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Waitaki Wine Week – Limestone and Minerality

By July 31, 2012No Comments

Members of New Zealand’s most significant new vignoble took a tour of the country to show their wares. And exciting goods they were offering too. News of distinctively different wines emanating from the Waitaki Valley has been growing over the past few years, with high profile winemakers establishing a presence there, and internationally celebrities and entrepreneurs making serious investments in vineyards, and one building a winery. This growth of interest culminated in two top international awards for wines from the region this year. This travelling exhibition of nine of the wine labels cemented those results and it would be fair to say that the Waitaki Valley is here to stay.

I attended the exhibition in Wellington, held at the very cool 3C Bar and Restaurant in Victoria Street in the CBD, which, as an aside, served an excellent light lunch. On hand were the principals behind the labels. It was an excellent opportunity of talking without too much pressure to get an overview of each of their operations. Jeff Sinnott of Ostler conducted a very informative presentation of the region, describing the attributes that are responsible for the distinctiveness of the region as well as the diversity within it. The limestone influenced soil was what attracted people to plant vines in the Waitaki Valley. The moderating and cooling airflow up the Waitaki river has proven to provide a favourable and extended end of season growing period, ideal for flavour and phenolic ripeness at lower sugar levels for those with the courage to wait. The different aspects and unique sites afforded by the valleys running off the main Waitaki Valley, and nearby flatter land is reminiscent of the Alto Adige region in north-east Italy, according to Antonio Pasquale, and he suggests that by comparing the two vignobles, a model for the Waitaki could be made. All these factors contribute to a real sense of ‘minerality’ in the wines. An overused word? Not here! I spent some time with each of the exhibitors, and here are my impressions:
This is the new venture of John and Gerard Brown, John a partner in a legal firm in Auckland. With impetus from Steve Smith MW, they planted 8 ha of their 10.5 ha property to Pinot Gris with Pinot Noir and Riesling in support, over 2004 and 2005. The wine is made under contract by a Central Otago winemaker. Whoever that person is, they’ve retained the quality of the fruit the Browns have grown for the Pinot Noir 2010. The wine is impressively dark fruited with excellent structure and lovely spice flavours from the interaction of oak with the fruit. This attracted many favourable responses from tasters.
Winemaker Grant Taylor was born in Kurow, so the Waitaki Valley has a special significance to him, as well as being home. I recently reviewed Grant’s 2010 Pinot Noirs, from Gibbston, Bannockburn, Bendigo and the Waitaki Valley, all of which are outstanding, and the Waitaki wine was very complex in flavour. (Click here to see my reviews.) Grant has changed the source of his Waitaki fruit, now getting grapes from the ‘Doctors Creek’ and ‘EarthKeeper’ sites, and is fine tuning his style He offered two vintages of his Waitaki Pinot Noir. The 2010 Pinot Noir is very rich with great depth and richness, with complex game, dried herb and savoury flavours. Grant reckons his 2011 Pinot Noir is far more typical of the Waitaki Valley, with its pure dark fruit aromatics, fine-structured palate and pure, near linear expression. This 2011 is indeed a beauty with its driven fruit characters.  www.valliwine.com 
Waitaki Braids
This is the venture which involved the late Howard Paterson, businessman of Dunedin. Waitaki Braids is under the care of banker Stephen Cozens, and Peter Gordon with Michael McGrath of The Providores. Winemaker is Michelle Richardson. I tasted through the range of wines, and they spoke strongly of the region with their crispness and minerality. The Rose 2011, dry with attractively lifted fruit and great mouthfeel as a food wine. Also textured was the Riesling 2010, tight and with a firm line and the ‘sweet and sour’ nature that can mark the variety. I was attracted to the Pinot Gris 2011, again dry and food friendly, with excellent pure pear flavours and the Waitaki minerality. The Pinot Noir 2008, demonstrated the vintage, more in an elegant style, now showing some secondary savoury interest, but still lively and fresh in the mouth.  www.waitakibraids.co.nz
Lone Hill
A tiny producer with 3.5 ha of land with 2 ha planted to Pinot Gris and 1 ha to Riesling, the wines made at the Kurow Winery, the contract facility of Pasquale. Peter and Teresa Wutz, resident in Dunedin own this operation, with son Tim living on site and tending the vineyard. Though specialising in the vineyard, Tim is very keen to expand his knowledge and experience in the wider industry aspects. I reviewed the latest wines recently (click here to read), and it was good to see these wines again. The Pinot Gris 2011 has textbook fruit expression with good body, and the Riesling 2011 showing clear-cut depth and line of flavour, the 11 g/L residual sugar barely noticeable. The Lone Hill wines seem to have a substance to their body and mouthfeel over other Waitaki expressions.
Antonio Pasquale is larger than life, and his presence adds considerable drive for the cause of the Waitaki Valley. Not only has he established vines in the Waitaki Valley, but he’s crossed the river north to the Hakataramea Valley which is technically Canterbury. His philosophy about wine is all about their suitability with food. Two styles are made and two ranges represent them, the Kurow Village wines more fruit expressive with general appeal, and the Pasquale wines which are more elegant and subtle, with textural qualities. Antonio has a theory about balance in wines, where those which are subtly out of kilter are the most edgy and interesting, and predisposed to greatness, whereas those which are in perfect balance, while seamless and in proportion can be glossed over for their unobtrusiveness.

