As the end of the year's grape harvest draws close, I usually feel a pang of vintage guilt, brought on by being a spectator of this punishing but pivotal time for our country's winegrowers. Not so this time around, as I was out there picking grapes and plunging pinot at the invitation of the Artisan Winemakers of Central Otago (AWCO), who took me on as a somewhat inept harvest hand while offering me an insight into their newly formed group of boutique winegrowers.
As dawn breaks on a crisp autumnal morning in Central Otago, Ellero's Roberta Manell Montero plucks me from my cosy Queenstown digs to transport me to the organic vineyard she established with husband, John Montero. She tells me en route how, both originally from the United States, they were drawn by the beauty and the promise they saw in the region. But unlike many smaller players in Central Otago, they were driven by reason as well as romance, coming from wine backgrounds.
John is already assessing a box of freshly picked pinot when I arrive. Roberta arms me with my pair of protective picker's gloves and secateurs. As we get stuck in to a row of vines, it's clear this is very much a hands-on affair for the pair, a key criteria for membership of AWCO.
No absentee owners allowed in this organisation.
As I fumble to find the correct place to snip and spend way too long scrutinising the bunches I select, the harvest crew whip through the vineyard with incredible speed and dexterity. I'm easily the slowest picker.
The chance to prove that I'm more of a whiz in the winery comes when I'm intercepted at smoko by Ian Dee of GeorgeTown Vineyard and taken to the petite Packspur winery where he makes his wines. Here he instructs me on what I discover to be the not-so-gentle art of plunging, a technique used for red wine that keeps the grape skins moist while fermenting and extracting colour and tannin.
Wielding something akin to a super-sized sink plunger, I teeter over the tiny vat and try to break through a dense cap of pinot skins in a wine that will go on to make Dee's equally diminutive production of 500 cases. This size means he can take care of every step of the growing and making of wines from his organic plot, he tells me as I sweat over my task and rue my feeble upper body strength.
Thankfully it's soon time for lunch, which I take at the Tosq Vineyard with owners Carl and Sue Thompson and the crack picking team I encountered at neighbouring Ellero. After a restorative bowl of homemade soup and a piece of tart, I move from cake to cow pat pits as Sue shows me what she's been doing to convert the estate to biodynamics, something she feels "gives that bit extra" to their wines.
Next stop is Lowburn Ferry, where I help Jean Gibson scare away the pesky birds partial to a peck of ripe pinot from the netted vines of the small vineyard she has set up with her husband, Roger. They're another husband and wife team whose experience makes them well qualified for winegrowing. They've been running the online Otagowine.com wine store for 15 years. Jean studied horticulture, and Roger was a soil scientist who has been researching the region's distinctive terrain.
Then it's off to catch up with Max Marriott, who runs the riesling-only Auburn Wines with a couple of similarly riesling-mad mates. It's twilight as we taste juice from grapes recently harvested from some of the five sites from which Auburn sources fruit across the region. People have started to see sub-regional characters within Central Otago's pinots, but Max is excited as he thinks he's starting to detect differences in his rieslings as well, highlighting another tenet of the group: the importance of a wine's character reflecting its place.
By the end of the day the only AWCO member I hadn't encountered was Lindis River. As is so often the way with one-man bands, the owner of this pinot-focused producer, Holger Reinecke, had to attend to business outside the region the day of my vintage adventures.
After a hard day's harvesting, the weary winegrowers gather back at Max's home to share a fine spread washed down with some of the group's impressive selection of wines.
As I nurse my aching muscles, I have to admire their stamina at not only putting on a great feast at the finale of a hard day's harvesting, but in running these great little companies with such gusto.
Oh yes, and for tolerating my artless assistance at such an important time of the year.
What makes an artisan?
The Artisan Winemakers of Central Otago, founded late last year, describe themselves as "a modest group of like-minded friends who share a common interest and devotion to small-batch, high-quality viticulture and winemaking that speak of a place and a person". To be part of the group, members must produce less than 2000 cases, run companies where there is intimate owner involvement, possess a proven track record and quality assessment by peers and demonstrate dedication to their brand.
There are currently six members: Auburn Wines, Ellero, GeorgeTown Vineyard, Lindis River, Lowburn Ferry and TOSQ
GeorgeTown Vineyard Central Otago Pinot Noir 2010 - $45
Rich, fresh and supple black cherry fruit combines with complex underlying notes of earth, spice and game in this impressive pinot from a sliver of land near the Kawarau Gorge. (From Herne Bay Cellars, Fine Wine Delivery Company.)
Ellero Central Otago Gewurztraminer 2011 - $27
An elegant dry gewurztraminer with good concentration and freshness to its palate of dried ginger, exotic spice, florals and hints of apricot kernel. (From otagowine.com)
Lowburn Ferry Single Vineyard Home Block Central Otago Pinot Noir 2009 - $50-$55
A silky, aromatic pinot in which cherry and plum fruit is layered over floral nuances with a deep spicy and savoury undercurrent. (From Glengarry, selected fine wine retailers, lowburnferry.co.nz)