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Central Otago Pinot Noir New Release Tasting

By November 24, 2017No Comments
Every year Central Otago Pinot Noir Ltd conducts a ‘Spring Release’ tasting of the new release Pinot Noirs for a group of wine communicators. For this year, the wines tasted were predominantly from the 2016 and 2015 vintages, two very good, high quality, but different vintages. A small number of 2014s were also presented. I was privileged to be among the invited guests. My previous attendance was in September 2013 when the wines from the 2012, 2011 and 2010 vintages were featured (click here to see my report).
The day began with a series of introductory flights of wine to set the scene. This allowed the presenters to set the scene to the main tasting conducted after lunch. This was composed of a group of 2017 Rieslings, followed by a flight of wines showing influential trends, then a selection of top-end 2016 and 2015 Pinot Noirs. These wines were presented blind, and the tasting involved plenty of discussion between the presenters and the guest communicators. Click here to see my report on this tasting posted in ‘Tasting Reviews’.
View from Mt Difficulty restaurant overlooking Bannockburn

Tasting the 2016, 2015 and 2014 Pinot Noirs

The prime event of the day was conducted after lunch with 41 Pinot Noirs from the 2016 vintage, 27 wines from 2015 and 2 wines from 2014 served blind. The purpose was to obtain an overview of the new release wines and a good impression of the characteristics of each vintage.

It is important to note a couple of critical points on blind tastings and how they affect the impressions of the wines tasted. I find that blind tasting puts the onus on the abilities of the taster to recognise the nature of the wines. The positives of doing so are that the label and background cannot influence the impressions of the wines. The taster’s experiences will come through in how the wines are interpreted. Often, wines that are subtle in character do not show well in comparative blind tastings. Tasting with the identity known allows the background of the wines to be assessed with aspirations and inputs understood. However it takes a strong taster to overcome the subtle influences of style and quality prejudices. There are clearly advantages and disadvantages to both tasting approaches.

Climate Figures

Some climactic data was presented for the vintages to put them in context of the recent averages. 2017 appeared to be a cooler vintage overall, as the rest of the country, but a closer look showed that there was warmer than average conditions in November and December (in 2016), but a cooler February, with end result of a fairy average heat accumulation. 2016 had a generally warmer than average growing season, with particularly higher temperatures than average over February to April of that year. The 2015 growing season had lower than average temperatures in November and December (in 2014), but considerably higher than average temperatures especially over February to April. Interestingly 2014 followed a nearly identical pattern to that of 2017, but just slightly cooler in March and April, and overall.

Sub-regionally, the Cromwell, Bannockburn and Pisa districts experienced consistent growing degree days (GDD) over the 2015 – 2017 vintages, with greater accumulation in 2016. The Gibbston and Alexandra districts were a little cooler over these vintages, especially in 2017, though Gibbston experienced good heat accumulation in 2016.
The rainfall figures are very telling. Across all the sub-regions, 2016 was a much drier year. The Pisa, Gibbston and Alexandra experienced greater rainfall in 2017, and Gibbston had considerably high precipitation in 2015.
View from Prophet’s Rock ‘Rocky Point’ vineyard, southern Bendigo
towards Lake Dunstan with Pisa on the other side

The 2016 Pinot Noirs

My overall impression from tasting the 41 Pinot Noirs is their friendliness. The wines are in the riper spectrum showing darker fruit aromas and flavours, with the descriptor “plums” appearing frequently in my notes. The wines are generally fulsome with sweet fruit and softly ripe tannins, and moderate acidity. The extraction of the wines is generally very sensitive to the fruit and to the wine expression. The best wines show good structure and degrees of complexity, especially with whole bunch fermentation as a component. I found the oaking well-handled, without extreme overtness. Indeed, with the sweeter flavours, oak seems to be more compatible, than in say, a cooler season.

