Profiling New Zealand’s Top Producers, by John Szabo

Profiling New Zealand’s Top Producers

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

In light of the upcoming New Zealand Wine Fair rolling out across Canadian cities starting this week, this report takes you on a tour through New Zealand’s principal wine regions and highlights some of my top producers in each. All those listed below are represented (somewhere) in Canada, and I’ve listed the agents who represent them wherever possible. The fair hits Vancouver on April 29, Québec City on May 6, Montreal on May 7 and Toronto on May 9. There are both trade and consumer portions in each city, so plenty of access for all. Visit nzwine.com to see the list of producers who will be in each city and to register.

Some, but not all of my recommended producers will be represented at the fairs, so contact the agents directly to find out what’s currently in stock. I’ve also provided links to each producer’s website for your convenience, plus some individual links to reviews on WineAlign. For all my New Zealand wine reviews, please visit my Critic page on WineAlign. Make sure to check “Show wine with zero inventory” and “all Sources” as many of these are only available through the Agent listed.

John's Review - All sources

The bottom line: there’s so much more quality NZ wine available in Canada than what’s on liquor board shelves. Indeed, many of the top small producers are rarely found in government shops, and they’re often the ones most worth tracking down.

New Zealand: Regions & Recommended Producers

New Zealand has just over 34,000 hectares under vine, almost exactly the same acreage as in Champagne, France, to put it in perspective. Although official Geographical Indications are still being mapped out, the New Zealand Winegrowers Association recognizes ten regions in its annual report. For background details on each, visit nzwine.com. Heading roughly north to south, here are the main regions and some of the producers to look for.

Browse by Region: Auckland; Hawkes Bay, Gisborne; Wairarapa/Martinborough; Nelson; Marlborough, North Canterbury; Waipara; Central Otago, Waitaki Valley

Auckland/Northland

Auckland was likely developed as a wine region more for its proximity to a major city rather than particular suitability for viticulture. The climate is virtually sub-tropical, hot and humid, yet there are nevertheless a few exceptions that belie the rule. The region also officially encompasses Matakana and Waiheki Island, the latter a volcanic Island just off the coast from Auckland that’s producing some exceptional, if hard to find wines, with its own unique and highly favorable maritime growing conditions.

Kumeu River Wines

Kumeu River Wines, an estate established in 1944 by Croatian immigrants Mick and Katé Brajkovich, leads the pack in the Auckland area. Generally considered too warm to produce really top-notch wines, Mick’s grandson, winemaker Michael Brajkovich MW and his family continue to defy the odds and consistently deliver some of the best chardonnay in New Zealand.

Agent: Connexion Oenophilia

Review on WineAlign: Kumeu River Maté’s Vineyard Chardonnay 2008

Hawke’s Bay

Hawke’s Bay is New Zealand’s oldest and second largest wine region (14% of NZ vineyards), with a history stretching back to 1851. Today, it’s known principally for its red wines; the region accounts for nearly 85% of the country’s, cabernet, merlot and blends, as well as syrah. Hawke’s Bay is also home to the 800h hectare Gimblett Gravels sub-appellation, the world’s first based exclusively on soil type. It’s centered on the poor, free draining gravels laid down by the Ngaruroro River, which were exposed after a massive flood in the 1860s stripped away the overlying layers of silt and sand from a clearly delineated section of the plain. Yet it wasn’t until the 1980s that it was realized that grapevines could flourish on these barren soils, as they do on similar gravels on the Left bank of Bordeaux. The region has since taken off since, and pretty much the entire appellation is now planted.

Te Mata Wines

Craggy Range Te Muna Road Vineyard

Craggy Range Te Muna Road Vineyard

A venerable estate producing one of NZ’s most sought after reds, Coleraine, a cabernet-merlot blend. Also excellent chardonnay Elston and Bullnose syrah, among others.

Agent: Lifford Wine Agency

Reviews on WineAlign:

Te Mata Awatea Cabernet/Merlot 2010

Te Mata Coleraine 2010

Elephant Hill

A relatively new estate in the cooler coastal zone of Hawke’s Bay called Te Awanga. Owned by German couple Reydan and Roger Weiss. In 2006, Günter Thies, ex Managing Director of Schloss Johannisberg, was lured from the Rheingau to join as MD for Elephant Hill. Look for fresh and peppery syrah among other specialties.

