Perfect pinot noir in unforgiving climes

By Yvonne Lorkin


As the southern-most wine region in the world, you'd expect Central Otago to have an extreme environment; yet nothing prepares you for how unforgiving the landscape is.

With its outcrops of schist rock, dry, sandy soils and rugged hillsides carpeted in wild thyme, Central Otago is home to star sub-regions such as Gibbston, Bendigo, Alexandra, Lowburn, Bannockburn and Wanaka; pockets of pinot noir perfection connected by the slow-moving Clutha and Kawarau rivers.

Yet at a workshop at this year's Central Otago Pinot Noir Celebration conference, the organisers decided to forgo the finer details of subregional differentiation in terms of soil and geography because "that's all been done before", according to Felton Road's Nigel Greening, who was addressing the delegates.

"We're going to look at climate. We're not going to talk meso-climate i.e. vineyard to vineyard, maybe in 10 years we'll have something interesting to talk about there, but we're nowhere near that kind of thing yet," he said. "It's not even climate from sub-region to sub-region, because that would be a bit pointless when we're still struggling to understand the bigger picture of the region itself.

We're just looking at Central Otago compared to other pinot noir regions and as the southernmost wine-growing region in the world, we're on the edge of possibility and how do we manage to do what we do at all?"

Around the room I saw international delegates nodding because Greening is right. The fact that the harsh climes of Central Otago can yield crops of any description is a wonder. And maybe if the region produced tart, refreshing, lighter styles of pinot noir it would be less of a mystery, but it doesn't.

Generally speaking, the pinots produced down here are dark, full and weighty - some would say excessively at times, with alcohol levels religiously appearing at the upper-end of what's acceptable to many international purists.

But wine-show judges, international media and, most importantly, international consumers absolutely love the stuff. As a general rule, Central Otago pinot noirs do not look like wines from the edge. "We have a mystery of a 'bumblebee' sort," says Greening. "The kind where technically speaking, a bumblebee shouldn't be able to fly because everything is stacked against it. But we do fly, so consider this an investigation into the 'bumble bee factor' of central Otago."

We were expertly talked through a boatload of climatic data on seasonal rainfall (or lack thereof), humidity, average daily temperatures and scientific whatnot by a panel of experts.

Climate affects essentially six things within the vines including health, disease pressure, incidence of damage due to frost, hail, wind etc, the rate of growth (i.e. do pinot noir vines grow and age at the same pace regardless of where you grow them on Earth?).

"We're beginning to see data which tells us they don't," says Greening. Climate also affects the vines' ability to ripen and consequently the qualities and complexities found in the resulting wine.

At 350-400mls of rainfall each year, Central Otago is one of the driest places in the world growing pinot noir.

There might be one or two places in southern Chile or South Africa that come close, but this makes "dry farming" pretty risky and controlled irrigation is a must.

Because Central Otago is miles from anywhere coastal, the winds don't carry much moisture therefore humidity is extremely low. This I can vouch for because, whenever I spend more than two days down there, the skin on my face feels paper dry.

There is, however, thought that low humidity can drive higher alcohol, which could account for why Otago's pinots have more muscle than most.

During the second half of the workshop, Matt Dicey from Mt Difficulty led us through a selection of wines from around the region, and some vintages including 2005 (cold and dry), 2008 (cold and wet) and 2009 (pretty normal), plus a special COPN cuvee (blended from participating wineries) in each year.

"We're not going to pick out subregional differences," said Greening.

"Rather, we're trying to look at what the wines share, what the common themes of climate are that we can see in each one and if the whole thing gets too dense we can always explore their various anaesthetic qualities."

- Hamilton News

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