Everyone remembers their first visit to Central Otago, especially when they arrive by air. The approach to Queenstown Airport weaves through some stunning, almost primordial, scenery, with roughly chiseled mountains on either side of a semi-arid landscape where the vineyards of Gibbston provide green to counter the intense turquoise of the Kawarau river.
I’ve visited regularly since 2010, and in the last few vintages there has been a noticeable widening of the stylistic spectrum. Whereas on my first visit, many of the wines were well made in a “Central Otago” style, if you do a tasting of, say, 50 different pinots today, the diversity of the wines is much more apparent. Some of that diversity results from style choices, but much of it comes from viticulture and winemaking that is sympathetic to site, and allows the variety of soils and microclimates of the region to express themselves in the wines.
Central Otago is not a large region—there are ten or more wineries in Marlborough that each crush more grapes than the whole of Central Otago in any vintage; the only future here is in making distinctive wines of place, which sell at relatively high prices. For the region’s top winegrowers, this has meant a steep learning curve as they have tried to tame the innate strength of the place, overcome the challenges of the climate with its vintage variation, and produce wines that speak eloquently of where they grow. Four producers who I’d consider to have done that particularly well shared their stories with me on my latest visit.
Millet first came here in 2013, when his son was working at Amisfield, and now comes twice a year. “It’s a beautiful place, and the wines are really interesting,” he says. But the friendship began in 2009, when Pujol worked vintage at de Vogüé. “I was excited because I thought I might get to do a pigéage on the old-vine Musigny,” he recalls. “But François said, ‘No, certainly not. I never plunge the Musigny.’” Pujol had already started on this journey towards lighter extraction. His first full season, 2006, was a warm vintage. “I gave it the normal gentle winemaking treatment, with not much extraction at the start, then three punchdowns a day in the middle, and cutting them off at the end. You think you are handling things really gently, and the vineyard taught me a lesson. The wine was quite hard when it was young. So, I started pulling back. And then, in 2009, working with François, I saw that taken even further. With the Musigny, there was just no extraction at all. No plunging. I’d already done some trials of very low intervention, and carried on. By reducing extraction, I found my vineyard.
I asked Millet how he decided what to do with Central Otago fruit, given that he was coming from a very different region. “You have two ways of approaching the place,” he responded. “Either you decide to dominate everything—you extract, extract, extract. Or you decide to start with a low extraction: enough but low. There is a line you must never go above. If you are a bit below the line, that is okay. The shame for me is to be above the line. That is overextraction.
“I started off with the Cuvée des Antipodes low, with just one punchdown. So far, I have stayed that way because I think it is below the line. The vintage differences show.” The fermenters are stainless-steel open-tops with a capacity of just under four tons, and Millet keeps the caps wet by, twice a day, draining juice into a watering can and drizzling it over the top. “I think the land in this region has huge energy,” he says. “It is like a vibration from the land. There is a lot of future in this region, but I think it is wise to adapt to this energy. You can be very quickly above the line.”
Felton Road is considered by many to be the leading producer in the region. And both proprietor Nigel Greening and winemaker Blair Walter think Felton Road is making better wines than ever. So, what is different? Vine age? Picking earlier? Extracting less? The answer isn’t simple.
“Vine age tends to be the factor that is most tangible, and the one people hang their hat on,” Walter says, “whereas viticultural experience, like the farming methods today, compared with fifteen years ago, are much more in tune, and we have much more experience.”
Greening thinks that there is a philosophical aspect to improvement. “There was a point—about four or five years ago—where we realized that the route to making wines that were going to move us forward didn’t come from trying to make better wines. You have to step back from trying to make the wines better and allow your kids to grow up free range: to learn from them rather than trying to teach them.”
“It is like the Oregon syndrome,” says Walter. “In Oregon they make some lovely pinots but a lot of [producers] just try so hard. The most successful wines come from the winemakers who are much more relaxed, or much more in sync with the land, and step back and let their wines be what they are going to be. The try-hard Oregon wines are the pushy, showy things that none of us are really going to get into.”
