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Friendly fields

Napa in the Central Otago

by Thor Iverson

[Cecil Peak]

The view from our bedroom window
We need a drink

With ten days ahead of us, and a nicely-equipped kitchen here in our Queenstown vacation rental, we’ve got certain needs. Travel essentials and food will come later. Right now, however, we’re in search of something even more fundamental: something to drink. With wineries just down the road, there’s no better time than now…and no better way to shop than to taste before buying, hopefully learning something along the way.

Five definitions of central

Of all the wine regions of New Zealand, the Central Otago is the source of the highest hype to output ratio. This is not to suggest that the area’s exploding reputation is built on a pile of horse manure, but rather to note that, 1) there’s just not that much wine, 2) what wine there is, is produced in fairly small quantities, 3) quality wines and producers make up a typically small percentage of the overall total, and 4) the entire region is very, very young.

Throughout the length and breadth of the Central Otago, freshly-tilled fields and new plantings are spreading like kudzu across often-difficult hillsides and slopes. This means that quantitative issues are being addressed as rapidly as possible, but it doesn’t necessarily say much about quality. Especially given that the reputation of the region is based almost entirely on the massively fickle pinot noir grape, the road ahead is going to be much like the road today: filled with eager but insufficient young contenders and a growing sense of entitlement-without-justification. The wines may sell themselves to the curious, but they won’t do so forever. The Central Otago does show many signs of becoming one of the world’s great pinot noir regions, but it is not there yet, and only a continued commitment to quality over commercialism will allow it to achieve the status it may well deserve.

Adding to the confusion is the geographical haphazardness of the vignoble. “The Central Otago” is actually somewhere between four and seven distinct regions, depending on how one wants to classify vineyards, and they are not close to one another. Cromwell, an historic mining town turned agricultural center thanks to a highly-reputed fruit industry, is slowly finding its niche as the geographical “center” of the area’s disparate vineyards, but unfortunately the town itself doesn’t possess immense tourist appeal, and many visitors to the area will instead choose to stay in Queenstown, at one extreme end of the region and necessitating a lot of long and twisty drives to reach most worthwhile wineries.

Local vineyards are probably most sensibly grouped by their terroir (which is how one gets to the number seven), but in such a young region with a barely emergent wine culture, it’s far too early to make definitive statements thereto, except in the most preliminary sort of fashion. Thus, I prefer to group the vineyards in terms of geography for the time being, especially as this is how most visitors will experience them. Five distinct locales form the basis of a complete tour of the Central Otago: Gibbston, Wanaka, Cromwell, Bendigo, and Alexandra. This classification, I should add, rests on the following caveats: 1) Wanaka has very few vineyards, 2) technically, the Cromwell Basin comprises Cromwell and Bendigo, and the latter has only vineyards…no wineries, 3) Alexandra could perhaps more properly be called Clyde/Alexandra, as most of the vineyards are closer to the former than the latter, and 4) the Cromwell area is, by experienced local growers and winemakers, the site where further subdivisions are most often made, leading to distinct identifiers that include Lowburn, Bannockburn, Pisa Range and Pisa Flats.

[Amisfield winery]

Amisfield winery
Hayes & vines

We start our winery tour in Gibbston, which can easily be split into two sub-regions: Gibbston itself, about a half-hour’s winding drive from Queenstown, and – closer to town, at an intersection that takes one to the charming old gold-mining center of Arrowtown – Lake Hayes. Overall, the area gets more rain, and much cooler temperatures, than most of the rest of the Central Otago sub-regions, and it is primarily for this reason that a lot of blending from other areas goes on. Sometimes it’s quite open, other times it is not. But all those undesignated grapes up in warmer and dryer Bendigo are going somewhere

Right on the corner of the Queenstown-Cromwell/Arrowtown road is Amisfield, a slick, almost Napa-esque operation with an absolutely gorgeous restaurant and tasting facility. It’s a little out of place here in ultra-casual New Zealand, but maybe a bit more understandable given its proximity to fashionable and touristy Queenstown. We’re actually greeted at the front door! As for liquids, the winery has three lineups of wine: one eponymous, one (Arcadia) sparkling, and a third called Lake Hayes that fits a lower-priced “table wine” niche and is made from grapes purchased all over New Zealand. The winemaker is Jeff Sinnott, who gained much fame through the glory days of Isabel in Marlborough. In the hands of a gregarious, but not overly knowledgeable, tasting counter employee, we work our way through as much of the lineup as they’re willing to open for us.

Amisfield “Lake Hayes” 2004 Chardonnay (Gisborne) – From a Mendoza clone, half fermented in stainless steel and half in mixed oak barrels, showing clean, dull stone and grapefruit rind flavors. Short and uninteresting.

Amisfield “Lake Hayes” 2002 Riesling (Nelson) – Petrol borne on a windy mist, with clean, crisp flavors, and a highly-developed character. This is already fully mature. Should that happen to riesling, even cheap riesling?

Amisfield “Lake Hayes” 2004 Riesling (Central Otago/Nelson) – Lime and stones with lots of tart green apple. Fuller, riper and longer than the previous wine, and showing the potential for some (very) short-term development.

Amisfield “Lake Hayes” 2003 Sauvignon Blanc (Marlborough) – Asparagus, boxwood, and sourly anonymous underripe berries. Not at all ripe…or good.

Amisfield “Lake Hayes” 2004 Sauvignon Blanc (Marlborough/Central Otago) – I still don’t think Central Otago sauvignon blanc is a good idea. Here, we’ve got more asparagus and riper underripe fruit, with a wet, thin finish.

Amisfield 2004 Rosé “Saignée” (Central Otago) – In retrospect, the name of this wine amuses me; over the course of many visits to many wineries, I’ll ask person after person – often the winemaker – if a rosé they’re pouring is made via “saignée” or not, and with a single exception (Lynnette Hudson at Pegasus Bay, who’s worked in Burgundy), not one will know what the hell I’m talking about, necessitating a change to the English translation. Apparently, Mr. Sinnott is another exception. Anyway, this is indeed a “bleeding” of the flagship pinot noir, showing strawberry, red cherry, and a light spice that builds on the finish. Solid rosé, and probably the best wine I’ll taste here.

Amisfield “Lake Hayes” 2003 Pinot Noir (Central Otago) – From a blend of four clones. Big and spicy, showing black cherry, sour rhubarb and plum, with good acid and smooth character. Easy-drinking, perhaps even a bit thick, but finishes relatively nicely.

Amisfield 2003 Pinot Noir (Central Otago) – Entirely from Cromwell fruit. Thicker than the previous wine, showing peat, cedar, mixed cherries, and a slightly lurid fragrance similar to that of potpourri. Smooth, soft tannin detracts only via a light bitterness. Decent enough pinot, for near- to midterm drinking.

Arcadia Brut (Central Otago) – Big lemon-lime and grapefruit tartness, but littered with mercaptans.

Arcadia 1999 “Central Otago Cuvée” Brut (Central Otago) – More pinot noir than chardonnay, and it shows. Huge red fruit (mostly red cherry and strawberry) with good yeastiness, hints of lemongrass, and an unfortunately acrid geranium note. Not quite where it wants to be, I think.

To be honest, this is an average-at-best lineup of wines. I’ve heard better things about their pinot gris, which is sold out during our visit, and they’re a friendly bunch, but everything here is just a giant lake of underachievement. A shame, given the location. However, I understand the restaurant is nice…

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Copyright ©2005 Thor Iverson.