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Tasting Reviews

Waitaki Valley Wines – A Tasting with Joelle Thomson


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The Waitaki Valley vignoble is relatively new in New Zealand, the first vines, Pinot Noir being planted in 2001. The region is situated approx. 65 km inland from Oamaru on the east coast, and most of the vineyards are located within 20 km of Kurow, lying on the southern side of the Waitaki Valley in North Otago. There are several geological and climactic factors which make the Waitaki Valley special. Firstly the limestone-influenced soils which are inextricably linked to the expression of minerality. The cooler summers require long hang time for grapes, and usually the yields are very low in comparison with that of other regions. Interestingly, there is a strong maritime influence as well, and the resultant wines are crisp, refreshing and show lower alcohols. For me ripeness is on the edge, but with that comes greater precision and mineral expression.

There are around 16 producers of Waitaki Valley wine, the number waxing and waning over the years. Some of the more high profile labels on the market are Ostler, Valli Vineyards, John Forrest. For some time, Pasquale was a major player with significant plantings and a fully functional, well-equipped winery, but the operation has downsized considerably. Craggy Range was involved in the earlier stages. At present, there are approx. 100 ha of vineyards. Pinot Noir and the aromatic whites are the most prevalent varieties.

Growing the Name
There have been attempts by the growers to promote the region, its uniqueness and the wines over the years (click here to see my report of a strongly presented Waitaki Valley roadshow held in Wellington in July 2012), but as most of the producers are small, the momentum to do so has not been sustained. Those who have gotten to know the wines have generally commented favourably on the more elegant and cooler style of the wines and their mineral expression.

Wine writer Joelle Thomson is a fan of the wines, and in conjunction with many of the producers in the region, and with the assistance of Regional Wines in Wellington, put on a tasting of Waitaki Valley wines. It would have been one of the more inclusive tastings of the wines of the district. Joelle invited Jim Jerram of Ostler Vineyards to participate in the tasting, and between the two of them put on a very instructive tasting. I attended the tasting, but made notes on the wines. My comments follow, with ratings and date. The notes and scores have been added to my database, as usual, and should be taken on board with the proviso that I was tasting the wines more quickly than I would have preferred. The notes do not list the RRPs, as these were irrelevant to most of the wines.

The Rieslings
The wines were tasted and discussed as pairs.

Pasquale Waitaki Valley Riesling 2016 
Very pale straw in colour with slight green hues. This is soft and gently fresh on the nose, but with good depth, showing lime and lemon notes along with honied elements and a slight minerally edge. Medium-dry to taste, the palate is fresh, with luscious honied notes entwined with lime and lemons that form a good core. The mouthfeel is soft and rounded, the acidity restrained. This could be more precise. 12.5% alc. 17.5-/20 Aug 2017 RRP $N/A

Ostler ‘Lakeside Vines’ Waitaki Valley Riesling 2013 
Bright, very pale straw colour, very pale edged. This is very elegant and tightly bound, quite slender, but with intensity, now showing secondary toast and mineral notes to the citrus fruit and white florals. Dryish to taste, this is crisp and racy on palate, the acidity a feature. The lime fruit has purity, and reveals apple notes, then toast and minerals. This is tight and steely, but with finesse. The soft intensity builds to good levels of concentration. 12.5% alc., 10 g/L RS. 18.5/20 Aug 2017 RRP $N/A

Valli Waitaki North Otago Riesling 2016 
Very pale straw colour. The nose exudes beautiful purity and finesse, with thirst-quenching minerals, alongside lime and lemon fruit. This has intensity and great clarity. Dryish to taste, the palate is pure finesse with lime and an array of citrus fruits enlivened by poised acidity. The wine follows a very fine-textured line with great drive. Amazingly thirst-quenching. This will keep 10 years. 13.0% alc. 18 g/L RS. 19+/20 Aug 2017 RRP $N/A

