Lowburn Ferry, Central Otago
Visiting this small but high-quality winery in New Zealand's Central Otago wine region

Lowburn Ferry is named after the ferry crossing over the Clutha River that used to be here. Now the Clutha has been dammed and rather than a powerful river, there’s a placid lake (Dunstan). This is home to Roger and Jean Gibson, who have lived here for 20 years, and who began planting Pinot Noir vines on their 35 hectare property in 2000.

Both Roger (above) and Jean have scientific backgrounds. He works part time as a tutor in the viticulture/horticulture department of the Otago Polytechnic, specialising in soils and plant science, and she has a degree in horticultural science.

The property is 35 hectares and currently the vineyard occupies 3.5 hectares, but Roger would be happy to double this to 7 hectares. The organic material in the soil here is higher than in other local areas at 5% as opposed to 0.5% because the site has had a long history of irrigation for grass growing.

Roger showed me a soil pit. There's a deep layer of loess (silt-sized wind-blown particles), which is common in the region. This can hold quite a lot of moisture. The first couple of feet are bone dry, and then it's moist but not dripping with moisture. ‘There's enough water to keep the vine growing but not enough to kick it into life,’ says Roger. ‘When you irrigate, all the water is immediately available and the plant can use it without stress. Then the vine can accumulate too much sugar and the result is alcoholic wines: the accelerator is held full down by continuous irrigation.

Pete Bartle of Vinpro makes the wines, and he explained the importance of the soil life. ‘Soil microlife is to me the mechanism that erodes the parent material and makes things available to vines,’ he says. ‘There’s also that symbiotic relationship with mycorrhizal fungi. If you add nitrogen the vines won’t bother producing exudates that promote that relationship. Nitrogen isn’t toxic, it just interrupts the natural process.’

Pete has some interesting thoughts about the relationship between the microlife and the time that vines have been in the soil. ‘In Burgundy where they haven’t been farming organically there is still an indigenous microlife there because they have been growing grapes there for the last couple of hundred years. I seriously wonder whether the vine age has as much to do with the age of the establishment of the microlife as much as anything else.  I wonder how much the influence of site – terroir – is the connection between the mineral and the vine through the microlife.’

Everyone says that Central Otago has the ideal climate for organic winegrowing, but the challenge is the dry soils (low rainfall) and corresponding low organic content of the soils. Lowburn Ferry fertigate using fish emulsion extract through the irrigationytem, and also seaweed extract that goes on with every sulfur spray. ‘I am interested in feeding the soil, and the soil becomes the place the vine lives,’ says Pete Bartle.

He also talked about his winemaking style. ‘As the vines have got older, a good deal of substance has come so I need to do less. Also my style expectations have changed. I have moved from 25 days in tank and more effort in punchdowns, to the 2012 which has just 6 or 8 punchdowns in its life. With vine age I need to do less and I am getting finer tannins, more elegance and better connectivity in the wines.’

We tasted through the full set of wines to date.


Lowburn Ferry Pinot Noir 2003 Central Otago, New Zealand
This was the first vintage and consisted of two barrels, made from young vines (third season). Very fresh, pure, lively nose with vivid fruit. The palate is pure and lively with a silky, smooth texture and nice elegance, showing remarkably little evolution. 94/100

2004 – no vintage because of frost

Lowburn Ferry Pinot Noir 2005 Central Otago, New Zealand
A tiny year with fruit setting over a long time. But even though there wasn't much fruit Roger still had to crop thin because it was the coldest vintage on record, with just 727 GDDs in Gibbston. Fresh, pure, elegant and vivid cherry fruit nose. The palate is bright and supple with fine, pure cherry fruit and fine-grained tannins. Harmonious and fine with lovely silkiness. 94/100

Lowburn Ferry Pinot Noir 2006 Central Otago, New Zealand
Good crop this year, and it was hot in February. Fine spiciness to the pure red berry and cherry fruit nose. Lovely focus on the pure, fresh palate with nice vivid cherry fruit. Good concentration. 93/100

Lowburn Ferry Pinot Noir 2007 Central Otago, New Zealand
Very aromatic edgy raspberry fruit nose. Lovely freshness and purity. The palate is super fresh with vivid, bright, focused cherry and raspberry fruit. Lovely precision and nice structure. Dense, vivid, big but lovely. 95/100

Lowburn Ferry Pinot Noir 2008 Central Otago, New Zealand
Fresh, supple and bright with nice pure cherry fruit, and a bit of grip, but there's silkiness, too. Some warmth on the palate which possesses elegance as well as richness. 93/100

Lowburn Ferry Pinot Noir 2009 Central Otago, New Zealand
Vivid, fresh and quite grippy with bright fruit sitting over nice tannins and acidity. Lovely texture on the palate which is fine, silky and smooth. Ripe yet fresh and quite expressive. 94/100

Lowburn Ferry Pinot Noir 2010 Central Otago, New Zealand
Very fine expressive nose of spices, herbs and fine cherry notes. The palate is textured and supple with nice cherry and plum fruit. Silky, fine, fresh and lovely. 94/100

Lowburn Ferry Pinot Noir 2011Central Otago, New Zealand
Vivid, fresh and a bit sappy with nice cherry and plum fruit and a bit of green. Nice pure wine in a lighter style. 91/100

Lowburn Ferry Pinot Noir 2012 Central Otago, New Zealand
Very fine and expressive with bright cherry and raspberry fruit on the nose. Lovely purity. The palate is pure, fresh, elegant and bright with keen acidity and lovely precision. 94/100

Lowburn Ferry Pinot Noir 2013 Central Otago, New Zealand (all barrels blend, cask sample)
Vivid, fresh and pure with nice cherry and raspberry fruit, good richness and some spiciness. Lovely purity and focus here with nice tannins. Such a fine, fresh expression of Pinot Noir. 93-95/100

See also:

Central Otago masterclass
Burgundy masterclass
24 fine wines tasted at the Grand Dinner

Gibbston Valley
Chard Farm
Wooing Tree
Folding Hill
Mount Difficulty
Lowburn Ferry
Grasshopper Rock
Doctors Flat

Wines tasted 02/14  
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