New Zealand’s Central Otago

As vines mature, Central Otago's wines are improving, writes Helen Coburn, who tastes some classic varietals.

Central Otago is New Zealand’s hottest new(ish) area and it’s noted for pinot noir. Now, one of the problems about wine hacks is that they’re all crazy about pinot so when a region comes along that’s doing something serious in that line, the wine press tends to go into overdrive. Paeans of praise abound and sometimes the critical faculties are left a little behind.

So when I attended my first tasting of Otago pinot, a few years ago, I was a bit disappointed. All the wines were expensive but a number had been produced from relatively young wines and were light and insufficiently complex for the money. Others were more concentrated, but rather dark in hue, sometimes with harsh tannins and greenish fruits which did not fully express the characteristics of the pinot nose and palate. In short, though Burgundy prices were sometimes charged, some of these wines were running before they could walk.

In the years since, I’ve tasted Otago in a sporadic sort of way, mainly at mixed tastings. My impression is that, as vines mature, the wines are improving, even if there are still ups and downs. So it was with considerable anticipation that I attended an Otago masterclass in Dublin recently. There would be over a dozen wines, few as yet available in Ireland, but with a number seeking distribution. Prices were listed in sterling and ranged from £16.50 to £28 – expensive, but not too crushing for pinot, provided that they delivered on the money. However, it turned out that some of the listings were incorrect and many wines were in the €25-50 range. I decided the best thing was just to taste each wine on its own merits.

This is how they struck me.

Domain Road 2008. Light style; pleasant but not complex (Available from Phoenix Wine Agencies)

Maori Point 2008. Elegant nose of gentle summer fruit. Reasonable structure on palate with good varietal character. Alcohol was a little noticeable. The price listed was £17.50 and it would be decent value for this money.

Coal Pit Tiwha 2008. Classic, quite perfumed aromas. Nicely structured with fresh summer fruit and redcurrant flavours. Well balanced alcohol and supporting, if not over hefty, tannins. Tasty stuff of middle weight which would be ok for the £20 listed.

Te Mara 2008. Nicely defined summer fruit aromas. Rather plummy flavours with decent tannins and acidity; appealing but less classic on palate than nose.

Northburn 2007. Fresh nose but with characteristic summer fruits which are repeated on palate. Softish but well knitted tannins and nicely balanced alcohol.

Felton Road 2007. Hints of black olive on the nose which remind one of a Rhone syrah. More typicity on the palate with well structured summer fruits and a plummy finish. (Available here from Wines Direct.)

Tarras The Canyon 2007. Appealing nose, with very slightly evolved, classic aromas of summer fruits and a touch of leather. Well defined summer fruits on the palate with decent balance and structure. A relatively early drinker but an elegant and enjoyable one. (Available from Dublin’s Corkscrew).

Bannock Brae Barrel Selection 2007. Slightly earthy nose; pleasant on the palate but a little rustic and not hugely lengthy. Price listed was $47 NZ, which would probably translate into a euro mid twenties tag – it would be a bit expensive at that price.
Pisa Range 2006. Again, a slightly earthy nose. Palate slightly dry and lacks a little refinement but the flavours are enjoyable. Decent if it’s mid priced.

Prophets Rock 2006. Clean if slightly muted nose. Enjoyable flavours but not entirely typical, with a fleshy plum streak cutting through the summer fruits.

Rockburn 2006. Evolving but nicely classic pinot nose. Nicely structured summer fruit and fresh plum flavours. There’s decent length, too, and well balanced alcohol. This is listed at £17 and would be good value at this price – recommended.

Mount Difficulty 2006. Rather plummy aromas with good balance on palate. Pleasant plum and red fruit flavours.
Olssens Jackson Barry 2006. Simple red fruit aromas and flavours in lightish structure.

Other New Zealand Pinots

The recent annual New Zealand tasting in Dublin offered pinots from Otago and other regions, including Martinborough, Marlborough and Nelson. These regions are generally slightly warmer than Otago, leading to slightly more approachable wines, although some are rather expensive for what they are. Allowing that pinot is rarely cheap, the following offered good value.

Mud House Central Otago Pinot 2009 (Nicholson €18.50). Not hugely complex, but good varietal character and decent value.

Framingham Marlborough Pinot 2009 (Le Caveau €19.95). Good pinot character with good length and balance. Good value.

Giesen Marlborough Pinot 2009 (Greenlea Wines €16.99). Fresh tasting summer fruits; moderately long but good flavours.

Yealands Marlborough Pinot 2009  (Liberty €16.99). Lively, refreshing flavours of summer fruit and berries.

Oyster Bay Marlborough Pinot 2009 (Cassidy €13.99). Reasonable varietal character and it’s enjoyable. Keenly priced.

Esk Valley Marlborough Pinot 2009 (Barry & Fitzwilliam €14.99).Nice pinot charcter with a touch of ripeness. Tasty and excellent value.

Craggy Range Te Muna Martinborough Pinot 2008 (Febvre €39). Finishing with a treat, this is sound, classic stuff, which blossoms nicely in the glass. Pricey though.

:: Pictures courtesy of Wines of New Zealand

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