Valli Waitaki North Otago Late Harvest Riesling 2015
Brilliant, very pale straw colour, near colourless. The nose is very soft and gentle with honey and talc from botrytis along with lime and lemon fruit. This unfolds minerals and hints of toasty complexity. Very sweet to taste, the palate is very fine and tightly bound, but is lusciously rich, with honey, apple, lime and mineral flavours. A little phenolic grip carries the palate, with crisp acidity adding to the linearity. Some honey, toast and talc botrytis shows on the finish. 9% alc. and 123 g/L RS. 18.5-/20 Aug 2017 RRP $N/A

The Ostler Pinot Noirs, Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminer
There were five Ostler wines, four presented in pairs for comparison, one young and the other older. First were the ‘Caroline’s’ Pinot Noirs followed by the ‘Audrey’s’ Pinot Gris, these being the flagship wines. The older 2010 Pinot Noir shows the power and concentration enjoyed by many Otago Pinot Noir wines. The best examples of this vintage continue to impress. The fifth wine was Ostler’s first Gewurztraminer. These wines demonstrated the position of Ostler as one of the top producers in the region.

Ostler ‘Caroline’s’ Waitaki Valley Pinot Noir 2015 
Light ruby-red colour with slight garnet hues. This has a softly full nose with aromas of red berry fruits, red florals and complexing suggestions of earth and game with a herb nuance. The aromatics grow in ethereal volume. On palate very fresh and vibrant, quite elegantly proportioned and tightly bound, a little shy, even. This has a taut and tightly bound core with fragrant red berry fruits with some herbal detail. The extraction is very fine, and along with the fresh acidity, the wine carries along a long line unfolding mineral nuances. This is youthfully bright and fresh. The red fruits quite ethereal and beautiful. 18.5/20 Aug 2017 RRP $N/A

Ostler ‘Caroline’s’ Waitaki Valley Pinot Noir 2010 
Dark, deep, black-hued garnet red colour. The bouquet is tight and firmly concentrated with ripe black-berried and cherry fruit along with notes of savoury herbs. The ripeness, concentration, density and complexity is outstanding. The palate is powerful, richly fruited and deep, with ripe black fruit, along with whole bunch stalk and stem notes, herbal detail, earth and black minerals. The concentration is the feature, and the palate still has texture, depth, vitality, and shows great length, Some tasters found it tough and uncompromising, the green aspects dominant, but for me this was structure and complexity. A great wine. Regarded as Ostler’s best Pinot Noir by winemaker Jeff Sinnott. 19.5/20 Aug 2017 RRP $N/A

Ostler ‘Audrey’s’ Waitaki Valley Pinot Gris 2015
Very pale coloured, very youthful in appearance. This has a full nose with aromas of ripe white stonefruits and thirst-quenching wet-stone minerals, along with detailed floral lift. The aromatics grow in volume and depth in the glass. Dryish to taste, the palate has rich and luscious white stonefruit flavours along with honied notes. The mouthfeel is energetic and vibrant, enhancing the richness. The wine flows along a soft-textured line, with edgy acidity carrying the wine to a honied finish. This just grows in presence. 8 g/L RS. 18.5+/20 Aug 2017 RRP $N/A

Ostler ‘Audrey’s’ Waitaki Valley Pinot Gris 2008 
Very pale colour, straw-yellow with lemony hues. This has a full, savoury bouquet with secondary nutty notes and wet-stone minerals, the stonefruit elements now faded. Dry to taste, the palate has savoury flavours, with stonefruits, earthy notes along with sour and acid elements, along with flint and minerals. The palate has firmness and texture, with good acid liveliness. This has lost its fruitiness and balance for me, but was much better received by other tasters. 16.5/20 Aug 2017 RRP $N/A

Ostler Waitaki Valley Gewurztraminer 2015
Bright, very pale straw-yellow colour. The nose is very refined and tightly bound, but showing good intensity of rose-petal florals entwined with mineral detail. Off-dry to taste, the flavours of rose-petal florals and Turkish Delight are presented with delicacy. Some honied notes, spices and minerals add to the detail and interest. The wine has a richness of texture and is guided by a light phenolic line and balanced acidity, with a little underlying alcoholic power. This is bright, lively and possesses clarity. 13.5% alc. and 7 g/L RS. 17.5+/20 Aug 2017 RRP $N/A

The Pinot Noirs
The next grouping of wines consisted of eight Pinot Noirs, presented from youngest to oldest. This enabled some judgement on ageworthiness to be made, as well as any similarity in style from the regionality or minerality from the soils.

