Central Otago (7) tasting verticals with Gibbston Valley

Christopher Keys, Gibbston Valley winemaker

This was my third time visiting Gibbston Valley, one of Central Otago’s pioneering wineries. Back in 1981 Alan Brady, who had previously worked as a journalist in Northern Ireland, planted 500 vines here. He was one of a small group who believed in the potential of the region, and this hobby planting led to a more serious interest, that finally resulted in what is best described as the first commercial wine to be released from Central Otago, in 1987.

Gibbston is a cool subregion, and doesn’t always perform – although when it is good it is very good. ‘In Gibbston, there’s a fine line between success and failure,’ says winemaker Christopher Keys, who I tasted with. For this reason, in the late 1990s Gibbston Valley started planting in the warmer Bendigo sub region, in the Cromwell Basin. This is where most of their vineyards are now located. They have some quite distinct vineyards here, four in all, on different terraces at different altitudes. Their range now includes single vineyard Pinots from Gibbston and Bendigo.

For 13 years, Christopher Keys has been the winemaker here. Grant Taylor made the 2002 and 2004 vintages that I tasted but everything from 2006 onwards is from Christopher. We began by tasting the Chardonnays, which are from China Terrace, Bendigo (2007 onwards). The 2002 and 2004 tasted here were from a mix of subregions.

Chardonnay is hand-picked, whole-bunch pressed and goes to barrel. ‘We’ve learned to relax about stuff not getting dry. They turn out fresh, and they get stable, without the completion of ferment. We tended to wanted to force [fermentation to complete] by warming the barrel room, but now we are comfortable with a slow fermentation that by the end just gives a little bit of complexity. It gets there in the end.’

For the Pinots, the winemaking has changed a bit, with less polish and less extraction. ‘Extraction of tannin and extraction of colour is no guarantee of longevity in Pinot Noir,’ says Chris. ‘In fact, it may be the opposite. It’s the sort of tannin you extract and when you extract. At the three-quarter stage of fermentation it is dangerous to extract more. The best things will already have been extracted.’

‘We have smaller canopies, pick earlier, have increased whole bunch use, radically reduced punch downs, we press earlier and use less new oak,’ says Chris. ‘In 2017 and 2018 we have been trying to reduce the wavelength of Pinot Noir, and get a finer oscillations. We are looking for a more transparent, visible Pinot with a finer oscillation.’

Gibbston Valley Reserve Chardonnay 2002
Yellow/gold colour, but not too dark. Still fresh, with some almond and peach notes, as well as a bit of honey and fig. There’s a richness on the mid-palate and a sweet edge to the fruit, and it tastes really fresh still. 92/100

Gibbston Valley Reserve Chardonnay 2004
Fresh, still quite delicate but with some fig, pineapple and honey notes alongside the citrus fruit. Very lively with a lemony edge and just a touch of toastiness. Good concentration and nice acid drive. Lovely stuff. 94/100

Gibbston Valley Reserve Chardonnay 2007
14.3% alcohol. Toast and bread here, with some crystalline fruits. Rich, honeyed, a bit nutty with a touch of fig as well as pear and citrus fruit. Lively with some pineapple on the finish. A rich style but with some freshness too. Has a bit of canned corn. 91/100

Gibbston Valley Reserve Chardonnay 2008
14.5% alcohol. Delicate with some fine toast and spice. Some lemony characters. There’s a sense of sweetness on the palate with some honey and nuts, but there’s freshness too. Attractive stuff with nice focus. 93/100

Gibbston Valley Reserve Chardonnay 2009
14.1% alcohol. There’s depth, ripeness and richness here. Has a warm, peach and pear character with good concentration. Very seductive with some pineapple and toast notes. A big, generous wine. 92/100

Gibbston Valley Reserve Chardonnay 2011
14.3% alcohol. Fresh, slightly pithy nose leads to a linear, compact palate. Has citrus and pear fruit with some white peach richness and lovely tension and complexity. This is a rich wine, but has lovely freshness, too. 94/100

Gibbston Valley Reserve Chardonnay 2012
14.5% alcohol. Fresh and intense with some rich pineapple and pear fruit, but also citrus brightness. Juicy and fine with lovely grapefruit and crystalline fruit precision. It’s all about the fruit here. Such precision allied with a bit of sweetness from the alcohol. Lovely. 94/100

Gibbston Valley China Terrace Chardonnay 2013
14.2% alcohol. Lovely aromatics here with some pear and pineapple, as well as a touch of almond. The palate has fruit sweetness, and it’s supple and broad, but still quite focused. Generous stuff. 92/100

