On the Trail

A Very Particular Sense of Place

Ryan Woodhouse

I recently hosted an in-depth “Wines of New Zealand” seminar for our staff in Redwood City. The idea was to dig a little deeper into the intricacies of this stunning country. We isolated a few key regions (Marlborough, Hawke’s Bay and Central Otago) and then broke each one down further to look at sub-regionality within them. I wanted to explore the sensory nuances that changes in topography, aspect, climate, soil, etc. can have on wines even within a specific region. One of the best illustrations of this concept was the flight of Central Otago pinot noirs. Central Otago is a highly complex region with a multitude of these different factors or variables affecting the expression of grapes grown in a special locale. 

The most markedly different expressions of pinot noir came from two wines that were actually the same vintage (2015) and grown only sixteen miles apart. However, as you can see in the map above, these two vineyard sites are separated by some very significant geography. The vineyard site for the 2015 Akitu “A1” Central Otago Pinot Noir is just outside the picturesque town of Wanaka. It lies on a north-facing slope in quite close proximately to the glaciated mountains of the Southern Alps. is range is known as the “main divide" separating New Zealand’s rugged, wet west coast from the arid, high desert that is Central Otago. The site is very exposed to cold air flows and prevailing bad weather coming from the west. Beyond its exposed physical location the geology here is characterized by very hard schist bedrock. Akitu’s vines sit on the lower slopes of Mount Barker. This outcrop of rock is actually a roche moutonnée, essentially a piece of particularly hard bedrock that defied glacial abrasion. In summary, Akitu’s vines are situated on hard, bony, schist soils on a cold, exposed aspect. As a result the wine is defined by elegance and compact precision. It has beautiful oral, high-toned aromatics, a nely tuned linear presentation and spicy, bramble nuances. A very seductive wine, it’s made from 70% Abel clone pinot noir, a pinot clone with a heritage tracing back to Domaine de la Romanée-Conti’s “La Tâche” Vineyard. The Akitu A2 is grown from the exact same vineyard site as the A1 (Black Label), and made and matured in the same fashion, but is comprised of a broader clonal and block selection across the entire site. Whereas the A1 focuses predominantly on the Abel clone from one particular block that has a unique expression; the A2 is more representative of the site as a whole. The A2 is a little more open, and generous than the A1 whilst still retaining the elegance and focus that the site produces. I don’t see these wines as better or worse than one another, simply different expressions of place and season.

In contrast, the site for Rudi Bauer’s 2015 Quartz Reef pinot noir, only sixteen miles southeast of Akitu, is in one of the warmest subregions of Central Otago, Bendigo. This area has long been synonymous with deep, brooding, powerful wines with considerable structure. Bendigo also faces north (the sunny aspect in the southern hemisphere) but is farther from the Southern Alps main divide. In fact, another set of mountains, the Pisa Range, runs between Akitu and Quartz Reef’s site, providing an additional layer of weather defense to Bendigo. Sitting on a steep slope on the eastern banks of Lake Dunstan, Quartz Reef’s vines also enjoy the direct heat of the afternoon sun while vineyards on the west shores are shadowed by the towering ranges. The soils here are composed of arid clay, fine sandy loams and fragmented quartz. These heavier soils lend themselves to a more generous palate weight in the resulting wines, quite different to the more compact, layered expression of pinot grown on schist. The 2015 Quartz Reef “Bendigo Single Vineyard” pinot noir from Central Otago is packed with dense, rich, dark fruits, perfectly judged ripeness, a broad texture and exotic spice notes. is is quite a generous wine but it has plenty of robust structure to last a decade-plus in the cellar. Farmed and made according to Demeter-certified biodynamic protocols. 

-Ryan Woodhouse