Q Waitaki Valley Pinot Noir 2016 
Dark, deep ruby-red colour with slight garnet hues on the edge. The nose has a tight amalgam of black cherry fruit with dark herb detail, minerals and earth, unfolding notes of black plums and a hint of toasty oak. The palate features ripe, dark-red berry and black cherry fruit lifted by aromatic violet florals, and complexed by dark herbs. The mouthfeel is full, soft and fleshy, quite openly accessible, but balanced by good tannin extraction. This has drinkability, but will keep 5 years easily. 18.0/20 Aug 2017 RRP $N/A

Valli ‘Waitaki Vineyard’ North Otago Pinot Noir 2015 
Moderately deep ruby-red colour, a little lighter on the edge. The nose is very firm and tightly bound with cooler spectrum red berry fruits melded with complexing dark and fresh herbs, and whole bunch stalk and stem notes. The nose shows great depth, concentration and finesse, unfolding smoke and mineral detail. Tightly concentrated on palate, this has fine, but firm textures and extraction, unfolding layers of black and dark red berry fruits, dark herbs, and complexing whole bunch notes. The mouthfeel is very fresh, bright and vibrant, with the tannin structure and acidity providing linearity, energy and excellent length. 19.0-/20 Aug 2017 RRP $N/A

Q Waitaki Valley Pinot Noir 2015 
Dark, deep, ruby red with a little garnet hue on the rim. This has a soft, harmoniously interwoven and integrated bouquet of dark-red berry and black plum fruit, along with soft red florals and some savoury secondary dried herb development. On palate, becoming rounded and integrated, with gentle and harmonious red berry fruit flavours showing some sweetness, along with savoury dried herb and earthy secondary development. The tannins are resolving and the acidity quite integrated. This appears to be beginning to drink well now. 17.5/20 Aug 2017 RRP $N/A

EarthKeepers ‘Block 2’ Otiake Waitaki Valley Pinot Noir 2013 
Deep ruby-red colour with some depth and slight garnet hues on the edge. The bouquet is full, soft and savoury with aromas of red berry fruits entwined with game, liquorice and spices, and dried herb secondary complexities. Full and flavoursome, the palate has savoury gamey flavours with dark and dried herbs and earthy secondary development and complexity. The flavours are underlined by some tannin grip and enlivened by an acid edge, which carries the wine to a finish of undergrowth and tertiary notes. This is fully mature in fruit favour development. 17.0/20 Aug 2017 RRP $N/A

John Forrest ‘Collection’ Waitaki Valley North Otago Pinot Noir 2012 
Moderately dark, deep, garnet-hued red, lighter on the rim. The bouquet is refined in presentation, quite tightly bound with black-red fruits along with dark and dried herbs and noticeable oak presence. A little savouriness emerges in the glass. The palate is rich, sweet and juicy, the flavours of dark-red and black fruits filling the mouth. Some red florals provide lift, and nutty, firm oak lies at the core. The tannins ae refined and provide a subtle graininess, with some savoury, sour acidity adding interest. The flavours carry to a lingering finish. Oak dominant for some tasters. 18.0/20 Aug 2017 RRP $N/A

Pasquale Waitaki Valley Pinot Noir 2011 
Garnet-hued red with some depth, showing a little bricking on edge. The bouquet is soft and gently full with savoury red berry fruits along with subtle red florals, piquant dried herbs and some complexing earthiness. Rich, luscious and sweet fruited with red berry fruits and red florals, some secondary savoury dried herb, game and earthy notes also show. Some cooler spectrum nuances emerge. The fruit allows the firm tannins and crisp acidity to feature and the wine finishes dry in texture. This is mature and drinking now. 17.0+/20 Aug 2017 RRP $N/A