Agent: H.H.D Imports

Trinity Hill

Celebrating nearly twenty years as a leading Gimblett Gravels winery, Trinity Hill makes an exciting range of wines from experimental plantings of tempranillo, arneis and montepulciano, as well as one of NZ’s top syrahs under the “Hommage” label. Trinity also makes an excellent “bay blend” of cabernet-merlot.

Agent: Connexion Oenophilia

Craggy Range

Terry Peabody and Steve Smith MW established Craggy Range in 1997, and they quickly moved into the top echelon of NZ producers. Craggy produces a large range of high quality, single vineyard wines from multiple regions in New Zealand. Gimblett Gravels Syrah and Sophia blend are particularly impressive from Hawke’s Bay (see also Martinborough).

Agent: Lifford Wine Agency

Alpha Domus

Alpha Domus first planted in the Bridge Pa sub-zone of Hawke’s Bay in 1991. Today, the winery makes a solid range of fresh, balanced wines with particularly successful malbec and syrah, along with more traditional Bay Blends.

Agent: Connexion Oenophilia

Sileni Estates

A large but quality-oriented producer in Hawke’s Bay, with vineyards also in Marlborough. The Cellar Selection range offers excellent value in general; the Estate Collection is a step up in quality and price.

Agent: The Kirkwood Group

Other wineries to look for: Sacred Hill, Esk Valley, East Hope Winegrowers.

Gisborne

James Millton & all the necessary equipment of a vigneron

James Millton & all the necessary equipment of a vigneron

Gisborne is among the warmest viticultural areas in the country. It was also once the largest wine region in NZ, from the early mid seventies until the mid-eighties, based mostly on the short-lived success of Muller-Thurgau sold in bulk. Gisborne has since fallen to 4th largest, accounting accounts for 5% of NZ’s vineyards, but quality has risen dramatically. Loamy alluvial soils with high levels of calcium, boron and magnesium washed down from the upper hills produce voluptuous chardonnay and aromatic whites (viognier and gewürztraminer). Few reds are grown, but at least one-producer, Millton, proves that it can be done at the very highest level. There are only about four estate wineries; the rest under the Gisborne label are made from purchased fruit, or from contract growers, and bottled outside the region.

Millton Vineyards

James and Anne Millton have been growing grapes for 30 years in Gisborne, farming organically from the start. The shift to biodynamics occurred when the Milltons hired a Dutch intern in 1980 to develop an Integrated Pest management program. The intern happened to be trained in biodynamics and left a book behind for the Milltons to read, and they haven’t looked back since. James, by his own admission, is a Virgo, a “control freak”. He’s firmly in the iconoclast category of winemakers, never shy with opinions, yet neither close-minded. There’s a sense of constant searching in Millton, and his wines have shown a philosophical evolution, moving ever-more minimalist over the years. The musical taste of his cellar hands remains in the seventies, however, as evinced by the greatest hits of Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones blasting in the winery as they’re bottle the 2011 Chenin Blanc and I’m tasting with James. Wines from the Clos Ste. Anne vineyard are the top range, and indeed the entire region.

Agent: The Living Vine

Review on WineAlign: Millton Crazy By Nature Dry Flint Chenin Blanc 2009

Other producers to look for: Vinoptima

Wairarapa (Martinborough)

Wairarapa, which means “glistening waters” in Maori, is composed of three distinct growing regions: Masterton, Gladston, and the most important in terms of acreage (2/3), Martinborough. The first vineyards were planted in 1980 on the edge of town by Ata Rangi, Martinborough Vineyards and Dry River. This is the driest region on the North Island, lying in a rain-shadowed valley tucked between two mountain ranges, inland and north from Wellington. And like Wellington, it’s very windy, and crops are naturally low. Sauvignon blanc, for example, regularly crops at half the average tonnage per acre you’d find in Marlborough. It’s also telling that although Wairarapa accounts for 3% of NZ’s vineyard acreage, it contributes only 1.6% of the national volume.

Helen Masters, winemaker at Ata Rangi

Helen Masters, winemaker at Ata Rangi

Soils are mostly gravel-based alluvials, free draining, though with more water holding capacity than the Gimblett Gravels. Irrigation is not generally needed, especially for older vines. This is a region of mostly small wineries. Pinot noir is the strength of the region, representing about half of plantings. Here the grape yields a concentrated, structured, less fruity and decidedly more savoury style of wine.

