The Friday Fermentable: New Zealand’s Central Otago Region, by Erleichda

My colleague and guest wine blogger, Erleichda, wrote previously on his birthday trip to New Zealand’s wine destinations. I accidentally posted his writings in reverse, with his description of wines of the Marlborough district here. Below was intended to be the first of the two columns.
Another Wine Escapade: New Zealand’s Central Otago Region
by Erleichda

otago.gifHaving reached another even decade of aging, I decided to celebrate by visiting a destination I had wanted to experience, New Zealand (NZ). (I could have chosen Tahiti, but I’m saving that one for when the prospect of climbing onto glaciers, white-water rafting, and sea kayaking would seem a bit too much). While our three plus weeks on the South Island of NZ were filled with many adventuresome moments, a few days were spent visiting two of the country’s grape-growing districts, central Otago and Marlborough. Everyone who has heard anything about NZ wines is familiar with the country’s sauvignon blancs. Well, they are worth trying, and I admit to often enjoying their fruit forward, highly acidic, tangy offerings. But what I discovered in NZ’s South Island were the wonderful aromatic white wines of riesling, gewurztraminer, and pinot gris grape varieties. I just had not, prior to this visit to NZ, been aware of the country’s success in producing Alsatian style aromatic white wines. For this first of two segments, I’ll describe the wines tasted from the Otago region.