John Forrest ‘Collection’ Waitaki Valley North Otago Pinot Noir 2010 
Very dark and full black-red colour, still with suggestions of purple. This is youthful in appearance. The bouquet has very ripe black berried fruits entwined with black florals, dark herbs and toasty oak, unfolding a layering of savoury secondary detail. On palate rich and concentrated with black berried fruits and dark herbs, with subtle, savoury nuances, earth and dark minerals. The fruit is underlined by a supple tannin core, with the acidity lending good freshness and energy. The flavours have intensity and length and are enlivened by the acidity. This shows the 2010 vintage structure and ripe black fruits. The wine will live for another 5+ years. 19.0-/20 Aug 2017 RRP $N/A

EarthKeepers ‘Block 2’ Otiake Waitaki Valley Pinot Noir 2010 
Very dark, deep, black-hued garnet-red colour. The nose has fresh black and dark-red berry fruits and subtle fresh and dried herbal nuances, the fruit quite elegant in expression and tightly bound. This shows with some finesse. On palate the fruit is sweet and plush with black and dark-red berry fruits, and notes of red plums, with a little savoury, secondary dried herb nuance. The fruit juiciness is balanced by some tannin extraction and grip, with light, refresh acidity lending liveliness and tension. The fruit richness slowly recedes on the finish. This in on its plateau. 17.5/20 Aug 2017 RRP $N/A

Miscellaneous Whites
There were four ‘extra’ white wines available for tasting after the formal presentation concluded. I tasted these very quickly, and thus my notes are based on less stringent impressions. Even though I have scored and rated the wines, I felt more comfortable not including the notes and scores into my website database.

EarthKeepers Otiake Waitaki Valley Field Blend #1 2013 
A blend of Pinot Gris, Riesling and Gewurztraminer. Pale straw-yellow colour. This shows a little SO2, but reveals Riesling florals that form a core of steel, then Pinot Gris stonefruits. The Gewurztraminer aromatics are shy. Dry to taste, quite crisp in the mouth, this is taut and tightly bound, revealing a little spice. The mouthfeel is fine textured and the acidity lends freshness and length. This has a coolness of expression. 17.5/20 Aug 2017 RRP $N/A

Pasquale Waitaki Valley Chardonnay 2012 
Bright, golden straw-yellow colour. The nose is full with ripe, savoury citrus and stonefruit aromas, integrated with mealy and nutty notes. Certainly in the secondary spectrum now. The palate is rich with depth and concentration of citrus fruits and stonefruits, layered with mealy, nutty and oaky flavours. This is rich and rounded, with complex development. Soft textures and integrated acidity. Great length, drinking well now. 18.5-/20 Aug 2017 RRP $N/A

Q Waitaki Valley Chardonnay 2016 
Light straw-yellow colour with slight golden hues. The nose is very fresh and elegant, with delicate white stonefruit aromas, building in density, but retaining purity. Quite aromatic on palate with some esters lift, some savoury white stonefruits appearing. The fruit has sweetness and elegance, with subtle oaking. A little phenolic grip, and the textures and acidity carry the wine to the finish 17.5/20 Aug 2017 RRP $N/A

John Forrest ‘Collection’ Waitaki Valley Chardonnay 2012 
Light golden straw colour. The bouquet is showing some secondary aromas, with savoury yellow stonefruits and nutty notes. Very soft-textured and integrated on the palate, this has gently rich stonefruit and citrus fruit, melded smoothly with nutty oak. The flavours are subtle and harmonious, but a thread of acidity keeps this alive. 17.5-/20 Aug 2017 RRP $N/A

Some Conclusions
The best wines of the Waitaki Valley region show precision and detail to me. Some wines are more ripe and powerful in fruit and structure, while others are delicate and refined, and cooler in expression. The balance of the componentry is key to quality. The growing of the grapes and making of the wines thus must be more precise in a more marginal vignoble. The producers which do so are the better ones.

The word ‘minerality’ appears in the descriptors often, but not more so than wines of other regions to me at present. Coolness of fruit character and the edge of unripeness is more prevalent in these wines. But along with it must come a greater acceptance of this – up to a point. Our threshold on the ripeness continuum should be more defined.

Some of the wines show an ability to age well, but generally, the wines seem to develop along normal parameters compared to other growing region.

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