Tuesday, 5 April 2016

Wineries of Central Otago - Cromwell Day 1

After four full days of enjoyment in and around Queenstown, it was time to set our sights on the heartland of Central Otago wine in Cromwell. Although sad to leave the shores of Lake Wakatipu, our wish to linger was quickly forgotten as the best day of our Central Otago trip unfolded. 

Quartz Reef

It is always an excellent start to the day when you hit the bubbly first thing in the morning. I chose Quartz Reef as our staring point for two reasons: 
1. They specialise in sparkling wine - an excellent way to whet the palate for a days' tasting
2. Their cellar door is right in Cromwell town, a good way to get your bearings.

The winery is named after New Zealand's largest quartz deposit, which lies beneath their vineyard at Bendigo Station. Winemaker Rudi Bauer (Austrian) aims to make wines that "capture attention and entertain, so that you forget everything else". Well, his sales manager Elaine definitely assisted us in forgetting everything else for half an hour whilst we tasted. Expectedly, the sparkling wines were the standouts.

Methode Traditionelle Brut NV
With a blend of 48% Chardonnay and 52% Pinot Noir, this wine spends a good 24 months on lees and is disgorged by hand. I loved the crisp green apple which shone through.

Methode Traditionalle Vintage 2010
My preference for the Blanc de Blancs style may have had me biased from the outset with this 93% Chardonnay blend. The vintage spent 3.5 years on lees, resulting in complex honey, caramel and autolysis flavours with some poached pears. All perfectly complementing the sherbet acidity and fine bead. Top stuff.

Methode Traditionelle Rose
Made with 100% Pinot Noir, I found ripe strawberries and rose water aromas with a sprinkle of flaked almonds on the palate.

In keeping with the area, Quartz Reef also make decent Pinot (Gris and Noir).

Misha's Vineyard

Our next stop was a perfect example of why you should always plan your trips to wine regions in advance. When I had contacted Misha's Vineyard to enquire about a tasting, I was pleasantly surprised when they offered us a 4WD tour of their vineyards (which lasted a couple of hours), followed by a private tasting at their headquarters back in Cromwell.

Misha and Andy Wilkinson are the charming owner/operators of this establishment. They certainly live up to their motto of "no compromises", with meticulous attention to detail in their long term business plan. Andy talked us through their journey from wine lovers to winery owners as we drove out to their northwest facing vineyards on the slopes of Lake Dunstan. 

Misha's Vineyards
Andy explained to us that Central Otago has the perfect pinot climate: long, hot days and cold nights in summer and a cool, dry autumn. Rugged landscapes and dry soils make the root systems of the vines work to find water, resulting in the complex flavour development and expression. The side of the lake they selected has the benefit of being protected from the fog that can plague the Pisa Range subregion, however they are challenged by strong spring winds. 

As my husband and I are both engineers with a mining background, we were suitably impressed by their modern pumping system which draws water from Lake Dunstan through a network of irrigation extending for kilometres.  We also appreciated the nod to the gold mining background of the area, particularly the Chinese miners, in the slab hut relic they have created. This stands next to their 'Lucky Eight Vines' planting (the Chinese consider the number 8 to be very lucky).

Lucky Vineyard
We returned to Cromwell a bit wind blown, but filled with appreciation for the viticulturists who persevere with such rugged conditions. Here we were guided through a tasting with the namesake herself, Misha Wilkinson. Interestingly, we tasted the red wines before the whites due to the stylistic qualities of each. The names of the wines are all inspired by Misha's theatrical background (and her mother being an Opera singer) and are crafted by winemaker Olly Masters (ex Ata Rangi).

High Note Pinot Noir 2010
Pinot Noir is treated very gently, being hand plunged in small batches and spending an extra 6-7 months in tank for cold stabilisation. There is also no filtration or fining conducted. Considering the wine was already 5 years old when tasted, there was still a gentle fruit base supporting a meaty texture and complex spiced aromas.

Lyric Riesling 2012
Less is more for me when it comes to sweetness in riesling. With its 4g/L of residual sugar, this was my favoured white. The nose was full of rich mealiness with citrus taking back seat, a honeyed influence moved in on the palate and it culminated in a long, textural finish.

Dress Circle Pinot Gris 2014
One of the last grapes picked in the season (usually reds are last), with cropping conducted similarly to Pinot Noir. The wine tasted of richly baked pears and showed elegant use of old oak.

Felton Road

Again, booking in advance served us well when we visited Felton Road. This had been my most anticipated winery visit of the trip, as the biodynamic producer is very well respected and reviewed in Australia. I was keen to see if the wines stood up to everything I had read.

Can I stay and help with next vintage?

Mike Wolfenden, assistant winemaker, proved to be an excellent guide. He was very focussed on minimal intervention, which definitely helps when you work in such an excellently designed winery. Nearly everything is gravity fed with the barrel rooms constructed below ground and plumbed in through the concrete floor. All this to minimise damage to the delicate pinot noir. There was even quiet classical music playing in the barrel rooms! 

There was a focus on texture with the winemaking (similar to Gibbston Valley producers), and Mike described this as we enjoyed a few barrel tastings. Unfortunately, I was a bit too caught up in the aura of the place to write tasting notes by the time we got back to the tasting room. However, the concise offering of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Riesling from Bannockburn was all spot on.

Felton Road are currently in the process of building a new cellar to mark their 20th Vintage. Mike was quick to point out that are not planning on expanding production, even though demand outstrips supply.  The purpose is to allow the Pinot Noir to spend more time in barrel. No better example of quality over quantity!