I hadn’t tasted the Kurow Village wines before, and they delivered as Antonio suggested, the Rose 2010 tight, lean and steely, the ‘Reserve’ Chardonnay 2010 a combination of steel and mealy fruit with good oaking and growing richness, the Pinot Noir 2010 supple and sweet-fruited, and the ‘Reserve’ Pinot Noir darker fruited, denser and bolder.

The Pasquale wines I’ve tasted before (my reviews can be seen by clicking here), and the whites are more akin to Italian whites – surprise, surprise! Antonio presented his three Pasquale sweet wines, which I hadn’t seen. They are exceptional. The ‘Passito’ 2011, a Waitaki Valley blend of Riesling and Pinot Gris, the air-fruit dried and fermented to 12.5% alc. and 85 g/L rs, is unctuous in texture with subtle grape and raisin hints. A step up in richness is the ‘Shrivel’ 2011, botrytised Waitaki Valley Riesling at 9.0% alc. and 135 g/L rs. This is very refined and pure, but showing intense waves of citrus, marmalade and honey flavours. A truly outstanding wine. The ‘Plump’ 2011, made from botrytised Waitaki Valley Pinot Gris, fermented to 11.0% alc. and 145 g/L rs is another step up in decadence. Extremely rich and luscious, and broad with savoury nutty elements to the honey and caramel opulence.  www.pasquale.co.nz
I had to smile on meeting Ken Wichkam of Otiake Estate, as he’s the antithesis of Jane Austen’s Mr Wickham, as everything he has done is with the aim of the best quality with no trickery. Otiake is the newest entrant in the Waitaki, planting 11.7 ha over three separate blocks in 2008 for terroir diversity, and Alsace is the model, the wines made at Kurow Winery. Though resident in Whangarei, Ken is keen to spread the word about his wines throughout the country. The Riesling 2010 tastes drier than its 16 g/L rs, and with 13.5% alc. is a minerally Alsace expression. Too young, the Riesling 2011 showed flinty reductive notes, but the Waitaki minerals show. It’s a different style at 10.7% alc. and only 3 h/L rs. The Gewurztraminer 2011 caused a stir among tasters, being very refined, with beautiful perfumes, sitting at 13.0% alc. and 4 g/L rs. And the Pinot Gris 2011 is full of character too, with savoury stonefruit flavours and good spicing. Ken showed the ‘Black Cap’ Pinot Noir 2011, plump with soft, juicy raspberry fruits and a hint of confectionary. This is aged in French oak, whereas his ‘Red Cap’ not tasted is matured using Hungarian oak.  www.otiakeestate.co.nz
John Forrest
For a seriously scientific man, John Forrest is emotive and highly motivated about the Waitaki Valley. The Waitaki Wine Week roadshow was no doubt driven considerably by John, and I can see why. The wines he has made from the Waitaki Valley to date are outstanding, and the region needs to be recognised. John seems to get lovely richness and textures into his wines that make them among the most opulent in the district. John rates them highly enough to see them worthy of fitting in the flagship ‘John Forrest Collection’ range. The new Chardonnay 2010 is a departure from earlier versions, this being more in the Chablis camp rather than typical New Zealand Chardonnay. You need to focus on the wine to see its stylishness. This was a top pick for many attendees. I find the delicacy and finesse if the Pinot Gris 2011 beautiful. It would be easy to pass over this, but it too is worthy of spending some time on to appreciate it. I reviewed this recently. (Click here to view.) However the Pinot Noir 2009 needs no searching. It’s all there already, rich, plummy, rounded and spicy. Absolutely delicious.  www.forrest.co.nz
Black Stilt
Aucklander John Harvey is another out-of-towner who has invested in the Waitaki region. His family’s 18,000 vines are planted on 4 ha, established from 2004. 75% of the production is Pinot Gris, the remainder Pinot Noir, the wines made by Dan and Sarah-Kate Dineen at Maude His wine is named after one of the world’s rarest wading bird, which finds its home in the upper reaches of the Waitaki river valley. Part of the funds from sales of John’s wine goes to a DOC recovery programme for the bird. The wines are very Waitaki in personality, the Pinot Gris 2011 fine, tight, a little shy even, with flintiness, and the Pinot Noir 2011 similarly restrained, but both displaying excellent line and minerality.  www.blackstiltwines.co.nz
These are the Waitaki wines that I have seen the most of recently. I’ve reviewed three selections of the wines, once in June 2011 (click here to view), then July 2011 (click here to see), and recently in April this year (click here to read). The wines from the home ‘Ostler’ site, the ‘Blue House’ and warmer ‘Lakeside’ vineyard are different, but all excellent if not superb. Jim and Anne Jerram are the people on the land, living on site. Anne’s brother Jeff Sinnott is the winemaker. The team is a very strong one and their enthusiasm for the Waitaki is remarkable. I had another look at the ‘Lakeside’ Riesling 2011, wonderfully delicate, the weighty and richly defined ‘Lakeside’ Pinot Gris 2011, and the well-textured, subtly complexed flavoured ‘Audrey’s’ Pinot Gris 2009 in the whites. The Pinot Noirs I tried were among the lighter releases, the new ‘Blue House’ Pinot Noir 2011, elegant, supple and driven, and a Chambolle-Musigny look-alike ‘Caroline’s’ Pinot Noir 2008. These are beautiful, but I know the more substantial versions of Pinot Noir are also handled superbly.  www.ostlerwine.co.nz 

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