Part of this “stripping away” has been to pull back on extraction. Initially, they were doing four punchdowns a day, but more recently they scaled this back to two or three. Walter says he has been experimenting with just one. “When you taste the wine with fewer punchdowns,” he reports, “it is always more tannic.” This is somewhat counterintuitive. “In the ferments you punch down more, you extract macerated fruit. You get a compote character, a sweetness through the midpalate. It gives body, charm and richness to the wines, but we never had the tannins; we had sweet, syrupy wines. If you punch down less, you can remove the compote and you can taste the line in the wines: You can taste the tannins and the grip.” He adds that this lighter-extraction approach is common around the district now. “Everyone has more confidence in the fruit, and [the wines are] less about winemaking.”
Has picking earlier been a route to better wines? The answer seems to be yes, but only up to a point. “With our earliest picks we always seem to have reduction problems,” says Greening. “The wines are really kicking back and saying, ‘No, we don’t like this.’” Walter agrees that sometimes they are picking a bit too early, and, in the warm 2018 season, he can think of six lots in the cellar that would have been better picked five days later.
“Only a few years ago, our neighbors picked twenty-three days later than us,” Greening adds. “Twenty-eighteen is the warmest season we have ever seen and it is the only time where we have chaptalized.” Two lots had the right flavors but only 12.6 percent alcohol, and bumping it up to 13.2 percent made a significant difference.
Central Otago pioneer Rippon has long been known for making balanced, ageworthy wines. Rolfe Mills established an experimental vineyard at his family’s property in Wanaka in 1975, and began to focus on pinot noir in 1982. While some producers are moving to earlier picking dates, Mills’s son, Nick, says that the approach at Rippon has never changed. With their cool site, they’ve never been in the habit of picking late. “We pick when we are ripe,” he says. Rippon’s pinot noirs have always been distinctive for their freshness. “Generally speaking, our wines are somewhere between 12.5 and 13.5 percent alcohol. I think our phenolic ripeness has always been pretty good.”
Mills gives his wines 16 to 18 months in barrel. “They are then run into bottle without filtering or fining, and, importantly, they stay at least a year in bottle before they are released.” He says that if you achieve “noble” phenolic material, this is when you can do a bit more extraction during fermentation, but then you have wines that need time in barrel and in bottle in order to reach a state of harmony.
“For me, terroir is issued through shape and feel, not smells and flavors. If you give me a Volnay or a Pommard, a Nuits-St-George or a Vosne-Romanée, I am going to have a much better shot at telling you which is which if I think about structure, shape, feel and form, than if I am thinking about cherries and plums and smells and flavors.”
For Mills, getting the right sort of phenolic material—and then extracting it—gives the most accurate reflection of site. “But if you extract material that you have to fine out later,” he says, “because it is astringent or it hasn’t got enough energy, then you lose that opportunity.”
Burn Cottage is based on a site in Lowburn, not far from Cromwell. After an experimental lot in 2008, the first vintage here was the 2009, complete with distinctive labels based on a Goethe fairy tale. From the outset, these wines gained celebrity status, in part because of the caliber of those involved in the project—Californian winemaker Ted Lemon, for example—but also because the wines were exceptionally good.
Burn Cottage has been farmed biodynamically since the team began working on the land in 2002; Claire Mulholland makes the wine, with Lemon as a consultant. “We have done quite a lot of trials as we have gone along,” Mulholland says. “We have looked at the ferments from each block and watched them really carefully through the years.” As she has become happy with a block, she’s done a bit more with whole bunches and maceration.
Among these four producers, Prophet’s Rock takes light extraction to an extreme, and the wines are very fine. Rippon focuses more on ensuring the phenolic material they have is of high quality so they can extract it fully, but the wines then need to stay in the cellar longer. For these and other Central Otago growers, the partnership between people and place will soon see a generational change, with some of the pioneering figures stepping back. Watching the growth of this young region, it’s interesting to think that the progression might not simply be a case of slow, gradual improvement, but rather a punctuated equilibrium, with periods of stasis followed by short, intense bursts of change. It will be fun to watch this journey unfold.