10 April 2006

Friendly fields (New Zealand, pt. 18)

[Amisfield winery]We need a drink

With ten days ahead of us, and a nicely-equipped kitchen here in our Queenstown vacation rental, we’ve got certain needs. Travel essentials and food will come later. Right now, however, we’re in search of something even more fundamental: something to drink. With wineries just down the road, there’s no better time than now…and no better way to shop than to taste before buying, hopefully learning something along the way.

Five definitions of central

Of all the wine regions of New Zealand, the Central Otago is the source of the highest hype to output ratio. This is not to suggest that the area’s exploding reputation is built on a pile of horse manure, but rather to note that, 1) there’s just not that much wine, 2) what wine there is, is produced in fairly small quantities, 3) quality wines and producers make up a typically small percentage of the overall total, and 4) the entire region is very, very young.

Throughout the length and breadth of the Central Otago, freshly-tilled fields and new plantings are spreading like kudzu across often-difficult hillsides and slopes. This means that quantitative issues are being addressed as rapidly as possible, but it doesn’t necessarily say much about quality. Especially given that the reputation of the region is based almost entirely on the massively fickle pinot noir grape, the road ahead is going to be much like the road today: filled with eager but insufficient young contenders and a growing sense of entitlement-without-justification. The wines may sell themselves to the curious, but they won’t do so forever. The Central Otago does show many signs of becoming one of the world’s great pinot noir regions, but it is not there yet, and only a continued commitment to quality over commercialism will allow it to achieve the status it may well deserve.

Adding to the confusion is the geographical haphazardness of the vignoble. “The Central Otago” is actually somewhere between four and seven distinct regions, depending on how one wants to classify vineyards, and they are not close to one another. Cromwell, an historic mining town turned agricultural center thanks to a highly-reputed fruit industry, is slowly finding its niche as the geographical “center” of the area’s disparate vineyards, but unfortunately the town itself doesn’t possess immense tourist appeal, and many visitors to the area will instead choose to stay in Queenstown, at one extreme end of the region and necessitating a lot of long and twisty drives to reach most worthwhile wineries.

Local vineyards are probably most sensibly grouped by their terroir (which is how one gets to the number seven), but in such a young region with a barely emergent wine culture, it’s far too early to make definitive statements thereto, except in the most preliminary sort of fashion. Thus, I prefer to group the vineyards in terms of geography for the time being, especially as this is how most visitors will experience them. Five distinct locales form the basis of a complete tour of the Central Otago: Gibbston, Wanaka, Cromwell, Bendigo, and Alexandra. This classification, I should add, rests on the following caveats: 1) Wanaka has very few vineyards, 2) technically, the Cromwell Basin comprises Cromwell and Bendigo, and the latter has only vineyards…no wineries, 3) Alexandra could perhaps more properly be called Clyde/Alexandra, as most of the vineyards are closer to the former than the latter, and 4) the Cromwell area is, by experienced local growers and winemakers, the site where further subdivisions are most often made, leading to distinct identifiers that include Lowburn, Bannockburn, Pisa Range and Pisa Flats.

Hayes & vines

We start our winery tour in Gibbston, which can easily be split into two sub-regions: Gibbston itself, about a half-hour’s winding drive from Queenstown, and – closer to town, at an intersection that takes one to the charming old gold-mining center of Arrowtown – Lake Hayes. Overall, the area gets more rain, and much cooler temperatures, than most of the rest of the Central Otago sub-regions, and it is primarily for this reason that a lot of blending from other areas goes on. Sometimes it’s quite open, other times it is not. But all those undesignated grapes up in warmer and dryer Bendigo are going somewhere

(Continued here…)


Ken Sternberg said...

Hmm. I guess this post explains where you are, Thor. In your NZ travels, have you heard anything from winemakers regarding the enormous growth in NZ wine popularity? Is this all good or is there a downside at all, eg: a lack of available vineyard space to expand, quality concerns, etc.?

Thor Iverson said...

Several things occur here.

One: in terms of most of the winemakers under discussion in this series, there isn't enormous growth in popularity in the U.S....at least, not enough to matter. Yes, the huge sauvignon factories are pumping out a lot of low-priced stuff that sells pretty well in the States, but in the middle and upper tiers NZ wines are a tough, tough sell (this is most specifically a problem with pinot; the cabs/merlots and syrahs are a virtual nonentity in the States).

The principal concern right now seems to be the price of sauvignon blanc; specifically, keeping it high enough so that ultra-low pricing doesn't destroy the industry. Things are already getting really, really bad in Marlborough for anyone who can't work massive economies of scale.

Lack of land isn't really an issue, except in terms of "green" issues, which are more important in some areas of NZ, less so in others. There's plenty of discovered-but-unplanted land, and probably a good deal of undiscovered land as well.

Quality concerns go hand in hand with the pricing issue. Obviously, $10 Marlborough sauvignon blanc is pushing yields to the limit (and scraping the bottom of the qualitative barrel), and no good for anyone other than the market share of the producer making the wine in question. Elsewhere, there's a lot of thought being given to balancing supply, price and quality with an eye on steady growth, rather than profit-grabbing. There are wineries who could be selling their wine for more, but don't...not because they hate money, but because they don't think their specific region is well-served by extravagant pricing models. Those prices will come in time, as they do everywhere, but for now the overall image of NZ wine is at stake.

(Thanks for the opportunity to stand on the soapbox. ;-) )

Ken Sternberg said...

Not at all, Thor. I really value your first-hand observations. I recently wrote about Pinot Noir and was quite taken by many from New Zealand, including Voss, Pagasus Bay and La Strada.

Some of the people there sound refreshingly forward-thinking and progressive. I hope such cool heads prevail and it doesn't get like Australia. Of course, NZ has much less land, so there may never be a massive wine glut like the Aussies have. I could probably be happy the rest of my life drinking just Loire Valley and New Zealand wines.

Thor Iverson said...

Many of the top producers do indeed have a pretty sensible view of their work and their future. It's an open question whether or not this will allow them to succeed in the worldwide marketplace, but there the size issue helps them...they really don't have much wine to sell. The DomecqNZ/Villa Maria/Spy Valley/etc. concerns can continue to put out huge quantities for the masses, and the small producers can work reasonably free of interference. At least, that's the way it works some of the time.