Ata Rangi

A pioneering winery in Martinborough established by Clive Paton in 1980, Ata Rangi (“dawn sky”, or “new beginning”) has been farmed using organic sprays from the start, and fully organically since 2010. This is an outstanding range across the board crafted by winemaker Helen Masters, with top NZ Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, among others.

Agent: Lifford Wine Agency

Reviews on WineAlign:

Ata Rangi Petrie Vineyard Chardonnay 2011

Ata Rangi Crimson Pinot Noir 2011

Craggy Range

Established by Terry Peabody and Steve Smith in 1997, Craggy Range has grown to become one of New Zealand’s leading premium producers making wines from multiple regions. Both the Martinborough Te Muna Road Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc are excellent, though the whole gamut is worth a taste.

Agent: Lifford Wine Agency

Palliser

One of the largest yet still quality-oriented producers in Martinborough, established two decades ago. The Pencarrow range offers good value; the estate range is more serious.

Agent: Pacific Wines and Spirits

Dry River

Ultra-concentrated wines from among the oldest vines in the region, with great depth and purity, built to age.

Agent: Alto Vino

Cambridge Road

Cambridge Road is a small, 5.5-acre estate on the so-called “Martinborough Terrace”, with some of the oldest pinot plantings in Martinborough, up to 30 years. Winegrower Lance Redgwell practices a natural approach to winegrowing, incorporating biodynamic principals, inspired initially by James Millton in Gisborne. These are pure and impressive wines.

Agent: The Living Vine

Other Producers to look for: Escarpment Vineyard, Kusuda Wines, Schubert.

Nelson

Vines first arrived in Nelson in the mid-1800 with German settlers, though the modern era dates to the 1960s, when Viggo du Fresne was granted the 2nd winemaking license on the South Island. Other pioneers followed: Seifried in 1973, Neudorf in 1978. Today the region is still rather isolated across the hills to the west of Marlborough, and most operations are still family owned. 185 hectares are planted, divided between the unofficial sub-zones of the Moutere Hills, with its heavier, low fertility soils, with enough clay to hold water so that irrigation is not necessary, and the Waimea Plains and its low-lying flatlands, composed of free-draining floodplains and riverbeds, with gravels under alluvial silt loams, where irrigation is essential.

High sunshine hours, coupled with a long, moderate season thanks to warm air flow from Tasman Bay, and cool nights and reasonable rainfall, contribute to making Nelson well-suited to aromatic varieties such as riesling, pinot gris and sauvignon blanc.

Neudorf Vineyards

Neudorf has been considered a regional leader since Tim and Judy Finn established the winery on a shoestring budget in 1978. The estate has recently converted to organic farming, and the benefits of old vines are evident: these wines are dense and concentrated, not to mention age-worthy.  Chardonnay and pinot noir are highlights.

Agent: Lifford Wine Agency

Marlborough

Much has been written about Marlborough, so I’ll skip the historical details. The region is still NZ’s largest by a wide margin, its 24,000 hectares representing 66% of NZ’s vineyards. Despite the international success with sauvignon blanc, which still dominates plantings, I got a real sense of innovative spirit permeating even the thickest corporate walls in the region when I visited in February of this year. By their own admission, Marlborough pinot noir growers are ten years behind Martinborough and Central Otago in terms of clonal and site selection and vineyard management. Most of what was planted in the early days in the flat, gravelly soils is best suited for sparkling wine, or at best light and fruity pinot noir – not what most would consider serious or age-worthy pinot. And growers treated the grape as if it were sauvignon blanc, which is like trying to make soufflé and pound cake from the same recipe. But one gets the sense they will catch up quickly, as indeed some growers already have.

James Healy & Ivan Sutherland - Dog Point Wines

James Healy & Ivan Sutherland – Dog Point Wines

The serious pinot action since the early 2000s has moved into the heavier soils of the (north-facing) Southern Valleys, an unofficial sub-zone of the region that really should be called Southern Hills, since that’s where most of the best vineyards are situated. This drier, sunnier side of Marlborough was unplantable until recently due to a lack of water, a situation that was addressed just a decade or so ago by an irrigation scheme. Suitable Dijon clones are replacing earlier clones, planting densities have increased, and farming techniques have been adapted to the foibles of pinot. Some of the results are excellent. At any rate, the Marlborough style is distinct from other regions in NZ, characterized by fresh, red fruit-driven wines with light tannins and bright acids, versus the darker fruit character of Otago or the savoury Martinborough style, for example.

