Waitaki, in North Otago, is the latest region to be producing some extraordinary wines.
Flying over the limestone hills of North Otago's Waitaki Valley, the late entrepreneur Howard Paterson had a hunch that what he was looking down on was prime viticultural land.
Now, nine years after he planted his first experimental vineyard, the region's orchards and sheep have started to make way for more grapes and this month the first winemaking facility in Waitaki officially opened its doors.
Paterson - who made some of his many millions by adding value to land by developing new uses for it - bought 2000ha in this viticultural terra incognita northwest of Oamaru. Though not all of it was suitable for growing grapes, 120ha are now planted in the Waitaki Valley, predominantly on the blocks he bought back in 2000.
Sadly, Paterson was never to taste the fruits of his vision for the Waitaki, dying suddenly in 2003. However, by then he had already started to generate interest in the region and had brought leading Marlborough winemaker Dr John Forrest on board to make the inaugural wine from his first plantings.
"I saw the potential, got excited and made the region's first wine, the 2003 Doctors Creek Vineyard Pinot Noir," recalls Forrest, who now makes wine from his own vineyards in Waitaki.
"I thought this wine was interesting and had a real terroir definition in its chalky minerality and limestone-based earthiness."
It's limestone that's whipped up much of the interest in Waitaki, from winemakers and increasingly from international wine media, aware that some of the world's greatest wines originate from these calciferous soils. Limestone outcrops are found across the region from the otherworldly shaped Elephant Rocks that formed the backdrop for Aslan's camp in the film, the Chronicles of Narnia to the north-facing slopes suited to viticulture.
"There is no other region in New Zealand that shares the same topography, namely a significant area of north facing, limestone-based soils while having a cool, maritime influenced climate," notes Jeff Sinnott, winemaker at the Ostler vineyard, who spotted the potential of Waitaki with his brother-in-law and Ostler owner, Jim Jerram, around the same time as Paterson.
"As far as wine styles are concerned we are very encouraged by what we have seen over the past few years. Now we're at the forefront of one of the most exciting viticultural discoveries in the country."
When Grant Taylor started out as winemaker at Central Otago's Gibbston Valley back in 1993, he saw maps and climatic data on North Otago that suggested there were areas suited to grape-growing in the region.
"But our hands were full with understanding the new area of Central Otago, so there wasn't time to tackle another region," he says, "although it was always in the back of my mind."
Taylor, who makes a Waitaki pinot noir under his Valli label, says as with to those pioneering days in Central, he's now relishing the discovery of the new sites and styles offered by Waitaki.
"The opportunity to have that again is one I could never turn down. I was born in Kurow, and having made wine all around the world this is bringing me back to where I started, so I feel like I'm completing a full circle and seeing a special place through different eyes."
Chef Fenella Barry and husband Steve Harrop of Sublime Wines came to Waitaki from further afield. Both Kiwis, they relocated to its sleepy rural community from the hustle and bustle of Hong Kong after a stint in France. Harrop was initially general manager of Otago Station Estates, overseeing the vineyard development of what was Paterson's land, while Barry planted and managed the couple's own vineyard, and organised the "Taste of Waitaki" festivals showcasing local wines and produce that helped get the region on the foodie radar.
"This is a place of outstanding beauty that can produce wines that are unique and, in a good year, exceptional," enthuses Barry, who to go with her pinot noir and pinot gris now plans to make the region's first sparkling wine.
"As a region we are just starting out and I believe that with the talent and passion that exists here we will achieve great things."
This talent includes some of the cream of New Zealand's wine industry crop, like Michelle Richardson, who with celebrity chef Peter Gordon, is behind the Waitaki Braids venture; Steve Smith MW, of the esteemed Craggy Range label; and Andy Nicole, the newest recruit, who left his position as winemaker at Auckland's Lincoln Vineyards to become the resident winemaker at Pasquale and run the company's recently opened Kurow Winery.
"It's pretty amazing what they've got going on here," says Nicole. "There are still some amazing possible sites, with great sunshine and less frost risk due to the winds. The wines are a bit more elegant as well, and I really like the fact that a lot have lower alcohol levels."
Given the explosion in vineyards across New Zealand's more established regions in recent years, for a new region to thrive it needs to be making something different. Paterson's punt paid off from that first pinot noir of 2003. Through subsequent releases from other wineries now also encompass wonderfully fresh and minerally aromatic varieties, it's become evident that Waitaki's wines offer something quite unique.
