Of the 53, one was from the 2008 vintage, four from 2009, with the remaining 48 in equal batches from 2010, 2011 and 2012.
In terms of value for money the best Central Otago pinot noirs are as good as premier cru from Burgundy. As the vines mature – the oldest would be only about 30 years, though the late 1990s and early 2000s saw a major boost in vine planting – we will see wines as good as the grand crus from Burgundy.
Of the 53 tasted blind, I gave top marks to the 2012 Akarua Rua. It was quite delicious, delivering sweet and ripe black fruit with hints of spices such as bergamot, the flavour you find in Earl Grey tea.
Acid and fruit were well balanced and the wine had lacey tannins. Those tannins were a little strong on the end palate, suggesting potential longevity (up to 10 years). This wine lingered in my mouth like the memory of a love song from years ago.
While it was a pinot noir tasting, a handful of Central Otago whites were available to try. A trio of rieslings from Felton Road proved to be delightful, ranging in tastes from a Germanic-style full of zingy acid and sweet fruit, through to a bone-dry wine.
Best among them was the 2013 Block 1 Bannockburn riesling, which was a sheer joy – all zesty zing of lemon sherbet encased in a texture of pure and thrilling fruit. This was an absolute delight that suggests Central Otago produces more than exceptional pinot noirs.