When travelling around the Otago region in the autumn time, you understand why the locals are so proud of their 'Otago Gold'. It's not only the gold in 'them thar hills', but also the gold of the poplar tree. The leaves turn a golden yellow and after a while fall like confetti to the ground to line the roadway with a kerb of gold.
I've been travelling in and around the Otago region this past week or so and it's not only the poplars that are turning colour. In vineyards there's also an array of colour with the leaves of the vines turning from green to gold and various shades of coppery reds.
Earlier in the week there was a cold snap and snow fell on the low-lying hills around Wanaka where I was staying. The next day on a round trip from Wanaka over the Crown Range to Arrowtown – a photographer's drawcard for autumn colours - through the Gibbston Valley to Cromwell and back to Wanaka via the Pisa Flats, it looked that snow had fallen on the lower flanks of the hills as well. But it was only the white netting over rows of ripening grapes.
Vintage started early in parts of the Otago region but there are plenty of grapes still hanging on the vines even though it is now the middle of April. What has surprised me, though, is the changing colour of the pinot noir vines, even though they are still bearing grapes.
While I was in Wanaka I took the opportunity to visit Rippon Vineyard, one of the most photogenic vineyards in New Zealand, and to meet the change of guard as the next generation takes over from Otago vineyard pioneers, Lois and the late Rolfe Mills. Son David has been property manager for the last 8 years and son Nick returned from four years in Burgundy in 2002 to take over as vigneron, in charge of both the winemaking side and the viticulture, which has been converted to biodynamics since his return. Younger daughter Charlie has just joined the team as vineyard manager after managing vineyards elsewhere in Central Otago, and working in wineries in Australia and France. Now Nick’s fiancée, Jo Montagu, has also joined the company to take over the export and sales side of the business from Lois.
Nick and Jo walked us round the property, a gentle walk at first on one of the property's roads leading from the elevated winery site into the vines, but the short cut to Nick's pride and joy, his compost heap, was straight down what seemed like a mountain side.
Composting is important for biodynamic farming and everything that comes off the vineyard - the pomace as well as the prunings – eventually gets redistributed into the vineyard again.
Fortunately a road led us back into the winery where Nick took the covers off a vat of fermenting pinot noir that had just started its magical transformation from grapes into wine. It's a spontaneous fermentation, using natural yeasts on the grapes and from within the winery. Nick plunged the cap and let the vividly bright, crimson purple froth of the fermenting juices bubble to the surface. "I've never seen the colours so bright," he said. It had not been fermenting for long and the juices were still full of their natural grape sweetness.
A tasting of a barrel sample of the 2004 Pinot Noir followed - this is going to be one to pursue when it is released at the end of the year. Then a glass of the incredible Rippon Lake Wanaka Pinot Noir 2003, reviewed as
Wine of the Week on this site last year.
Lastly, a glass of the Rippon Lake Wanaka Central Otago Riesling 2004. It was crisp and cold, chilled only by the temperature of the winery cellar, yet it seemed so right in this cool climate winegrowing place. It tasted quite dry but with 10 to 11 grams of residual sugar, it is not dry at all – it is the natural high acidity of the grape grown in this place that makes it seem so bracing.
Nick is not into an endless stream of aromas and taste descriptors, but more into the texture and layers of the feel of the wine in the mouth. I thought the texture grainy, perhaps a little chalky, but Nick likened the graininess to the fine silt derived from the schist rock that forms that base rock of the vineyard. The layers in the wine can also be likened to the layers of this tightly compacted metamorphic rock.
Unlike Nick, I am into aroma and taste descriptors. I found green apples with a squeeze of lemon and a nuance of tropical fruit emerging on the finish, but all the while there's a strong yeast lees influence that underpins the wine. There's also an earthiness that makes this a 'vin de terroir', as Nick calls it. A couple of days later, when accompanying the wine to food, I found this earthiness matched the earthy flavours of an aromatic Moroccan Chicken Soup with chickpea and cumin.
Yesterday we stopped by the Aroma Room of 'The Big Picture' in Cromwell ($3 entry to the aroma room only) and then I recognised that quince was also a dominant character of the wine. It was confirmed when we drank the dregs last night.
Rippon Lake Wanaka Central Otago Riesling 2004 is a new release as it matured in the bottle for a year before coming onto the market. It carries 12% alcohol by volume and is sealed with a screwcap. It costs in the vicinity of $28-$29 a bottle.
Dial up the Rippon website to find out more.
© Sue Courtney
16 April 2006