Drawing parallels with Burgundy, Waitaki's cool climate and limestone slopes led to the widespread planting of pinot noir. It's become the region's flagship red, making examples with a distinctive style that fuses red fruit with savoury minerally undertones quite unlike that of its closest counterparts in Central Otago.
Current standouts include the Valli Waitaki Valley Pinot Noir ($55), an exquisite and silky example with tangy raspberry and red cherry fruit underpinned by complex savoury, spicy and minerally undertones, and the slightly denser Craggy Range Otago Station Vineyard Pinot Noir 2008 ($45) with its supple plum fruit, florals and mineral backbone.
Now the region's winemakers have a few more vintages under their belts, some feel the aromatic white varieties may come to eclipse pinot noir in the region. The climate and long growing season is resulting in examples with both a fabulous freshness and exciting intensity.
Pinot gris is one of the stars, which seems to really shine when grown on limestone. One fine example is the Ostler Audrey's Waitaki Valley Pinot Gris 2008 ($33.30), layered with fig and savoury spice and driven by an exhilarating line of citrus. Another is the Sublime Waitaki Valley Pinot Gris 2009 ($24.99), with succulent quince fruit spiced with cinnamon and exhibiting similarly minerally notes.
"Pinot gris really works here and can make wines with depth, interest and texture that are far beyond the generic lollipop pinot gris model," says Craggy Range winemaker Adrian Baker.
"Similarly riesling, which from the Waitaki has a chalky minerality and florals, with the valley suiting lower alcohol styles."
At just 9.5 per cent the off-dry Waitaki Braids Riesling 2006 ($45) highlights what Waitaki can do with this variety, combining delicacy with racy lime, mineral and subtle spice.
Another wine illustrating the area's aromatic potential is Pasquale Alma Mater 2009 ($27), a blend of pinot gris, riesling and gewurztraminer with fleshy pear and white peach fruit, sweet spice and a vibrant citrusy note. This actually hails from the Hakataramea Valley on the northern side of the Waitaki River. Its soils and climate differ to that of Waitaki, but produce cool climate styles that appear to echo the elegance found in Waitaki wine.
A new white that's just starting to create waves in Waitaki is chardonnay.
Forrest is leading the way with his stunning John Forrest Collection Waitaki Valley Chardonnay 2008 ($50), which juxtaposes rich toasty notes and butterscotch with a minerally citrus core.
Wonderful wines may be issuing from Waitaki, but as one of New Zealand's coolest wine regions, success is not always guaranteed by its marginal climes, which means it will never be another Marlborough.
Grapes can struggle to ripen, while inclement weather at flowering means that vines can often set only miniscule crops. In years as bad as 2007, hardly any grapes are harvested in the region.
"My only concern about the region is that one year it can be brilliant and then one year in three it's not good enough," admits Forrest. "It's viticulture on the edge - but then some of the world's greatest wines are made on the edge."
Until recently all Waitaki's wines were made at wineries outside the region. However, this month the region came of age with the official opening of Kurow Winery, which will process the fruit of its owners, Pasquale, and some other local labels. Also boasting a cellar door, the facility will also provide a public face for the region's wine industry.
The label was established by Italian Antonio Pasquale, who traded his life as a professor of philosophy in Padua for land-based initiatives in New Zealand. Its construction followed Pasquale's planting of vineyards in the Hakataramea Valley, including more eclectic varieties such as arneis, and in the Waitaki Valley around the winery at Kurow.
Climatic challenges mean that Waitaki may not quite be a pinot noir paradise or aromatic arcadia, but most making wine there voice a confidence in the region's promise and potential as their vines age and experience there grows.
Forrest dedicated that first wine he made from Waitaki grapes to the memory of Paterson, voicing a sentiment he still stands by and one now shared by an increasing number of others: "Enjoy this wine; it is the inaugural vintage of an area that is destined to become a New Zealand wine region to be reckoned with."
Where to find Waitaki wines:
* Craggy Range - Caro's, Glengarry Victoria Park & Herne Bay
* Forrest Estate - www.forrestwines.co.nz
* Ostler - Point Wines, Bacchus Cellars, Wine Vault, Village Wines
* Pasquale - www.pasquale.co.nz
* Sublime - Caro's
* Valli - www.kemprarewines.co.nz
* Waitaki Braids - www.waitakibraids.co.nz
Waitaki, in North Otago, is the latest region to be producing some extraordinary wines.