The best pinot noir from Central Otago New Zealand

The best pinot noir from Central Otago New Zealand

If not for the Patagonian wine region in Argentina, Central Otago could lay claim to being the world’s southern-most wine region. Those who’ve visited Queenstown and it’s surrounds on the Shaky Isle’s South Island, will know of the raw beauty of the craggy ranges and glacier-carved canyons that attract hundreds of thousands of tourists each year. Through winter, snow sport enthusiasts flock to the slopes of Coronet peak, The Remarkables and Wanaka, and once the ground thaws, planeloads of mountain-bikers, fly fishers, bush walkers and adventure tourists arrive in their place. If it’s possible, I suspect that the town bustles more in summer than it does in winter! And while there’s plenty to love about the area made famous for its goldmining in the late 1800’s, the new gold of the region is undoubtedly its burgeoning wine industry.

Chardonnay, riesling and pinot gris are popular varietals with the local viticulturalists, but it’s pinot noir that accounts for over three-quarters of all plantings in the region. To many, planting a notoriously fickle varietal on a wind-blown and often snow-covered mountainside in gravel, schist, and greywacke “soil”, might seem counter-intuitive; but it’s these challenging conditions that are responsible for stressing the vines to the point of producing grapes with a striking intensity of fruit character and enviable tannin structure.

It’s the “three-T’s” that make Otago pinot such a success story – texture, taste and thyme. Quite apart from the incredibly powerful fruit, there’s a silkiness to the local pinot that often escapes even true Burgundian examples of the style. The hillsides covered in thyme planted by the early goldminers seem to somehow permeate many of the Central Otago wines as there is a delightful savoury herbaceousness on the finish of many of the locally made drops. 

As Australian consumers drift away from some of the over-ripe and jammy reds that have graced our dinner tables in recent decades, pinot noir is growing in popularity (and for good reason). So, I decided to take a trip across the ditch and road test a bunch of Otago pinots with a view to finding the “best” wines the Kiwi’s make in a Burgundian style. Here’s a few of the oenological highlights of my recent field trip:

Valli Bendigo Vineyard Pinot Noir 2021 ($75 NZ) – it’s a close call as The Gibbston Vineyard 2021 and the Waitaki 2021 are also exceptional, but it gets my gong for the best of the current release of the Valli pinot. It’s from a slightly warmer vineyard – heaps of spice, toffee, forest floor and earthiness. Love the layers of mocha, mushroom, and red cherries through the middle. Whole bunch pressing has added a lovely stalky savouriness while 30% new French oak adds interest.

Coal Pit Tiwha 2020  $57 NZ) – more at the value end of the spectrum than many others from the region. Less cherries, more stewed plums, and a leafy edge. It’s a fruit forward style that is sure to please the palate.

Felton Road Cornish Point 2021 ($75 NZ) – a serious pinot. No conversation about Central Otago pinot noir is complete without some mention of this label. The 2021 edition shows structural complexity beyond its price point – vibrant fruit in harmony with stern tannins yet wrapped in a luxurious velvety mouth feel. A stand-out. 

Valli, Out of the Shadows 2016 ($135 NZ). This is a small batch wine of only 1380 bottles, so it’s hard to find, but it’s so big that it could be a pinot noir for shiraz drinkers. The red fruits dominate from the first sniff – ripe cherries, Damson plum and hints of chocolate. There are some leafy edges that join with soft tannins to deliver a lingering and silky conclusion. Gives the impression that it will stand the test of time on its side in the cellar.

Rockburn “The Chosen” 777 Parkburn Pinot Noir 2021 – forgive the sweaty saddlebags on the nose and being fully priced at $99 NZ, there’s something special about the velvety mouthfeel, spice, thyme, and tannin that layer on the opulent fruit. It’s a lovely wine but there’s better value out there.

Gibbston Valley China Terrace 2021 ($70 NZ). Choosing a favourite from Chris Keys’ artistry is never easy, but of the current vintage, the 2021 China Terrace is as good as any. Rich, ripe plums and hints of maraschino cherry clash with spice, nutmeg, and a hint of green stalk. Lovely balance and oozes grace and charm.

Domain Road Defiance Pinot Noir 2018 ($70 NZ) – deeply garnet in the glass, there’s plenty of fragrant violet and clove on the nose. On the palate, plums, raspberries, and black cherries meets cigar box and ample fine tannins. A bit lighter on fruit than others from the region but will appeal to those who like a grippy and earthy style.

Gate 20 Two Single Vineyard Pinot Noir 2020 ($48 NZ) – made by neighbouring Mt Difficulty’s winemaker (Matt Dicey), this small batch wine is one of the best value Otago pinots we found during our field trip. Lovely balance of brambly red fruits, fine tannins, and fresh acidity. Their pinot gris is also an exceptional wine!

Mt Difficulty Ghost Town Pinot Noir 2017 ($65 NZ) – energetic and powerful, this small batch wine is as intense as it is elegant. A few extra years in the bottle has done it the world of good.

Not all these wines will be readily available in the major bottle shops, but most are only a few clicks away online. The vast majority of the Central Otago pinot noir I sampled were energetic and vibrant and I suspect, likely best in their youth. But if a lighter style of red, full of flavour and charm sounds like your jam, then Central Otago pinot needs to be locked into your radar as the current and impending 2021 and 2022 vintages were well above average.

As published in the Courier Mail.

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