Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Central Otago - day one

I awoke to a raging storm outside. The weather report showed a huge low pressure had swung into NZ from the Pacific the night before. Knowing I had to fly out in yet another tiny plane made for a nervous drive out to the airport!

However we left on time and a after an extremely bumpy 45 minutes we cleared the storm and flew into crystal-clear skies and the breathtaking scenery of Central Otago: green valleys, snow capped mountains, unbelievable!

The temperature was quite a shock and so long trousers and a jacket made their first appearance since I arrived in New Zealand.  From the hotel on the banks of Lake Wakatipu I hopped onto a water taxi across to the town of Queenstown.  

Queenstown is a vibrant, bustling little place and with the ski season looming, accents of all kinds –Irish, Spanish, French, American… – can be heard in the cafes, bars and restaurants.

Plenty of fish restaurants too, and a grilled plaice and glass of local Bald Hills Pinot Noir made a perfect late lunch.

The following morning I met our Aus/NZ buyer Dan Parrott at the little Frankton airport from where we embarked on our tour of the Otago wine region.

We drove firstly to the south-eastern region of Alexandra and to the small, family-owned Drumsara vineyard.  The owner Wayne Matheson gave us a look around the vineyards and a tasting at the beautiful bathtub terrace. It faces the Leaning Rock Mountain, so called because the sedimentary rock has been pushed up causing it to lean on the Dunstan range behind. I liked the 2011 Pinot Gris; lovely aromatics with a nice, off-dry style to balance the acidity.

Next we headed 35km back north to the town of Cromwell to meet the legendary Rudi Bauer at his Quartz Reef winery. Rudi is quite a guy, an Austrian of origin where he studied his winemaking, arriving in New Zealand to work in Hawke’s Bay in 1985, and setting up the pioneering Quartz Reef in 1996!

 No sooner had we shaken hands we were straight into his Jeep along with very excitable dogs Pippa and Stella and off to the vineyards even further north in the sub region of Bendigo.

Here in Bendigo, Rudi has a unique, 15ha, north-facing sloped vineyard. He has a further 15ha on the lower terrace, sitting opposite Pisa Ridge and west of the tablecloth mountain of Saint Bathans; so named for the draping blanket of cloud that sits on the mountain.

 Every inch of this vineyard has been carefully thought through and it is 100% biodynamic which is basically homeopathic treatments for the soil and vines. From the vineyard, we went down to Rudi’s passion: his shed where he makes all is concoctions for the natural vineyard treatments.  He was lifting up floor boards, opening big jars of homemade brews, stirring buckets of fermenting plant liquid. It was like being in a wizard’s lair! 

The geography is fascinating and the smooth and sharp landscape is caused by strong winds blowing erosion soil formed from last ice age into the pockets amongst the hard rock.  Organic viticulture is big in New Zealand and Rudi informed me that by 2020 NZ will have an incredible 20% of their vineyards organically certified. After a great tasting of the wines back at the winery, we sadly had to say our goodbyes. I was kindly given a half bottle of the Pinot Noir and its one that will definitely sneak into my suitcase to take back to France.

Our next visit is an absolute must for wine lovers: the amazing Felton Road in Bannockburn! We were met by the winemaker Blair Walter, unfortunately the owner Nigel Greening couldn’t be there but his daughter Nicola was holding fort.  

We very quickly got busy tasting barrels, perhaps rather carried away! We started with the exquisite Chardonnay: who says Otago doesn’t make Chardonnay? We then made a cooper comparison tasting with the 2012 Felton Road Bannock Burn, Cornish Point, Block 3 and Block 5 Pinot Noirs: absolutely stunning wines. I strongly advise that if you can splash out on NZ wine then do so from these guys.

Not only was the barrel tasting a fantastic experience, I was in for a real treat tonight as Blair and Nicola were taking me for dinner to the new and highly reputed Jervois Steak House in Queenstown. And it certainly didn’t disappoint, nor the wines! Blair pulled out a 2005 Felton Road Chardonnay – fresh and complex; a 2006 Block 5 Pinot Noir – spicy with a velvet palate; and a Ata Rangi 2011 from Martinborough – elegant cherry fruit and rose petal aromas. Thanks guys!

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