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Central Otago wines: New Zealand's new stars

Circle of Wine Writers Central Otago dinner
at the Sugar Club, London, September 2003

Organized by the Circle of Winewriters, this dinner was designed as a showcase for the wines of Central Otago, an up and coming wine region in New Zealand’s South Island that’s gaining plaudits for its Pinot Noir, in particular.

The wines on show were apparently selected by a New Zealand wine journalist as being the best of their type from the region, and as an aside, I heard mutterings from some of the winemakers questioning the choices made. These were paired with a range of fusion-y style courses: the food was very good, but some of it was probably a little too strongly flavoured for some of the wines.

As well as a bunch of wine writers [is there a better collective noun than this for wine journos?] there were a dozen or so Central Otago winemakers, who were split between the tables. I was sitting with Alan Brady (a pioneer in the region, owner of Mount Edward) and Jeff Sinnot (ex-Isabel Estate, newly appointed at Amersfield).

What do you need to know about Central Otago? Well, for starters, at 45 degrees South it’s probably the world’s most southerly wine region. It enjoys a continental-style climate (unlike other NZ regions), and until fairly recently people assumed it was just too cool for wine growing. They were proved wrong, and spectacularly so, it seems.

The first vines were planted here in the early 1980s. Alan Brady, in a former life a journalist from Northern Ireland, planted 500 vines in 1981, although he emphasizes that he wasn’t the only one experimenting then. At the time he tried lots of varieties, including Chasselas and Müller Thurgau. His first commercial wine wasn’t released until 1987, and he points out the vast majority of vines in the region have been planted in the last 10 years. He began his current venture, Mount Edward, in 1997, and he makes just 1500 cases of Pinot Noir and 200 cases of Riesling each year.

Jeff Sinnot trained at Roseworthy from 1990–92. He thinks that the best wines from Central Otago haven’t been made yet. Over recent years Sinnot reckons that the quality of Pinot Noir has gone up by 50%, which is a bold claim, but on the basis of some of the wines tasted here and elsewhere, one I’m prepared to believe. ‘When I first started working in Central I was a little horrified by what people purported to be quality’, Sinnot reports. He thinks that the best wine from the region hasn’t been made yet. The future for Central Otago looks to be a very bright one, just as long as there is a strong market for relatively small production premium wines. As well as the fabulous Pinots, Sinnot’s tip is to watch for Gewürztraminer, which he thinks will do very well in the future.

Mount Edward Riesling 2002 Central Otago, New Zealand
This has a lovely mouthfeel, with subtle limey fruit. Nice balance and some residual sugar (12 g), which balances the acid well. Potential for development. Very good+ 87/100

Mount Difficulty Sauvignon Blanc 2002 Central Otago, New Zealand
Lovely crisp, slightly grassy wine with delicate aromatics and a nice weight. Very expressive. Very good/excellent 90/100

Nevis Buff Pinot Gris 2002 Central Otago, New Zealand
Very unusual: thick textured with lots of rich herby flavours and some residual sugar. There’s a hint of bacon on the nose. Clean, fresh and with good acidity. Very good+ 86/100

Olssens Chardonnay 2001 Central Otago, New Zealand
Creamy vanilla oak on the nose. The palate shows more of the same with some lemony fruit and good acid. Too oaky, really, but still quite classy. Very good+ 85/100

Peregrine Pinot Noir  2001 Central Otago, New Zealand
Lovely open meaty nose, showing herby fruit: ripe and full. Open herby palate with some savoury meatiness. An appealing wine. Very good/excellent 90/100

Carrick Pinot Noir 2001 Central Otago, New Zealand
Not showing a huge amount on the nose. The palate is quite elegant, with silky-yet-firm tannins and a dusty sort of edge. Lots of interest in this elegant, savoury wine: it isn’t too showy, but it is elegant and satisfying. Very good/excellent 91/100

Valli Gibbstson Pinot Noir 2002 Central Otago, New Zealand
Wonderful stuff. Ripe and concentrated with lovely structure, savoury red fruits and silky tannins. Good acidity, and a hint of roasted character. Great concentration yet great balance too. Very good/excellent 93/100

Pisa Range Estate Pinot Noir 2002 Central Otago, New Zealand
Quite savoury with a hint of herbaceousness and some spiciness. Good colour and density. Very good+ 85/100

Rippon Pinot Noir 1992 Central Otago, New Zealand
Dark coloured. Quite a minerally nose with hints of earth and tarry black fruits. The palate is firm and spicy with lots of fruit and some tannin. Very much alive at 10 years in. Very good+ 88/100

Chard Farm Pinot Noir 1999 Central Otago, New Zealand
Very ripe and rich with a touch of lifted acidity. Spicy rich sweet fruit on the palate – a rounded style. Very good+ 88/100

Felton Road Pinot Noir Block 3 1998 Central Otago, New Zealand
Nice balance here with good acidity, although it is showing some brettanomyces character, with medicinal, animal-like notes albeit at a level that adds complexity. Savoury and full. Very good+ 89/100  

see also: tasting notes of New Zealand wines

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