Story and strategic choices in talking about Central Otago subregions

Central Otago went from zero to international recognition in less time than it takes to test the merit of a great Burgundy vintage. Good for them. It’s occupants had the advantage of a favorable climate, enthusiastic pioneers, and in many cases an enviable lot of capital investment, but they also experimented generously and — most importantly — became polished storytellers. The stories may in fact have outpaced the wines, which is less a criticism of the latter than an acknowledgement that they are very much still figuring out what they’re about. And so, while it’s obvious that subregional differences are dramatic enough to shout about, not much shouting actually happens on that account. One: they don’t yet have the maturity for more than broad subregional outlines. Two: it might not be part of the story they want to tell in any case.

Driving through Central makes it clear that subregional differences should be important. Driving in from coastal Otago (the Dunedin area, where I live), the first substantial growing area you encounter is Alexandra, a dry, flattish valley with a large (for this area) town. Cross the hill and drive past the dam and you’re in Cromwell, where many vineyards enjoy the mitigating effects of Lake Dunstan. North at the top of the lake, the Bendigo vineyards are widely known as seeing both the hottest and the most extreme weather. Go east toward Queenstown and the Bannockburn vineyards are perched above the Kawarau river. Through the pass further toward Queenstown, the Gibbston valley has the highest elevation and the coolest climate. And then there are the outliers: dear Nick Mills at Rippon in Wanaka; vineyards in Waitaki closer to the coast. These are obvious differences. Central Otago doesn’t tend toward subtle.

Plenty of conversation is happening about subregions, none of them questioning whether they’re significant. The questions instead are about what is significant. Are site differences principally related to soil differences as you move up the “terraces” from the valley floor? Or is the elevation more significant? Maybe it’s enough to talk about those big subregions. There’s that first problem: it’s hard to tell in part because vines are young, but maybe even more so for want of continuity. Vineyard managers, winemakers, owners, directions, and styles have flexed enough here that two challenges become significant: creating distinctly regional pictures independent of those other factors, and passing down sensibly kept records and knowledge gained from experience. The openness to experimentation and international flux that has helped these folk find a niche in the pinot world so quickly has, at least in some cases, come at the expense of some stability. Point the first.

Point the second: wine, and Central Otago, is all about story. Subregions may not be the story people want to tell here. Yet. Adept storytelling is a stand-out feature of many successful wineries here: to justify selling $70 pinot noir with nearly no history behind them, it has to be. Telling a story doesn’t mean talking about everything that goes into making a wine; it means carefully curating elements that create a specific image. Subregionality may not be part of that story. In some respects, that choice is about market readiness, which is obvious. They’ve succeeded when someone in Louisiana or Newcastle knows where Central Otago is; talking about Bannockburn is too much.

But it’s also a choice about style and direction. Some wineries here bottle from estate vineyards. Many blend fruit from different vineyards for balance and complexity and, no doubt, economy and ease. Matt Kramer told producers in 2013 that using many clones was (one; he had a few other interesting points) key to making exciting pinot noir, and it could be said that blending across multiple vineyard sites is similarly looking for complexity. As those vineyards age, and maybe as they’re planted with increasingly diverse clones, maybe

Back to choosing a story. Wineries here have mostly built their identities around concepts other than subregions. If that’s working for them, serious investment may not go into defining, refining, and emphasizing subregional stories.

Since differentiating yourself is ever necessarily the new world winery game, it makes sense that a (but not all) winery here is built expressly around exemplifying subregional differences. That’s Valli, where Grant Taylor bottles separate pinots from Gibbston, Bannockburn, and Waitaki. Tasting those three wines, made by the same winemaker in essentially the same ways, is an education that makes me wish Taylor’s portfolio included bottles from Bendigo and the other subregions as well. The Gibbston wine is the sharpest with the highest acidity, the Bannockburn the biggest and smokiest, the Waitaki the spiciest with the most prominent tannins. The Waitaki stands out to me as the most interesting wine, possibly because it’s the least standard and, dare I say, maybe the most complex: while the Gibbston and Bannockburn are well-made and enjoyable wines, the Waitaki has the thing that makes me want to keep coming back to the glass.

That’s the direction I hope Central Otago pinots take as they grow up: not just well-made wines with fancy labels and nice stories, but intriguing and maybe even intellectually satisfying wines. Whether they find that intrigue in multiple clones on single vineyard sites, blending across regions, or even just older vines under winemakers who decide to stay put, I’ll hope that Valli keeps doing what Valli does, and maybe more of it.

**By the by, “Central Otago” is a “district” within the “region” of Otago, where a “region” is roughly equivalent to a province or a state. Central Otago is a recognized Geographical Indication — it can be used on labels going to the EU, with a defined meaning — and various subregional names are allowed as “Appellations of Origin” on labels going to the States.

 

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2 thoughts on “Story and strategic choices in talking about Central Otago subregions

  1. The reality is this less a story than a con job. Over priced, over worked pinot seems to be about the most consistent experience I had on a recent 8 day swing through NZ. . Leaving out those well known vineyards with vines of at least a decade and an understanding that pinot cannot be pushed to extract colour and character, leaves many wines that are too tannic and frankly, other than some aromatics, about as interesting as “two buck chuck”. This tendency to overclaim and ride a wave tends to be a characteristic of the New Zealand wide industry. What is needed is some honest assessment of the broader quality of these regional wines, not an assessment based on a few star vineyards. Waiheke is another classic example where very poor cellaring (a basic in the industry surely) is producing grossly over-priced, oxidized wines where the cepage is clearly questionable. And just in case anyone thinks I have a jaundiced view of NZ wined, let me say this was eight days of enjoying fabulous white wines from pinot gris, to chardonnay to riesling. There really is a need for a wake up call for Otago. Frankly the story is a con job.

    • But isn’t that exactly the point? It doesn’t matter whether this is a “story” or a “con job.” They’re the same thing: convincing someone to believe something, ideally so that they buy your wine. Central Otago is successful at that. They’re getting people to buy their wines. Simon & Garfunkel and Taylor Swift were/are both successful musicians. Simon & Garfunkel were gifted musicians and Swift regularly overstretches her limited vocal range and musical imagination, but they both told a good story, created an image, and sold/sell lots of albums. I’m not saying that wine quality or musical talent aren’t important — I obviously believe they are — but they’re a step removed from story and at least two steps removed from success. Taylor Swift’s new album may make me wretch, but I still have to judge her as successful.

      You make a second point: regional reputations seem to ride on a few singular top-notch vineyards. It’s a good distinction — there’s plenty of boring and even some bad wine made on Waiheke and in Central, and it would do everyone (industry, at the top and the bottom, as well as consumers) a disservice to lump them all together. But you note that the best vineyards are often also the ones with a bit more history and experience and dedication. If they set expectations for everyone else in the area, so much the better.

      Finally, your third point. I’m right with you in thinking the “aromatic whites” the most interesting wines coming out of Central in particular and NZ in general (if we can include Chard and exclude most sauv blanc in that group), and I’ve written about that elsewhere. It’s a rare NZ pinot that can tempt me away from my old Oregon favorites, especially at equivalent prices, but some of the rieslings and pinot gris from Central are growing up to be lovely wines.

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