Wine: Sense of Style

Central Otago reds have really hit their stride, says Jo Burzynska

Folding Hill Central Otago Pinot Noir; Quartz Reef Single Vineyard Bendigo Pinot Noir; Prophet’s Rock Central Otago Pinot Noir. Pictures / Supplied.

Well over a decade ago, with a riot of loud shirts and exuberantly fruited wines, Central Otago’s pinot noirs and their makers beat a bold path seemingly out of nowhere to the centre of the world’s wine stage. This year’s Central Otago Pinot Noir Celebration saw the region take stock of its distinctive character, reflecting on how it’s being shaped and where it’s heading.

While past celebrations sought to explore the impact of soils and emerging sub-regional differences on style, the theme of the “Discovery” tasting that kicked off this year’s festivities was human influence.

Forget the hackneyed phrase that “great wine is made in the vineyard”, provenance may be the kernel of all good wine, but it’s the actions of the people who make them that dictate just how this is expressed, or even repressed.

“We have the freedom to do anything in New Zealand,” noted panellist Emma Jenkins, setting the scene and highlighting the contrast between here and pinot noir’s French heartland, where winegrowers must adhere to strict rules. “We’re still teasing out the elements that will bring the styles to the wines, the true styles that will allow the vines to speak. It’s easy to impose styles on wines.”

“There is a purity of fruit and brightness in the wines that I love here,” noted Aurum’s Lucie Lawrence, when asked to describe Central pinot style. “We can influence it in the winery, rein it back or dial it up and end up with different wines, but the purity of fruit always shines through.”

This signature bright, plush fruit is certainly a marker of Central’s pinots and has made them some of the most easily recognisable in the world. It’s something that’s made them many fans and, along with great group marketing by the region, has helped propel them to international fame.

Nevertheless, the style has not stood still. Tasting the pinots from the many quality-focused producers at the celebration, it was clear that the increased maturity of both the region’s vines and winemakers has resulted in fruit with more depth and complexity, crafted with a lighter touch into increasingly elegant and individual wines.

“We have definitely evolved and are trying to express different elements and different fruit,” commented Matt Dicey of Mt Difficulty and Ceres. “We get unfairly get branded with the big, ripe style, but that’s not where all of us see it today … I’m looking to push wines towards a more structural bent, and the fruit and structure is more together now, due to the evolution of the fruit.”

Another aspect explored in the discovery tasting, was the role played by contract winemaking, which Dean Shaw of the Central Otago Wine Company — one of the big-two contract wineries — estimated is responsible for 40 per cent of wine made in the region. It’s a situation that’s arisen in part from the small size of many of Central’s vineyard owners, who lack the finances to build their own winery and employ a dedicated winemaker. But while much of the region’s wine is made by just a few winemakers, most wine drinkers would never guess.

“Our clients are very much involved in their own sites, so I just have to reflect that site and season,” explained Shaw. “They don’t want a Dean Shaw wine, so I put the ego on the back burner and be integral to what they want.”

At the gala dinner at the close of the Celebration, Shaw is resplendent in a red striped suit. Central’s winemakers may still be flamboyant dressers, making wines sporting that unmistakable fruit, but their pinots have been refined and now reflect less of the personalities of their makers and more the colour of their own place.

A SELECTION FROM THE CELEBRATION

Folding Hill Central Otago Pinot Noir 2014 $45
Formed by a group of medics, Folding Hill has released a string of impressive pinots since the first release from their Bendigo vineyard in 2007. Its latest is another step up, with its silken and fresh cherry fruit infused with perfumed florals and exotic spice supported by fine tannins. From Fine Wine Delivery Company, Frog in a Barrel, Glengarry: Grey Lynn & Parnell, Super Liquor: Newmarket & Poenamo, Point Wines, Primo Vino, foldinghill.co.nz

Quartz Reef Single Vineyard Bendigo Pinot Noir 2014 $45
Veteran Central winemaker Rudi Bauer’s experience and close to two decades of vine age have combined to produce pinots with real intensity and poise. In this latest release, pure cherry fruit on the attack leads into a high-toned palate with hints of spice and a vibrant mineral drive. From quartzreef.co.nz

Prophet’s Rock Central Otago Pinot Noir 2013 $60
Prophet’s Rock is only just releasing its 2013 pinot, given it spends longer than most maturing in barrel and then bottle. It’s a harmonious wine with ripe, supple and concentrated Morello cherry fruit and notes of earth, spice and mineral. From Fine Wine Delivery Company, Point Wines, Wine Direct, Cambridge Fine Wine Company, First Glass.

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