How static is my valley
How good is good enough at Gibbston?
by Thor Iverson
A hardy laurel
Paradigm-defining winery or tourist trap? Neither? Or maybe a little bit of both? That’s the operative question at Gibbston Valley, one of those rare wineries pioneering and privileged enough to share its name with its location, and an unquestioned catalyst for the explosion of Central Otago wines onto the international scene. As with virtually all other wineries in this area, their reputation is derived from pinot noir; their version has been a muscular, forceful wine (especially in the guise of the “Reserve”) with unquestioned aging potential.
However, that’s just part of the Gibbston Valley equation. There’s a heavily-staffed and immense tasting bar, a largish gift shop, an excellent and very busy restaurant, a cheesery, guided tours of the cave…all it needs is some sort of adventure ride. It’s a sort of wine country “lifestyle theme park” that one finds in California’s trendier appellations, and it’s ideally located to suck up busload after busload of tourists from Queenstown and surrounding locales.
The problem, of course, is that the support of a full-fledged tourism industry can be distracting when it comes time to actually make the wine that is the property’s “raisin d’être”. Not every winery can handle an operation of this scope and remain committed to top-quality product. Furthermore, the buzz in New Zealand wine circles is definitely trending towards the negative; laurel-resting is one of the more charitable characterizations I’ve heard, and some of the talk has been much more critical than that. The pervading feeling is that Gibbston Valley has remained motionless while watching producers old and new make qualitative leaps beyond its best efforts. And while a sum total of two visits (one on our previous visit to the area, and now this one) is no way to offer adjudication of the debate, it is perhaps another datum to add to the cauldron of opinion.
Naysayers or not, there’s certainly no apparent slowdown in business at the winery, which buzzes with visitors…indeed, many of them by the busload. A sunny-visaged American girl (the second we’ve met working a winery here in New Zealand) greets us and leads me through the wines while Theresa – as she did last time – opts to sample the cheesy comestibles instead.
Gibbston Valley 2003 Pinot Blanc (Central Otago) – Crystalline lime, tangerine, lemon and grapefruit; very ripe, yet nicely balanced, and showing growing elegance and a medium-crisp finish. It starts lightly sweet, but dries nicely as it lingers and fades. A very pretty wine.
Gibbston Valley 2004 Riesling (Central Otago) – Petrol and minerals with grapefruit, medium-tart green apple malic acidity, and a strong core of strawberry. Intense, long and zingy, with excellent balance. Very, very well done, and with the apparent stuffing and poise to reward aging.
Gibbston Valley 2004 Pinot Gris (Central Otago) – Tight and reduced, showing crisp pear skin and pear juice tarted up by lemon and ripe green apple. Long, juicy fun.
Gibbston Valley 2004 Chardonnay “Greenstone” (Central Otago) – Crisp, ripe red apple and banana skin with petroleum notes. Juicy and exceedingly fruit-forward, and fun despite the gasoline. Short finish, though.
Gibbston Valley 2003 Chardonnay “Reserve” (Central Otago) – Raw cashew and fig, with a thin, acidic palate. Insubstantial, with structure but nothing for it to support…like a badly-oaked and badly-underfruited Chablis.
Gibbston Valley 2004 Blanc de Pinot Noir (Central Otago) – Very juicy, showing huge cherry syrup and sweet strawberry fruit. Extremely short. This is, unfortunately, much more akin to white zinfandel than it is to a typical rosé.
Gibbston Valley 2002 Pinot Noir “Gold River” (Central Otago) – Slightly cardboardy, with red cherry syrup, rubber, and plastic/synthetic notes. Juicy yet overly simple, with a dull Styrofoam sheen on the finish. I’d call this wine horribly flawed.
Gibbston Valley 2003 Pinot Noir (Central Otago) – A shy nose heralds an elegant, ripe, and structured wine that shows strawberry jam, light fig notes, and cloves. The finish is plummy, with good supporting acidity and a light, middleweight character. Nice wine, and nicely ageable.
It’s my overwhelming sense, after the previously-noted tasting, that the wines here have improved since my last visit…especially the whites. There’s more focus, more delineation, and more verve. Or perhaps it’s just the vintages in question, and next year’s tale would be a different one. The one persistent problem is a finish shorter than one might like, but then that’s hardly unique among New World wines. In any case, Gibbston Valley is most definitely living up to its reputation for producing quality wines, and should be commended for it. On the other hand, the regular pinot noir – while quite good – is showing signs of stasis vs. others in the region. And as for the flagship wine, the Pinot Noir “Reserve”? Well, it’s sold out, unavailable for tasting (I probably could force things and ferret out a hidden stash, but prefer not to), and only a few straggling bottles of an earlier vintage are available…for the low, low price of $150 (NZ). That is, frankly, an absurd tariff; the wine is very good, but it’s certainly not twice as good as any other Central Otago pinot (which top out elsewhere at about half this price), and qualitatively it falls well short of the best efforts at – for example – Felton Road, and also some newer wineries…of which more a few narratives hence.
Pasta al fresco
Theresa rejoins me in the winery’s shady courtyard, filled to bursting with lunchtime diners, tasters and grazers. This is a solid, casual restaurant that does good things with the sort of low-key food one wants at midday, the local cheese, and the on-site wines, and I thoroughly enjoy a bowl of pasta with bacon, sausage, red pepper, and cream (here, much less misused than in my Los Angeles “carbonara”) with a full glass of pinot. Finally, something to swallow!
Gibbston Valley 2003 Pinot Noir (Central Otago) – Balanced and structured, showing darker plum fruit under the influence of my somewhat aggressive food, with orange rind and a light earthiness supported by mild tannin. Tasty.
We return to the cheesery for some purchases, and then leave the friendly and accessible confines of Gibbston Valley for a winery that, despite being no more than a few minutes away, is much, much harder to get to. Unless, that is, you’re a mountain goat.
Disclosure: tasting fee waived & extra wines poured at Gibbston Valley.
Copyright ©2005 Thor Iverson.