As a group, there was consistency and the wines show a strong degree of homogeneity. There were not many wines extremely poor, but there were a good number of superior wines. Overall the wines were of a high standard. I feel they will be better to be enjoyed in their youth, and may mature a little quicker than slightly cooler vintages.
For me, 10 of the wines stood out as being of 5-star or gold medal standard which I scored at 18.5/20 or more. 9 other wines were scored in the high silver or 4-star range, indicating the consistency and depth of the vintage. Here are my impressions of them, in the order of service, with their sub-region of origin. I note that the Bendigo wines showed strongly for me.
Maude ‘Mt Maude’ ‘East Meets West’ Pinot Noir 2016, Wanaka: Firm on nose with whole bunch complexities to the dark fruits. Rich, savoury, lovely dark-red fruits up-front, with good acidity and tannin grip. A serious wine.
Valli ‘Gibbston Vineyard’ Pinot Noir 2016, Gibbston: Rich with an array of aromas, with ripe dark-red and black fruits, and violet floral perfumes and spicy oak, excellent depth on the nose. Rich and succulent with ripe dark-red berry and plum flavours, violet florals, very fine structure and integrated acidity. Sensational wine.
Wooing Tree ‘Beetle Juice’ Pinot Noir 2016, Cromwell: Ripe fruited on nose, with plums, liquorice and spice aromas, revealing violet florals. Rich and succulent with a tight core of plummy fruit. This is very well-balanced with lift and vibrancy, excellent acidity and fine-grained tannins.
Nanny Goat ‘Super Nanny’ Pinot Noir 2016, Blend: Ripe fruited with dark-red berries and plums, fulsome and deep aromas, quite complete. Rich and juicy on palate with plums and liquorice notes, the fruit depth balanced by considerable extraction, but ripe and fine-grained tannins. Outstanding.
Rockburn Pinot Noir 2016, Blend: Gently voluminous on nose, with ripe dark berry fruit and hints of plum, and lovey floral array. Rich and firmly bound, showing dark-red and black fruits, along with floral perfumes. Very fine, grainy tannins and integrated acidity. This has beauty.
Mount Michael ‘Isla Reserve’ Pinot Noir 2016, Bendigo: This has a firm nose, with ripe dark-red fruits, some liquorice and herb elements, unfolding nutty and distinctive oak. Rich, luscious and concentrated with dark berries, plums and liquorice, fine tannins and acidity, a serious wine.
Tarras ‘The Canyon’ Pinot Noir 2016, Bendigo: Elegant and fruit-focussed weith whole berry fermentation perfumes. Succulent and very ripe with black-berried fruits, plum notes. Sweet and up-front. Fine tannin grip with soft acidity. On the riper edge and pushing the envelope.
Gibbston Valley ‘Scholl House’ Pinot Noir 2016, Bendigo: Elegant and fragrant, beautifully perfumed with ripe dark berry fruits and whole bunch stalk complexities on the nose. A wonderful array of flavours, quite complex and layered, with dark-red berry fruits and whole bunch stalk and florals. Fine and firm tannins, with acid poise. A special wine.
Akarua Pinot Noir 2016, Bannockburn: Ripe dark-red fruits on the nose with plums and spices, and violet floral lift. A little reserved on palate but with a sweet, ripe-fruited core of dark-red fruits with plum elements. Lovely balance with fine tannins and acidity, the depth and richness grows.
Rockburn ‘The Art’ Pinot Noir 2016, Bannockburn: Fresh and vibrant dark-red berry fruits with complexing whole bunch stalk and perfume array. Elegantly proportioned, but concentrated with a complex palate of interwoven dark-red, herb and whole bunch stalk flavours, fine textured with plenty of fresh acid vitality.
Looking through my notes and the wines tasted, I saw that the three Felton Road 2016 Pinot Noirs were scored somewhat lower than I have rated them in the past, All three were very good in quality here, but their cooler, more elegant nature set them apart from the other wines. I believe I appreciate what Felton Road winemaker Blair Walter is trying to achieve with his edgy earlier picking, and his wines are beautiful in their finesse and detail. I think the Felton Road wine style is aimed to fulfil the preferences of a sophisticated international Burgundy appreciating market, and Blair achieves this with extraordinary success. Tasting these wines blind in with much riper expressions does them no favour. I do note that in my tasting of the Spring Release wines from the cooler 2012 vintage, which I attended in 2013, the Felton Road wines performed superbly.
View over Mondillo Vineyard, north Bendigo

The 2015 Pinot Noirs

These were the more interesting wines tasted. I found the 2015s were much more classical in expression, with less ripe fruitiness overall when compared to the 2015s. However, ripeness isn’t everything in Pinot Noir, and the 2015s possess more elegance, with the fruit profile somewhat cooler, with red berry fruits rather than darker, riper fruit. The descriptor “plum” hardly appeared in my notes. The flavours are more savoury and herbal elements are more prevalent. What the 2015s show is structure, with good tannin extraction and more vibrant acidity, lending the wines increased freshness. In the best wines, this translates to increased longevity. However, the vintage yielded greater variability. While the top wines are at the same quality as the 2016s, and indeed other vintages, there are proportionally more wines at the lesser levels, these wines being distinctly cooler in fruit, lighter in depth and weight, and maybe less friendly in balance.