Marlborough sauvignon blanc is also undergoing a radical make-over by serious producers, in an effort both to distinguish their own brands, and to add diversity to what has been a fairly straightforward and homogenous offer from Marlborough for the past twenty years. The cookie-cutter, pungent, overtly grassy, grapefruit and asparagus flavours are being traded in for riper, richer tropical fruit tones, lees contact, and quite often barrel fermentation in mostly old oak, in an effort to add layers of complexity and make the wines more age-worthy. It’s mostly a question of reducing yields and tweaking the harvest time, in addition to of course being in the right site in the first place, and fermenting with wild (or neutral) yeasts as opposed to the commercial yeast strains selected to pump up volume of thiols (the compounds responsible for the sweaty grapefruit aromas). In the words of Ivan Sutherland and James Healy of Dog Point Vineyards, ““If all you’re doing is chasing the cat’s piss [aromas/flavours], you’re going to find yourself with a wine that unravels pretty quickly. Thiols are a short-lived wine aroma component.”

I suspect we’ll see sub-appellations emerge in the not too distant future, as the differences across the region can be quite dramatic where all other things are equal. Already we’ve started to see unofficial sub-regional designations such as Awatere Valley, Wairau Valley and the Southern Valleys appear on labels, and we haven’t even begun to add on further refinements like “upper” and “lower” to these.

Finally, one of the un-written stories about Marlborough, and of New Zealand in general, is the astonishing quality of the chardonnays. Now that it’s cool to like (cool climate) chardonnay again, don’t miss some of the great examples from Marlborough and elsewhere in the country. This pliable variety has adapted well to various conditions, and more serious attention to sites, clones and winemaking techniques is resulting a remarkable range of quality examples. Get these now while the prices for all but the top end wines remain relatively accessible.

Astrolabe

Established in 1996 with winegrower Simon Waghorn at the helm. Grapes are sourced throughout Marlborough, but emphasis on vineyards in the slightly cooler Awatere Valley gives Astrolabe’s sauvignon a particularly pungent, pleasantly herbaceous character.

Agent: Rogers & Company

Aunstfield

Marlborough’s first commercial winery with a 100-year history, Aunstfield focuses on single vineyard wines from sites in the Southern Valleys. These are solid, savoury wines with plenty of character.

Agent: DB Wine & Spirits Inc.

Churton Wines

Sam Weaver - Churton Wines

Sam Weaver – Churton Wines

A former London wine trader and Master of Wine candidate (he passed the tasting), Sam Weaver and his wife Mandy established Churton Wines in 1997 in the Southern Valleys of Marlborough. Sam has plenty of winemaking experience, too, including a stint as chief winemaker for Stoneleigh. The Weavers farm their Southern Valleys vineyard biodynamically, and all wines are 100% estate. Yields are well below the regional average and the range is excellent, with an extra measure of depth and concentration, and purity, across the board.

Agent: Le Sommelier Inc.

Clos Henri

Clos Henri is the antipodean outpost of Sancerre producer Henri Bourgeois, crafting very fine sauvignon blanc and pinot noir from vineyards in the Wairau Valley. The style of sauvignon is neither Loire Valley nor typically grassy Marlborough, but a fine meeting point of old and new world.

Agent: Charton Hobbs

Cloudy Bay Vineyards

Cloudy Bay Vineyards is of course the winery that put Marlborough on the world map back in the late 1980s. After a slight dip in quality, Cloudy bay is back on form with a strong set of recent releases. The 2012 sauvignon is one to watch for, while the Te Koko Sauvignon, wild fermented in barrel with full malolactic was one of the first wines in the region to launch this new style (as discussed in the intro above).

Dog Point Vineyard

Margaret and Ivan Sutherland purchased land at the convergence of the Brancott and Omaka Valleys in 1979 and planted vines. The fruit was initially sold to Cloudy Bay, where Sutherland and his future partner James Healy worked together, until 2003, when the pair left to launch Dog Point Vineyards. Their 100 hectares are farmed organically and hand picked (a rarity in Marlborough). Some fruit still goes to Cloudy Bay, but Sutherland and Healy keep the top, hillside vineyard fruit for their own label. The style is intense and edgy, with lots of lees contact and wild yeast complexity, some of the finest wines in the region.