Gibbston Valley China Terrace Chardonnay 2014
14% alcohol. Lovely brightness to this wine with some spicy grapefruit alongside the lemon and pear notes. The acid line is really keen here, with a real fruit focus. Such attractive spicy, zesty freshness here. Complex, concentrated and linear. 94/100

Gibbston Valley China Terrace Chardonnay 2015
14.5% alcohol. Pear, peach and toast notes here sitting alongside the citrus fruit. It’s nicely balanced with a fine spiciness and good depth. Has some generosity and richness. Friendly, but with concentration and some complexity. Sweet, warm finish. 92/100

Gibbston Valley China Terrace Chardonnay 2016
14% alcohol. There’s delicacy here. It’s not lacking flavour, but it is light on its feet with fine citrus and spice notes. Warm undercurrents with nice precise spicy lemon and white peach fruit on the palate. Lovely finish: tapered and expressive. 94/100

Gibbston Valley China Terrace Chardonnay 2017
13.5% alcohol. Honeyed, sweet, toasty, bready edge to the nose. Focused pear and pineapple fruit on the palate with nice acidity. Quite intense and direct in the mouth with a long citrus finish. Juicy and salivating with keen acidity, but also some richness. 93/100

Gibbston Valley ’95’ China Terrace Chardonnay 2014
Small-release wine for the wine club. West facing part of the vineyard with a single clone (95), picked a bit earlier. Full solids. Taut lemony nose with some fine herbal notes. Lovely precision and tension on the palate: very fresh and focused with nice tension and keen lemony acidity. Has lovely texture and a long mineral finish. 95/100

Gibbston Valley ‘B95’ China Terrace Chardonnay 2016
Fine, lemony nose with subtle spice and nuts. There’s a delicious tension on the palate between the sweet citrus fruit and the linear acidity. Mineral and finely spiced with nice depth and interest. Has a bit of oyster shell, too. Very nicely poised. 94/100

Gibbston Valley ‘B95’ China Terrace Chardonnay 2017
There’s some pineapple and a slight touch of vinyl reduction on the nose, as well as sweet citrus and white peach fruit. There’s some tightness here, but also some very sweet fruit (the canopy was opened up on both sides this year, giving some more tropical notes). Attractive, but the tropical notes and acid tension aren’t in harmony yet, but maybe in time the result will be much better. 93/100

Gibbston Valley Glenlee Pinot Noir 2011 Gibbston
40% whole bunch. Slightly faded colour. Some earth and spice on the nose with a hint of rubber. Very expressive on the palate with nice complexity and savoury spiciness. Has a slight cola edge, with sweet and sour characters. 90/100

Gibbston Valley Glenlee Pinot Noir 2014 Gibbston
20% whole bunch. 13.5% alcohol. 6 hectare site (3 on glacial outwash, 3 on heavier soil), 6000 vines/ha. Floral black cherry and plum fruit. Really enticing. The palate is silky and fine with red cherries, black cherries and some sweet, textured, silky fruit, but also nice freshness and a fine, spicy finish. Lovely expressive wine. 94/100

Gibbston Valley Glenlee Pinot Noir 2016 Gibbston
20% whole bunch. Really enticing floral nose with some raspberry jam, some bright cherry and lovely floral notes. This is fresh and direct with lovely precision, as well as lovely sweet fruit. There’s a silkiness here. It’s pretty but also very fresh and detailed. Has structure. 95/100

Gibbston Valley China Terrace Pinot Noir 2009 Bendigo, Central Otago
Textured and with a lovely smooth mouthfeel. Ripe and quite warm with lovely sweet elegant red cherry, strawberry and plum fruit. Showing a little development, with mouthfilling, broad, sweet fruit. In a nice place at the moment. Very harmonious in a ripe style. 94/100

Gibbston Valley China Terrace Pinot Noir 2012 Bendigo, Central Otago
Smoky, slightly funky edge to the nose which shows sweet red fruits. The palate is fresh and detailed with nice compact berry fruits, and a hint of strawberry. There are hints of earth and iodine with a bit of grip. Very nicely poised, and still quite tight, and really elegant. 95/100

Gibbston Valley China Terrace Pinot Noir 2014 Bendigo, Central Otago
This has so much freshness, concentration and structure. It’s compact with raspberry and red cherry fruit, and good structure. Ripe but direct and focused. Very polished and correct with lots of fruit. Rich and dense and drinking nicely now, but a bit blocky and dense? 93/100

Gibbston Valley China Terrace Pinot Noir 2015 Bendigo, Central Otago
More whole bunch from here onwards. 30% whole bunch. There’s a lovely brightness to this wine, with focused, structured red cherry and raspberry fruit. Good concentration with some fruit sweetness, and also some fine herbal notes and a bit of spiciness under the fruit. Lots of fruit but tending towards a structured elegance. 94/100