Of the 27 wines tasted, I rated 5 at the 5-star, gold medal or 18.5/20 points threshold. There were also 6 wines in the high silver or 4-star level. This is slightly lower than that seen in the 2016s. Due to the smaller sample size, it is difficult to highlight any sub-region performing better than others for me, though two were from the Pisa region, and from the same producer. Here are my impressions of the top 6 wines in this group, in the order of service and with their sub-region of origin.
Amisfield ‘RKV Reserve’ Pinot Noir 2015, Pisa: This is fulsome, solid but rounded on the nose with ripe black-berried fruits along with plum nuances unveiling liquorice and spice notes. Rich with well-ripened black berry and plum flavours, with liquorice notes, plush with ripe tannins and some alcoholic power. A very strong wine.
Amisfield Pinot Noir 2015, Pisa: Rich and plush on the nose with ripe dark berry and plum notes with liquorice elements. This is a sweet-fruited wine with dark-red berries, hints of liquorice and spice. The tannins are fine-grained, and the acidity lends brightness.
Mt Difficulty ‘Growers Series – Packspur Vineyard’ Pinot Noir 2015, Lowburn: This has a very deeply packed core of ripe black fruits with nuances of plums. Sweet and plush on palate, this has black fruits with liquorice notes and suggestions of whole bunch complexities. The extraction is fine-grained, and the acidity balance. Lovely layers of detail. Impressive wine.
Cloudy Bay ‘Te Wahi’ Pinot Noir 2015, Blend: Very firm and intense on nose with ripe black-berried fruits with dark herbs, some whole cluster (?), and reductive complexities. Rich and sweet, but taut on palate, with black fruits and violet florals, hints of reduction, the tannins are fine, and fresh acidity enlivens the mouthfeel.
Doctors Flat Pinot Noir 2015, Bannockburn: This is elegantly concentrated with fresh fruit aromas of dark-red berry fruits, complex dark herb and whole bunch stalk notes, unfolding liquorice and minerals. Finely proportioned and taut, but with sweetly rich fruit, and complex herb-whole bunch detail. This has finesse.

The 2014 Pinot Noirs

With a sample size of 2 wines, it is difficult to make proper conclusions on the vintage and the style of wines yielded. The two wines were bigger wines, hence their good showing in a blind tasting format. They also came on the tail end of a reasonably large number of wines preceding. One wine at 5-star, gold medal, or past the 18.5/20 criterion, and the other a high 4-star quality wine. These being later new releases, they also showed savoury secondary characters. My note on the one 5-star wine follows.

Prophet’s Rock Pinot Noir 2014, Bendigo: This has a tightly bound and deep core on the nose with dark-red and black fruits with complexing savoury game aromas from secondary development. Richly fruited on palate, this had depth and density with fulsome extraction and structure. Lovely dark red and black fruits and game notes. Still very ageworthy.

A Final Observation or Two

Looking through my top wines, one factor became noticeable to me. Almost all of the wines I rated highly were made by ‘estate’ winemakers. The wines from the contract facilities did not feature strongly for me. This indicates that these ‘estate-made’ wines are more individual, or else that I am a taster who picks up on individuality of character. Maybe this is a recognition of terroir as well?

I am not one to denigrate the work of the likes of Dean Shaw, Pete Bartle, the Dineens or Anthony Worch, as I greatly admire the work they do. I know these winemakers ensure that their clients have the best possible wines for the market, and that they aim to preserve, if not enhance the character of the fruit and vineyard source that the wines come from. I believe these winemakers try to avoid homogeneity as well, but maybe ‘safe winemaking’ can take the edge off individual and unique expression?
I am greatly heartened by the degree of co-operation between the winegrowers of Central Otago. They recognise the strengths (and weaknesses) and characteristics of the different sub-regions, and indeed celebrate them. They also respect each other’s individuality, and encourage each other to do well and better. The atmosphere is more than collegial, and indeed enterprising. The region serves as a model for the other winemaking districts of New Zealand in how to reach and capture the market. My thanks to COPNL for inviting me to this beautiful part of New Zealand and experience the hospitality and great wines.

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