Agent: Trialto Wine Group

Framingham Wines

Characterful wines from the Wairau Valley, including one of the region’s top rieslings, and an exceptional chardonnay.

Review on WineAlign: 2009 Framingham Chardonnay

Agent: Charton Hobbs

Greywacke

Owner Kevin Judd worked with Ivan Sutherland and James Healy (now of Dog Point) at Cloudy Bay before breaking off to start Greywacke; his first vintage was 2009. Judd now buys 90% of his fruit from Dog Point Vineyards, and makes the wine at their facility. The large range of wines is consistently well above average in terms of quality.

Nautilus Estate

A consistent range of clean, modern, quality wines sourced from all three sub-regions of Marlborough.

Agent: B&W Wines

Vineyard Workers at Seresin Estate

Vineyard Workers at Seresin Estate

Seresin Estate

A region-leading, authentically biodynamic property making an exceptional range of characterful wines, not to mention beautiful olive oil and tasty vegetables. Seresin provides biodynamic preps to many of the other BD estates in the region. Minimal intervention in the winery occasionally results in idiosyncratic flavours, but these are wines of real depth and class, among the best in Marlborough.

Agent: Dionysus Wines & Spirits Ltd.

Staete Landt Vineyards

Dutch couple Ruud Maasdam and Dorien Vermass launched Staete Landt Vineyards with the 2000 vintage. They farm 21 hectares in the Wairau valley, producing a compelling range of wines at excellent prices. The Map Maker label is the very good entry range, while the estate range offers premium quality at fair prices.

Agent: Lifford Wine Agency

Other names to look for: Fromm, Hans Herzog, Te Whare Ra (pronounced ‘teh-FAR-eh-rah”).

North Canterbury

The wines of Canterbury, and particularly North Canterbury, were among the most exciting discoveries at Pinot2013. It’s one of the rare places on earth where limestone and clay come together in the right measure to be perfectly suited to pinot noir and chardonnay, along with an appropriate climate, rainfall, and most importantly, the right intrepid souls who are willing to exploit the potential. The region represents less than 1% of total NZ vineyard area, but I suspect that will change as the top wines become better known.

Pyramid Valley Vineyards

Mike Weersing & his limestone - Pyramid Valley Vineyards

Mike Weersing & his limestone – Pyramid Valley Vineyards

After a lengthy quest around the world searching for the right combination of soil and climate to produce meaningful pinot and chardonnay, Californians Mike and Claudia Weersing settled in a small farm on Pyramid Valley Road in 2000. Hundreds of holes dug into the dirt later, they planted 2.2 hectares of pinot noir and chardonnay on south and southwest facing slopes at 12,000 vines per hectare, un-grafted, and farmed biodynamically from day one. Weersing is a deeply thoughtful winegrower, with strong opinions on such things as biodynamics and screwcaps, yet is always willing to question and consider. His aim is to get as far out of the way as possible in winemaking, and nothing other than sulphur dioxide is used, and even that is dosed out as sparingly as possible. He latest searching has led to experiments with clay amphorae imported from Italy. Wines range from sublime to challenging, always intellectually demanding and multi-dimensional. The 800 or so cases produced from the “home” vineyards (Lion’s Tooth, Angel Flower, Earth Smoke and Field of Fire) are supplemented by the “Grower’s Collection”, a range of wines produced from grapes purchased from organic and biodynamically farmed vineyards throughout New Zealand.

Agent: The Living Vine

Bell Hill

Bell Hill is a tiny estate in the Weka Pass of North Canterbury, with just 2ha of super high-density planted vineyards (up to 11,363 vines/ha) on the unique limestone soils of the region. Vines are farmed organically with biodynamic principals employed; wines are bottled unfined and unfiltered. I’d put these are the very top of NZ’s wines.

