Offcuts: tasting Central Otago (2 of 2)

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A hop over to Cairnmuir Road and we were soon tasting more wines, this time at Akarua. Most unexpectedly, we were seriously impressed with the 2005 Chardonnay. Quite worked, it nonetheless has a spine-tingling thrust of acidity on the palate that props up all the elements and allows the various fruit, lees, oak and malo notes to shine. A steal at $NZ25. Both Pinots were also very impressive. The 2006 Gullies is balanced for easy drinking but possesses some sophistication. The 2006 Cadence is just a lovely wine, powerful without being cumbersome, very much of its region, unforced and elegant. It had me wishing for extra money in the bank or, at least, more time to sit and enjoy it. Again, reasonable prices.

It was a relief to visit Bannock Brae Estate after a string of larger operations, for it is determinedly boutique. Four wines, all made in a relatively idiosyncratic style, and a friendly labrador to greet you at cellar door (which doubles as the residence of the owners). All very down to earth. The wines themselves, made by Olssens, are excellent. The 2007 Goldfields Riesling is made in a dry style, fermented in old oak barrels with some lees stirring. The result is a crisp, minerally, fascinatingly textured wine of considerable interest. The two Pinots are interesting. The 2006 Goldfields, another second label wine, is more serious than some of its “drink now” brethren, showing less voluptuousness of fruit and a relatively savoury flavour profile. The 2006 Barrel Selection is quite striking, and different from any other Pinot tasted on the day. Chris quite rightly identified a Nebbiolo-like flavour profile that shows elements of tar and rose petals. It’s almost entirely savoury and finely textured in its presentation. A real “detail” wine and one that was purchased on the day.

Our last stop in the Bannockburn sub-region was Carrick. Although the cellar door was crowded, we quickly tasted the Pinot and found it perhaps a little lacking compared to some of the elegant and individual wines just sampled. Certainly well-made, though.

Driving as quickly as possible through Cromwell to its light commercial heart reveals (quite unexpectedly, given the landscape) more wineries, including Rockburn. I tasted the current release Rockburn Pinot recently on Full Pour and, whilst I found it a pleasant wine, in the context of the day’s tastings its overly sweet flavour profile was more evident and less attractive. In fact, the whole Rockburn range seemed to aim for sweetness of one or other sort, and left us underwhelmed. In particular, the second label Pinot was clumsily oaked (using oak chips) and quite inferior to several other second labels tasted on the day.

Happily, we drove the hundred metres or so to the Central Otago Wine Company, which has an array of wines that piqued our interest. The Central Otago Wine Company, or CowCo for short, is a contract winemaking facility that makes wine for a range of producers across most sub-regions of Central Otago. Consequently, it’s possible to taste your way across the region quite easily. First up for us was the 2007 Sleeping Dogs Chardonnay which, frankly, is superb. A powerful wine, quite worked with vanilla oak, caramel, assertive lemon-like fruit and tingly acid. We were all in agreement on this one. Other wines were tasted, including a range of Pinots the highlight of which for me was probably the 2006 De Vine Pinot Noir, a sappy, acid-driven wine that refreshed my palate after a long day’s tasting. Although there’s romance associated with small wineries that “do it all,” it’s also valuable to have a top contract winemaking service availiable to small growers, and from a consumer’s perspective, I love being able to taste different vineyards’ expressions through the lens of top quality, “hands off” winemaking.  A long chat with the helpful lady at cellar door ensued after tasting had ended, fuelled no doubt by the very generous pours. What a great experience.

Before leaving Cromwell behind, we swung by Wooing Tree for a swirl through the range. A fun producer, this one. The 2008 Blondie (a still Blanc de Noir) and 2008 rosé are fun, fruity wines that don’t repell more contemplative tasting, though it should be said the entire range aims for hedonistic enjoyment more than anything else. The 2007 Beetle Juice Pinot Noir and 2007 Estate Pinot Noir are both luscious wines, fruit-driven in the most attractive manner. We nicknamed this producer Shagging Tree upon leaving, and with wines like these, why not? Totally seductive, and well priced too.

Our palates were a little tired at this stage, so we retired to the comfort and warmth of Amisfield. Though Amisfield is located close to Queenstown, most of its grapes are sourced from vineyards located in Cromwell. Quite a large range here, part of which we tasted with the assistance of refreshingly rambunctious cellar door staff. Whilst some of the wines were excellent, the main attraction for us here was dinner. Utterly unpretentious food with a focus on simple ingredients and flavours, excellent service and comfortable surrounds. It was a fabulous way to end the day.


A couple of reflections to close:

  • I’ve complained in the past about the price of good Central Otago Pinot Noir. No longer. Although there are many premium wines in the $NZ50+ price bracket, there’s now a large range of excellent wines in the $NZ20-40 range. CowCo on its own has several. If only more were exported to Australia.
  • We often enjoyed second label Pinot Noirs more than their premium counterparts. Whilst this may be due to a balance that favours immediate consumption, it also has something to do with the tendency in many more expensive wines to mask the essential, highly attractive regional fruit character with excess oak, acidity and extract. Why hide what makes the region’s Pinots so distinctive and tasty? Indeed, in my opinion the best premiums placed their complex, savoury and delicious fruit on centre stage.
  • On a more personal note, it really is excellent to taste with others, especially someone with a high level of vinous acuity like Chris. A pleasure from start to finish.

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