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Discovering New Zealand's Central Otago: Pinot Noir

Its dramatic mountains, gorges and lakes—and now, its stunning Pinot Noirs—make New Zealand's Central Otago one of the most dazzling spots on the planet.

Unlike Napa Valley or the Médoc of Bordeaux, Central Otago, on New Zealand's South Island, lured travelers (mainly skiers, hikers and other outdoor enthusiasts) long before it became famous for wine. With its deep woods and vast moors, snowy peaks and savage gorges, Central Otago easily wins my vote as the most beautiful wine region in the world.

It is also one of the fastest growing, with 30 new wineries opened in the past three years. The speed with which these wineries have gained renown, most notably for their Pinot Noirs, is also remarkable, considering the region's wine industry is less than 25 years old.

The viticultural history of Central Otago, however, goes back to the 1860s gold rush, when a Frenchman and former miner named Jean Desire Feraud planted 1,200 vines— purportedly of Pinot Noir—and made a Burgundy-style wine. His bottles won prizes at a competition in Sydney, but he couldn't persuade the miners to give up hard liquor in favor of wine. After a few vintages, Feraud sold the property.

One person who appreciated Feraud's efforts was Romeo Bragato, a Yugoslavian viticulturist and author of the "Report on the Prospects of Viticulture in New Zealand," published in 1895. In his report, Bragato declared, "There is no better country on the face of the earth for the production of Burgundy grapes than Central Otago." Bragato, like many men of his time, did not equate Burgundy with Pinot Noir; he thought it was perfectly acceptable to make "Burgundy" from Syrah.

Even if Bragato mixed up his grapes, his theories about where they did best were accurate. The Otago regions of Cromwell and Bannockburn, home to some of today's top Pinots, were, said Bragato, "preeminently suitable" for grapes.

Sadly, the region's farmers failed to share this vision, and instead of planting vineyards, they turned to raising sheep. (The sheep were, in turn, often chased away by rabbits, which still run rampant; some put the figure as high as 10,000 an acre.)

Modern winemaking in Central Otago began less than three decades ago, and it wasn't until the founding of Felton Road in 1991 and the release of its first vintage (1997) of Block 3 Pinot Noir that the world really took notice. The wine was an instant hit at tastings in New York City and London. Shortly thereafter, Gibbston Valley, another Central Otago Pinot Noir producer, won Top Red at the International Wine Challenge in Japan with its 1998 Reserve, and Top Pinot Noir at the London International Challenge with its 2000 Reserve.

As chairman of both competitions and an expatriate who once lived in Burgundy for five years, I knew when I tasted these wines that they were the start of something exciting. Both Pinots were full of raspberryish flavors, yet they were elegantly structured too—equally appealing to lovers of traditional Burgundy as to lovers of more modern "New World" wines.

Since then, Central Otago has undergone a new sort of gold rush, as investors have piled in from every part of the globe. From 1990 to 2002, the number of acres planted to vineyards grew from just over 100 to 900 or more, and wine production is expected to double in the region by 2005, from approximately 127,750 cases in 2003. Even locals aren't sure how many wineries and labels there are.

Winemaker Dean Shaw guesses that there are nearly 80 wineries in Central Otago now. He should know—he's making no fewer than 33 wines for 17 different vineyard owners at a modern facility called the Central Otago Wine Co. (locally referred to as CowCo). One of the owners is Jurassic Park star Sam Neill; he and his friend Roger Donaldson, a director, planted the Pinot vines for their Two Paddocks and Sleeping Dogs labels back in 1993.

As Neill explains on the Two Paddocks Web site, he wanted to "produce a good Pinot Noir that would, at the very least, be enjoyed by my family and friends." He adds, "Frankly, my friends will pretty much drink anything, so this didn't seem too hard. To our great surprise, our first vintage in 1997 was much better than we hoped....With each successive vintage, we have produced a Pinot Noir that has done us proud and is, to be frank, too good to be wasted on our friends."

While filmmakers and wine producers may be one and the same (Gérard Depardieu and Francis Ford Coppola, for example), great vineyards and ski slopes are not usually found together. Grapes really shouldn't ripen properly in a place as hilly and cool as Central Otago.

Of course, 30 years ago, the experts believed that about Oregon, too. But the connection that the two places have to Pinot is no coincidence. Cabernet, Chardonnay and Merlot can be planted almost anywhere the sun shines, but the Pinot Noir grape eschews anything easy. As Felton Road owner Nigel Greening says, the preferences of Pinot Noir can be hard to predict. There are, however, a few rules.

The first concerns location. Like Burgundy, Central Otago enjoys a continental climate and experiences intense sunlight and altitudes that range from 650 to 1,300 feet. There is also an intense difference between daytime and nighttime temperatures. Furthermore, as Shaw says, the vines in Central Otago vineyards are "planted far closer together, so each is asked to produce half as many grapes as it might in another part of New Zealand, like Marlborough." This, Shaw believes, helps explain why Central Otago Pinots have riper flavors and less alcohol than Pinots from other parts of New Zealand.

The price of Central Otago vineyard land keeps going up; it's increased tenfold in just five years. A rabbit-covered acre that cost as little as $700 in 1999 is now more than $7,000. Still, as Dick Berridge of Berridge Vineyard Estates says, that price compares favorably to the $100,000 or so that an acre in Napa commands.

Berridge is well-placed to make the comparison. A landscape architect who has designed resorts in the U.S., Japan and Australia, he was also an early investor in Napa's Duckhorn Wine Company. Ten years ago, he decided to start his own winery. He looked in South America and Australia but nothing seemed right. Then he visited Central Otago on his honeymoon and fell in love. His first Drystone Pinot Noir, made by Shaw, was the stunning 2002, of which there were only 440 cases.

Central Otago's wine industry has had such an impressive youth and early adolescence, it seems almost rude to wonder what will happen next. Optimists believe the time has come for a backlash against big, alcoholic Cabernets and Shirazes in favor of more delicate wines like Pinot Noir, including, of course, those from Central Otago. They also point to the investment in California Pinot Noir by companies like E & J Gallo as helpful to Pinots all over the world. Then there are those who take a darker view. They believe there are already too many New World producers fighting for shelf space and that there's just no room for more.

Ultimately, I believe Central Otago's future will depend on the quality of the next generation of wines. As Shaw says, no one knows how the Pinots will taste once the vines are a little older and the roots a bit deeper. And no one knows if the best wines will be single-vineyard examples like Felton Road's or assemblages from several vineyard sites, such as Chard Farm's Finla Mor. Time will also tell if early luminaries like Gibbston Valley can maintain their status or if they'll be surpassed by some as-yet-unknown star.

I, for one, can't wait to find out.

Robert Joseph is the author of more than 20 books on wine. He is publishing editor of Wine International magazine.

Published December 2004
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