Agent: The Living Vine

Reviews on WineAlign:

2008 Bell Hill Estate Chardonnay North Canterbury

2010 Bell Hill Estate Pinot Noir North Canterbury

2010 Bell Hill Old Weka Pass Road Pinot Noir North Canterbury

Waipara Valley

The Waipara Valley lies south through Weka Pass in a sheltered zone. The lower lying areas of the region are mostly free-draining gravelly moraines well suited to aromatic whites (riesling, gewürztraminer, pinot gris), while the hillsides sites are clay-limestone dominated, where pinot and chardonnay are at their best.

Mountford Estate Vineyard & Winery

A very good range of pinot noir and chardonnay, the best of which are from 20 year old vines planted on a steep, eastern, limestone-rich hillside of the Waipara Valley. “The Rise” and especially “The Gradient” are the vineyard names to watch for. Also exceptional late harvest riesling and pinot gris from the gravelly flats to rival top-notch examples from Alsace.

Agent: Lifford Wine Agency

Reviews on WineAlign:

2009 Mountford Estate Pinot Noir ‘The Gradient’

2011 Mountford Voluptueux Riesling

2011 Mountford Pinot Gris

Pegasus Bay

Matthew Donaldson - Pegasus Bay

Matthew Donaldson – Pegasus Bay

One of the original Waipara wineries established in the early 1980s by Ivan and Christine Donaldson, Pegasus bay continues to produce exception quality across their considerable range. It’s still family owned and operated, with sons Matt and Ed now looking after winemaking and marketing respectively. In addition to top notch riesling, pinot noir and chardonnay, the winery boasts one of the region’s best restaurants; during my lunch there I ran into legendary rock star Geddy Lee of Rush and his wife, having a quick bite and tasting – the man knows good food and wine as well as bass guitar and vocals.

Agent: Woodman Wines & Spirits

Bellbird Spring

An up-and-coming Waipara producer owned and operated by the porter family, making reasonable pinot noir, pinot gris and sauvignon blanc. Guy Porter, born in India, raised in the UK, with vineyard and winery experience in Australia, Italy, Spain, and California, has considerable know-how. Yet considering that his first vintage was just in 2008, the best is yet to come. Look for the River Terrace Pinot Noir and the Home Block White, an aromatic white blend.

Agent: The Case For Wine

Other wineries to look for: Tongue in Groove, The Crater Rim, Black Estate

Central Otago (and The Waitaki Valley)

Central Otago is most closely associated with New Zealand pinot noir, even if the first commercial wine to come out of the region was reportedly a riesling in 1986. And riesling remains the real insider’s secret, with some superb examples grown on the predominantly free draining, arid, brown-grey soils with low fertility but high mineral content (quartz, mica, calcium) over schistous bedrock, unique in New Zealand.  Riesling clearly loves it here.

But pinot is of course the main story, yet one that is far from fully developed. Otago is quite spread out, encompassing some 1900 square kilometers, of which 1790 hectares are planted to vines. Pinot accounts for three-quarters, so the emphasis is clear. Considering the large area, it’s not surprising that no fewer than six distinct sub-regions have already been identified, ranging from relatively hot and dry Alexandra which receives about 340mm of rain a year, to the considerably cooler and wetter sub-zone of Wanaka, or the cool and windy Gibbston Valley where pinot can struggle to ripen in some years. The bulk of the 60 or so commercial wineries are centered on Bannockburn, which lies somewhere in between climatically and geographically.  Bendigo and Lowburn are the other two zones.

Rippon Vineyards, Central Otago

Rippon Vineyards, Central Otago

Otago has New Zealand’s only true semi-continental climate, protected from prevailing west to east weather patterns by the Southern Alps, yet lying far enough inland (about a 2.5 hour drive) from the east coast that the maritime influence that affects every other NZ region is not felt here. As a result, humidity, and thus disease pressure is low, making organic viticulture far easier than elsewhere in the country. Add in high UV light and plenty of sunshine (the region lies at 45º South, meaning summer days are very long), and the result is thick-skinned, deeply coloured pinots with riper, darker fruit flavours than other parts of NZ, despite a marginally shorter growing season than, say, Martinborough. I particularly enjoyed the fineness of examples from Wanaka (biodynamically-farmed Rippon Vineyards is outstanding) and the Gibbston Valley (look for Valli).

In addition to climatic suitability, it certainly doesn’t hurt that Central Otago is also an astonishingly beautiful place, a fact that the region plays on to promote their wines. The winegrowers’ association tag line, “It’s like nowhere else on earth”, is appropriate. Though as a Canadian wandering around Queenstown, I was reminded of Banff, Alberta, which is of course, a good thing. Too bad vineyards wouldn’t survive in the Rockies.