Gibbston Valley China Terrace Pinot Noir 2016 Bendigo, Central Otago
50% whole bunch. Really seductive floral, slightly meaty cherry fruit nose, with some fine sappy notes. The palate shows finesse and purity, with a wonderfully vivid yet elegant fruit quality. There’s some structure here, but everything works together. 95/100

Gibbston Valley China Terrace Pinot Noir 2017 Bendigo, Central Otago
33% whole bunch. A touch of roast coffee on the nose with lively, sappy-edged black cherry fruit. Concentrated yet very fine with silky, fleshy black cherry and blackberry fruit with incredible detail and elegance. Such a lovely wine with great potential. Thrilling stuff. 96/100

There is a pattern coming out with these vines, says Christopher. The wines from younger vines move around a bit and show faster development. Then we get densely packed new world style Pinots. Then much more assured wines of place.

Gibbston Valley School House Pinot Noir 2009 Bendigo, Central Otago
Sweet, herbal, slightly malty nose shows some development. The palate is developed, but has a nice vivid personality with some sweet, herb-tinged cherry fruit and some notes of earth and tea. Fully mature, but lots to like here. 92/100

Gibbston Valley School House Pinot Noir 2012 Bendigo, Central Otago
Slightly smoky, funky edge to the nose, alongside bright red fruits. The palate is fresh and vivid with a herby edge to the bright raspberry and cherry fruit. Juicy and a bit tart with nice focus and acidity. A fresh, supple wine that’s still got some primary tension and bright fruit. 92/100

Gibbston Valley School House Pinot Noir 2014 Bendigo, Central Otago
Rich, vivid, delicious raspberry and cherry fruit here. Densely packed and sweetly fruited with seductive, ripe fruit. Balanced but quite fruit driven. Lots to like here with a primary, intense fruit-driven personality. 94/100

Gibbston Valley School House Pinot Noir 2015 Bendigo, Central Otago
Stunning concentration and depth here, with ripe, impressive sweet black fruits and a bit of red cherry freshness. Has a wall of flavour: very fruit driven and modern but also balanced. Good concentration and structure, showing vivid fruit. 94/100

Gibbston Valley School House Pinot Noir 2016 Bendigo, Central Otago
Such beautiful perfume: sweet aromatics with a slightly sappy green edge bringing out the floral notes so beautifully. Seductive but with lovely tension through the palate, and notes of raspberry and red cherry. Very fine and multi-layered. Ripe but with balance and such pretty, elegant fruit. There’s structure lurking here under the fruit, too. 96/100

Gibbston Valley School House Pinot Noir 2017 Bendigo, Central Otago
Hints of roast coffee sit under the vibrant red and black fruits. So seductive and fine with lovely precision on the nose, and nice reduction. Primary, with sweet black cherry and red cherry fruit, and good structure. Lovely precision to this wine, with some appealing sweet fruit. It’s really serious and should develop beautifully. 96/100

Gibbston Valley Le Maitre Pinot Noir 2009 Gibbston, Central Otago
This vineyard is now dry farmed, as of three years ago. Developed, slightly baked red fruits nose with some tinned strawberry notes. The palate is sweet and evolved with mature red fruits and a bit of earth. Perhaps a bit past its best, and a little jammy, stewed and hard on the finish. 89/100

Gibbston Valley Le Maitre Pinot Noir 2014 Gibbston, Central Otago
Very bright and sweetly fruited with nice freshness. Some sweet and sour notes with lively raspberry and cherry fruit. A bit tingly with a citrus peel finish. Juicy and lively. 90/100

Gibbston Valley Le Maitre Pinot Noir 2015 Gibbston, Central Otago
Supple and bright with keen acidity supporting sweet, elegant cherry and raspberry fruit. Direct and linear with nice acidity. Shows a vivid personality with good tension, and fresh raspberry notes on the finish. 93/100

Gibbston Valley Le Maitre Pinot Noir 2016 Gibbston, Central Otago
This is fresh and direct with linear, vivid raspberry and red cherry fruit. There’s good concentration but also a fresh, primary red fruit character to the fore. Lovely drive to this wine. Supple, bright and linear, energised. 94/100

Gibbston Valley Le Maitre Pinot Noir 2017 Gibbston, Central Otago
Some roast coffee reduction on the nose. Direct, floral, some black fruits and some cherry brightness. This has lovely linear red fruits on the palate with some floral characters and also a bit of silkiness. Seductive but still very linear and direct. Super wine. 95/100

See also: an interview (video) with Christopher Keys

Reports on earlier visits: 2014 and 2010

Find these wines with wine-searcher.com

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