You have to marvel at the resourcefulness of the Kiwis. Their drive, ambition, can-do attitude and enthusiasm are impressive. Fluttering in a helicopter across the Cromwell vinescape in Central Otago, you can see the extent of the plantings – none of which were there just 15 years ago. It was bare grazing land and in some parts, desert. There's a sign at Bannockburn saying 'Welcome to the desert', the driest place in New Zealand and the furthest from the oceans. There's even a wine called Desert Heart. On the steep eastern side of Lake Dunstan there's just rocks and rabbits. The gouges, craters and rubble strewn in the upper Gibbston Valley, Bendigo and Bannockburn districts are reminders of a past gold-mining era. But there is so much water – snowmelt and runoff from the mountains all about - that wineries don't even bother to harvest the rainwater off their rooves. It's this water that allows the vines to exist, all 1,800 hectares of them, nearly all planted since the early 1990s.
The first Central Otago pinot noir ever released was a 1987 Gibbston Valley made by Alan Brady. Since then, all hell's broken loose. All being well, this coming vintage is likely to produce twice the quantity of grapes of any prior vintage. That follows two low-yielding harvests in '04 and '05, and lots of new plantings coming on-stream. Who's going to drink it all?
The scary thing is how fixated these people are on pinot noir: 75% of the vines are pinot noir. There's no doubt it's a region well suited to pinot: the results have been stunning and people are already declaring it to be one of the world's three best pinot regions (after Burgundy and Oregon). But other New Zealand regions, especially Marlborough, have also planted their heads off with pinot noir lately, and competition will be fierce.
It's as if the Kiwis reckon they can sell shiploads of it to the world just as they have with sauvignon blanc. But pinot noir is not sauvignon blanc: it is a low-yield, high-cost grape to grow. It's a wine that needs to be hand-made in small batches. At least that's the received wisdom. And it's not a mass-market varietal; rather, it's a connoisseur's wine that appeals to experienced drinkers who've cultivated a palate for it. At least, that's the received wisdom.
But the Kiwis reckon they can turn received wisdom on its head. Good on them: I won't be surprised if they succeed.
One thing that's not in doubt is quality. At the recent Central Otago Pinot Noir Celebration, in Queenstown, the evidence was overwhelming. Considering all but a couple of the 32-odd producers didn't begin to sell wine till the 1990s, they've come a long way fast. While a few of these, especially the newest arrivals, are still learning how to get their grapes properly ripe and avoid vegetal flavours, and a few have the odd faulty wine, the mean quality level is impressive. The likes of Felton Road, Chard Farm, Gibbston Valley, Rippon, Olssen, Mount Edward, Quartz Reef, Pisa Range and Mount Difficulty are already quite well established, and all are making excellent wine. They've been joined lately by Carrick, Peregrine, Amisfield, Shaky Bridge, Rockburn and Nevis Bluff, all doing good things and improving in leaps and bounds. In a separate tasting headlined “Discovery”, the newest names showed their wares, and I was impressed by Lowburn Ferry, Desert Heart, Lindis River, Prophet's Rock and Wooing Tree.
Most of the growth in central Otago is in the Cromwell Basin, a warm sub-region which includes Bannockburn, Lowburn, Pisa Range and Bendigo. While early plantings were in the higher, colder Gibbston Valley, this proved to be too cool and those with Gibbston vineyards now supplement their crush with warmer-grown fruit from the Cromwell Basin or Alexandra.
The cooler Wanaka sub-region, where you find the stunningly beautiful Rippon vineyard, gives a finer, more delicate style of wine which is a good antidote for the blockbusters. And yes: Central Otago does produce some blockbuster pinots! Indeed, one criticism of the region is that many wines are dark-coloured, high-alcohol, sweetly opulent and almost syrupy in texture. Some achieve this bigness at the expense of finesse and subtlety, which displeases those who prize delicacy, perfume and complexity in their pinot noir. The winemakers – who also have these debates among themselves – argue that if the region gives you richness, you'd be crazy not to grab it with both hands. And secondly, big pinots sell better than delicate ones. This is a critical point when there are so many new producers trying to get established in the world's markets – especially when the wines need to be priced, as most are, in the $35 to $55 range. And everyone I asked was adamant that demand is so far exceeding supply, especially in Australia and more importantly the huge US market. We will see if this demand-pull continues when a really big vintage (like 2006?) comes on-stream. There are many anxious Kiwi exporters who are hoping the greenback will reverse its trend and strengthen against the kiwi dollar. But, until the wine drinkers of the world demand ethereal, delicate pinot noir, expect to see more black, dense, juicy whoppers from Central Otago. It's a style they do extremely well.