Carrick Wines

After searching in several other parts of NZ, Steve Green settled on Bannockburn with the single-minded goal of producing pinot when he established Carrick Wines in the early 1990s. The estate now has 24ha of certified organic vineyards, of which 70% is pinot noir with the balance in riesling, chardonnay, pinot gris and sauvignon.  Winemaker Francis Hutt makes a solid range of ‘classic’ Otago pinots, with plenty of dark fruit flavours, but the surprise here was the excellent rieslings in dry, off-dry and medium-dry styles.

Agent: Lifford Wine Agency

Felton Road

Widely considered one of the leading wineries in New Zealand, Felton Road farms several vineyard sites in the Bannockburn and Cromwell areas using biodynamics. Viticulture is meticulous, and winemaking no less precise, even if winemaker Blair Walter’s approach has grown increasingly hands-off as confidence in vineyard sites has grown. The whole range is outstanding, with special thrills from the Block 2 Chardonnay and the Block 3 pinot noir.

Agent: Lifford Wine Agency

Mt. Difficulty Wines

Adventure sport enthusiast and skilled winemaker Matt Dicey crafts a fine range of wines from some of the oldest plantings in Bannockburn, the sub-region where Mt. Difficulty was established in 1992. “Roaring Meg” is the very good entry range; rieslings were a particular highlight, while three single-vineyard pinot noirs – Long Gully, Pipe Clay Terrace and Target Gully – make for a fascinating Burgundian-style terroir comparison.

Agent: Small Winemaker’s Collection

Quartz Reef

Austrian-born winegrower Rudi Bauer specializes in pinot noir, pinot gris and traditional method sparkling wine from his certified biodynamic vineyards in the Bendigo sub-region of Central Otago. The sparkling wine is a particular treat.

Agent: Amethyst Wine Agency

Two Paddocks

Actor Sam Neill showing off his Two Paddocks Pinot

Actor Sam Neill showing off his Two Paddocks Pinot

Established in 1993 by renowned actor Sam Neill, Two Paddocks is based in the sub-zone of Alexandra, making balanced, smooth and polished pinots at the riper end of the spectrum for Otago. Neill delivered one of the keynotes on day one of Pinot 2013, a memorable speech that included a hilarious video called Microdoodle #14: Cornucopia Vitis. The wines are a little more serious.

Agent: Glen-Ward Wines Inc.

Other Central Otago wineries to look for: Burn Cottage, Gibbston Valley Wines, Rippon, Terra Sancta, Valli Vineyards, Nanny Goat Vineyard

Waitaki Valley

The Waitaki Valley is New Zealand’s newest region, one that generated a lot of excitement at the Pinot 2013 conference. It really has nothing to do with Central Otago, but is lopped in under this heading since Otago is the closest region. The Waitaki Valley is about a 2-hour drive north from Otago, a valley carved by the Waitaki River itself through marine deposits. About eighty hectares of predominantly pinot noir, along with some aromatic whites, are planted in mainly limestone soils with a high degree of calcium – a soil type that pinot clearly enjoys. It’s cooler and more marine-influenced than Central, which is reflected in the lean, sharp, bright flavours of the pinots I tasted. The oldest vineyards date only to 2001, so there’s still much discovery and fine-tuning to be done, but the results are already exciting. Expect to hear a lot more about the Waitaki Valley in coming years.

Ostler Vineyards

Ostler is the leading producer based in the Waitaki Valley itself (though other fine wines are made by producers like Grant Valli and Dr. John Forrest, who own vineyards in the region but vinify at their home wineries). Jeff Sinnott and Jim Jerram planted their site in 2002 after a search for the confluence of cool climate and limestone soils led to Waitaki. These are decidedly delicate and refined wines, perfumed and tightly wound, vastly different from the pinots of central Otago. The quality already achieved here casts a positive light on the future of both Ostler and the entire region, with so much more yet to come.

Agent: The Living Vine

Other Waitaki Valley producers (wines) to look for: The Pasquale Kurow Winery, Forrest, Valli Vineyards.

For more information about New Zealand wine and The New Zealand Wine Fair visit nzwine.com.

Cheers!

John Szabo, MS


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