We happy adventurers stopped at the Rippon Winery overlooking Lake Wanaka. What a beautiful setting; it was reminiscent of the views from the vineyards of upstate New York overlooking lake Keuka. The acidity in the 2005 Rippon Riesling ($20, all prices are US$ approximations) overwhelmed me, unlike their 2006 Sauvignon Blanc ($15), which had good balance (0.3% residual sugar, RS) and fullness. The 2006 Gewurztraminer ($20), with 1% RS, was a decent representation of the type. We next tried the first of two versions of pinot noir, the Rippon “Jeunesse” ($24), made from young vines, was found to be a light-style wine. Nothing wrong with it, just not my idea of a $24 bottle of wine. The excessive pricing was even more apparent with the 2004 Rippon Pinot Noir ($34). With a nice floral nose and a taste of cherries, the wine was pleasing but not exceptional.
A few days later, fellow vacationer, Ken, joined me in hiring a taxi out of Queenstown, leaving his wife and Sweetpea to squander the day shopping. Our first stop was Chard Farm, a 20 year young vineyard. At Chard Farm we began with a tasting of a 2006 Sauvignon Blanc ($15). The 0.25% RS was balanced with a citrusy fruit-loaded (pineapple and passion fruit flavors) acidity that provided a morning wake-up call to the taste buds. I knew this was going to be a fine day. A 2004 “Closeburn” Chardonnay was up next ($15). This was an unoaked, dry, mildly fruity (peach?), easy to drink chardonnay. A good chardonnay with which to introduce the beverage to those just starting out. Similarly, the 2004 “Judge & Jury” Chardonnay ($22) had a bit of French oak in the wine making process and consequently there were elements of vanilla and toast, and perhaps a nuance of nutmeg. The 2004 Gewurztraminer ($15) was not quite dry (1% RS), and its spicy notes were shared with some ginger. Someone further down the tasting bar mentioned lychee nuts, but I didn’t recognize that flavor. The Chard Farm 2006 Pinot Gris ($19), with 1.4% RS, was a touch too sweet for me, but it did provide a mouth-filling, mild fruit-filled example of this varietal. That last tasting prepared me for the 2005 Riesling ($18), which despite the 2.8% RS, had enough citrus acidity, with honey and melon notes, that the wine came together very nicely. And please note the reasonable prices.
Although we did not visit the nearby Gibbston Valley Winery, I did have an occasion to try their 2003 Riesling ($?). It had the familiar oily or kerosene nose and a decent overall balance to enjoy with my green-lipped mussels, but it was outpaced by a Marlborough wine I’ll mention next time.
We were ready to now try Chard Farm’s red wines (we skipped their Rose), which in this winery’s case, meant several pinot noirs. The pinot noir one finds in the airport duty-free shop is their “Finla Mor”, and I tried the 2005 ($25). There was some of the expected “barnyard” odor emanating from the glass, but a good tannic backbone (11 months aging in French oak) was coupled with anise and red fruit flavors.
An aside is useful here. Most of the pinot noirs tasted in NZ have their own unique style. While the natural tendency was to approach and compare them relative to French burgundies or California pinot noirs, the NZ offerings were generally lighter, less earthy. They are deserving of evaluation on their own merits and while comparisons can, and will, be made, NZ pinot noirs are their own unique representation of that grape variety.
Two other Chard Farm pinot noirs were then sampled.. The 2004 “Sugar Loaf” ($29) was the closest to French-style pinot noirs of those I tasted at this winery. It had the most distinct barnyard nose with smooth tannins and red fruit flavors effused throughout. The 2005 “Tiger” Pinot Noir ($32) was particularly “earthy”, also displaying red fruit flavors but with a hint of spice. The winery also makes a “Viper” Pinot Noir, but this wasn’t available for tasting. These pinots were not inexpensive, but they were among the better examples I was to taste. I haven’t seen Chard Farm wines in my local stores, but they can be found on-line at
My favorite NZ pinot noir was to be found at the next winery we visited, Aurum. This small Central Otago establishment was, like Chard Farm, a very friendly place to spend some time. First tried was their 2006 Riesling ($14) whose acidity was balanced with a touch (1.1% RS) of sweetness, minimal fruit flavors (lemon predominantly) plus some minerality. The 2006 Pinot Gris ($17) was very crisp (acidic) with mineral notes and minimal fruit (pear, lemon). Both these white wines deserved to be had with food but alas, it wasn’t quite lunchtime. The first pinot noir tried at Aurum was their 2003 ($21). It had a distinct barnyard odor with an earthy, slightly spicy, red fruit wallop with adequate acidity; but it was a light package, meaning not intense. My favorite pinot noir tasted in NZ was Aurum’s 2005 Pinot Noir “Mathilde Reserve” ($28). A young powerful pinot with aging potential. It had robust dark fruit flavors, a touch of spice, all rolled up with good acidity and tannins. I doubt if this winery’s produce has reached the States, but for readers “down under”, I encourage you to try their wines; meanwhile, they can be found on-line at
Ken and I felt we’d better eat some lunch soon, and the restaurant at Carrick Winery was recommended to us by Joan who had poured for us at Aurum. But best to try some of their wines first so we’d know which to have with our lunch. First up was their just released 2006 Riesling ($14). A nice combination of citrusy (lemon) acidity, some minerality and slight (1.3% RS) sweetness, all balanced into a fine package. The 2006 Sauvignon Blanc ($14) was a bit more acidic without any sweetness noted (0.5% RS), and more minerals mixed with citrus, passion fruit and melon flavors. A typical NZ sauvignon blanc. Their 2005 Chardonnay ($18) spent 11 months in French oak and had a very clean style, with blends of creamy vanilla, fruit and minerals coming thru nicely. But it was the 2004 E.B.M. Cairnmuir Terraces Chardonnay ($23) that was the best of the white wines I tasted at Carrick. It had distinct pineapple notes, with a bit more oak (but not excessive) and good acidity. They also make a pinot gris but I didn’t taste it. Their 2004 Pinot Noir ($27) was nice – fruity with good balance, but I found it not to be exceptional and it wasn’t inexpensive. I have only found a 2005 Carrick Riesling sold in the States ($17), but perhaps other offerings will begin to show up.
Next stop was Waitiri Creek Winery where we limited our tastings to only their pinot noirs. Their 2003 Pinot Noir ($29) had the familiar barnyard and earthy nose, with mild oak, decent fruit, but a bit more acidity than I prefer. The 2004 Pinot Noir ($25) was light and fruity but nothing memorable. I think I liked their 2005 Pinot Noir ($27) best, with its pleasing mixture of earthy nose, fruit flavors and good overall balance.
Our last vineyard was Olssen’s in the Bannockburn area. Beginning with some white wines, their 2003 “Charcoal Joe” Chardonnay ($17) was lightly oaked with melon and citrus flavors on a dry (0.2% RS) backbone. The 2006 Riesling ($15) was acidic yet balanced with a hint of sweetness (1% RS), but was just bursting with pineapple and citrus flavors. Their 2004 Gewurztraminer ($15) was very easy to drink and had acidity and sweetness (0.7% RS) in balance to go with the spicy flavoring. We next tried their pinot noir offerings. The 2003 “Jackson Barry” Pinot Noir ($25), produced from handpicked and de-stemmed grapes, is a full-bodied wine (14.5% alcohol), with fruit (cherries) on the tip of the tongue, a hint of barnyard on the nose, and an overall nice drinking experience. The 2006 “Nipple Hill” Pinot Noir ($17) was a pleasant quaffing wine with a hint of oak and some fruit but nothing exceptional. The 2003 “Robert the Bruce” Bannockburn Red ($20) was a blend of shiraz and cabernet sauvignon. Dark fruit and spice were evident on the palate and we found the wine pleasing but not exceptional. Olssen’s is available in the States thru at least two distributors based in California.
At what must possibly be the southernmost place on the planet where good wines are produced, the central Otago region is a destination worth visiting. If the wines are good now, considering how young the vines are, imagine what we may find in 10 plus years.

Zapata’s Alta line of wines from Argentina, Wenchy tells us, might be worth trying, particularly the ’02 vintage. Ok, I’ll keep an eye out for them. Thanks for the heads-up.

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