Today’s Pinot Noir spotlight jumps several thousand miles across the Pacific Ocean to the world’s most southerly wine growing region: New Zealand. New Zealand is a relative newcomer in international wine markets, despite having grown grapes since the middle of the 19th century. In the late 20th century, vine plantings grew over 5400% from a mere 100 acres in the 1960’s to over 50 000 acres today. This phenomenal increase in plantings has been accompanied by a concurrent growth in wineries, which now number over 500.
Of course, New Zealand first became famous internationally for its distinctive style of Sauvignon Blanc, with its big pungent and forward fruit flavours. These days, however, New Zealand is also growing a reputation for other grapes, notably Chardonnay and the subject of today’s post, Pinot Noir. New Zealand is also a predominantly maritime climate that sees abundant rainfall and quite warm temperatures, with the daily average across the year being 10 degrees Celsius (50 F). In fact, New Zealand has quite rich soil conditions, which has in the past made growing wine challenging because of the vines’ prevalence towards overabundance. This made it difficult for New Zealand wine makers to keep the yields low enough and have the vines struggle enough to produce complex wines. Recent developments in canopy management, which corresponded in time to the increased interest in quality New Zealand wines in the 80’s and 90’s, have allowed grape growers to mitigate these effects significantly.
The country itself is so incredibly long that one can find significant climactic variations from north to south. Marlborough in the north, for example, has cool and clear nights in the summer and a relatively long growing season. The longer growing season allows denser and richer wines than in the south, and the 2005 Dog Point Pinot Noir I had recently was a testament to that with deep, rich, dark, and brooding flavours.
Central Otago, where this wine is from, is distinct in New Zealand. Not only is it extremely southerly, but it also has New Zealand’s only continental climate. This climate sees greater spikes in temperature than the rest of the country (since continental climates are diurnal), and wine makers have to deal with such problems as frost damage to the vines. Even with these challenges, Central Otago has emerged as New Zealand’s premier Pinot Noir region, with over 75% of the plantings being of that variety. The prominence of Pinot Noir might have to do with the great benefit that Central Otago has over the rest of New Zealnad: very dry summers and autumns, which prevent the very sensitive Pinot Noir grape from rotting. Additionally, unlike the rest of New Zealand, most of the vineyards here are planted on hillsides rather than on flat land, allowing for greater sun exposure – thereby reducing the risk of frost damage.
Rippon Vineyard is located next to Lake Wanaka, which was the first sub-region within Central Otago to be developed. A big trend in New Zealand these days is a movement to continue to develop sustainable viticulture. Rippon is a completely biodynamic vineyard, using almost no additives in its winemaking and grape growing practices. The Rippon vineyards are planted on schist soils (an important soil type that sees greater water drainage than usual). There are also deposits of “glacial meal” left in the soil from the time when a glacier carved out the valley in which the vineyard is located.
Rippon has a pretty interesting mission for a New World winery: to create a “vin de terroir” – much like Randal Graham I suppose. However, unlike Bonny Doon, I think that Rippon has a very distinct site within which to pursue this goal. The soil types are unique, as is the climate, and the winery’s adherence to biodynamic principles is promising. That said, I do not think they have quite met their goal yet, but I do believe there is great potential here.
The wine itself was actually quite like a Beaujolais Cru in many ways, with a stark stony personality and lots of pebbles. The fruit was bright, and classic, cherry, which drove the wine forward over the bed of earth and herbs. My biggest complaint with this wine was that it was lacking body. Now, I’m not requesting a higher ABV (this was 13%), but rather a little more depth to the texture. I would have liked to also see more mid-palate structure and a longer finish. Right now, the quality of the wine does not justify its price point. However, this is unique from all the other Pinot Noirs I’ve tasted so far in a manner that I have not yet seen. That is, I feel this wine could very well become a vin de terroir if the winery keeps improving its practices, and, one day, the right vintage hits. There is the potential for profundity here, even if the wine is not quite the cup of ambrosia it is trying to become. I look forward to the future of the Central Otago with great anticipation if wines from the likes of Rippon are any indication. Right now, though, this is not quite what it should be.
$80 at Kitsilano Wine Cellar