Wednesday, 20 April 2016

Seasonal Sentimentality

It's finally starting to cool down here on Groote Eylandt. 

The change in the weather has me reflecting on places I have spent time where the seasons are more defined. I sometimes dream wistfully of a climate where a full bodied red is appetising - here it's just too hot and humid most of the time!

I have heard of fellow residents closing up the house and blasting the aircon to simulate a cooler environment in order to enjoy their wine of choice. Or resorting to even more desperate measures such as putting ice cubes in their wine. Don't get me wrong, there's definitely a time and place for having chilled wine, but watering it down - that's another level altogether...

Whilst reflecting on seasonal change, my thoughts turned to an article I wrote whilst I was working Vintage in Canada. This article was entered into a writing competition for a well-reputed wine magazine I subscribe to. Although I was not selected as the best entrant, it would be a shame for all that time and effort to go to waste. So here's my article. I do hope you enjoy it - I would love your feedback on what I can improve for next time!

Seasonal Sentimentality

There are very few professions left in this globaliseddigitalised, hyperactive world that still follow the cyclical rhythm of the seasons. Even fresh foods we eat are now available all year round thanks to international transportation networks, advanced preservation techniques and genetic engineering.

Many of us have lost touch with the ebb and flow of the seasons. The reinvigoration of spring is swallowed up as shops bring out their Christmas wares. Long, hot days in summer still occur, but who really feels that quest for shade and water with modern air-conditioning? There is little time for reflection in autumn, when the falling leaves should remind us that nothing is forever. And as for winter, hibernation through rest and nourishment is rarely observed amidst the hustle and bustle of everyday life.

In saying that, there is still a pattern in the wines people drink at any given time of year. Spring sees warmer days and picnics, just crying out for a glass of rosé or bubbly. Summer calls for fresh, crisp whites and autumn for light, spicy reds. Of course, big bold reds make their presence known in winter, along with fortifieds that warm from the inside out.

Drinking wine to suit the weather is really only scratching the surface of seasonal awareness and appreciation. Those involved in making wine experience this on another level altogether, to the point where vignerons must be in tune with nature's slightest fluctuations, and adjust their routines accordingly. The infinite nature of their annual work cycle has no clear starting point, but each season has its own worthwhile reflection.

The season of the sun is a period of constant vigilance, where the growth of the grapes hangs in delicate balance. Weather forecasts become an obsession due to concerns associated with disease propagation, sun exposure and ripening capability. If anyone has the right to blame the weather man for an incorrect prediction, it would be a vigneron

As summer progresses, regular walks through the vineyards become essential. Questions that may be rolling through a producer's mind include: is my leaf coverage adequate or arethe grapes missing out on essential sunlight? Am I under or over irrigating the crop? Have I mitigated the differences in exposure based upon the directional layout of my vineyard? As you can see, all these questions are a matter of balance. 
Ever had the disappointing experience of a 'watery' Merlot? One contributing factor may have been excessive irrigation, which, although resulting in higher crop yield, also dilutes the berries and weakens that rich plum fruit profile one expects from the variety.

The defining question of this season is: when to pick? For some in Australia, picking may actually have already started in summer, so this statement is a generalisation. Either way, rain is the enemy, as it can result in dilution of both grape samples and harvested crop.

Sampling is undertaken regularly and in earnest, with laboratory staff run off their feet conducting sugar, pH and acidity testing. No doubt each winemaker has their ownexperience of sleepless nights based upon a decision to hold off picking over a weekend.

Decisions surrounding markers for picking require a clear vision of the end product. A crispMethode Champenoise brut would likely have been made from some Chardonnay or Pinot Noir grapes picked early in the season whilst their acidity was quite high and sugar content lower. Whereas a straight Chardonnay produced from grapes picked at this time is definitely not going to result in the big, round flavours many people are looking for.

Once fruit starts coming in, it is all systems go in the cellar. Shift work commences and long hours are a given. Minimising oxidation is critical, so getting juice into tanks becomes number one priority. At this stage, pre-season planning in regards to storage availability and capacity really shows.

As fruit becomes juice, tank settling and pump overs progress to racking operations, where the juice is separated from its lees (solids such as grape skins and seeds). It is here that the real chemistry side comes into play and where the winemaker justifies the cost of their degree. Inoculation with yeast, sulfur and acid adjustments and temperature control must all be finely controlled.

Another major decision is when and how to finish the ferment, whether naturally or forcefully, depending upon the desired style and residual sugar content. After this point, the juice has technically become wine and, from here on in, it is all about quality control and focus on final product goals.

By this stage, most viticulturists are breathing a sigh of relief and winemakers are backing off the hours (unless they are in the business of making ice wine).

The conundrum of the cold season is pruning. A wise viticulturist once said, 'Every day pruning in the sun is one less day pruning in the rain'. Pruning in itself is a reflective task, bringing the practitioner very close to the raw end of nature. The fact that you are stripping a plant bare in order to allow it to produce quality life is such a paradox.

Even worse is the process of grafting vines to a different variety. Hacking the plant off at the stem and seeing its lifeblood oozing out is really quite heart-wrenching. However, it is also awe-inspiring that a living being can not only regenerate itself after such stress, but essentially morph into something new at the same time.

Of course, winter is also an excellent time to drink red wine. This is when last year's reds are starting to be released, wine shows are in full swing and everyone is looking back on the previous vintage's labour and the outcomes.

That rich, complex Cabernet Sauvignon enjoyed with a hearty meat dish in front of the fire just would not have had the same depth and complexity if the pruning had been lax. Too many potential buds on the vine will result in an excessive crop through spring and will limit the flavour concentration within each berry.

Celebration, Fiesta, Carnivale! This is a time of long table lunches, of picnics in the vineyard, of popping Champagne and reveling with a rosé. Some wineries will be celebrating victories at their local show, others will be taking advantage of surging cellar door attendance.

Not everything is fun and games, as the winemakers start planning for the coming vintage, full of hope and expectation. New and adventurous ideas are conspired for the techniques they will use or tweak in the coming year. This is the time of year where big dreams and daring plans can result in the next hidden gem you find through an alternative varietal or a whacky production method. For instance, have you ever tried a white Mataro or a rosémade using carbonic maceration?

It is nigh on impossible to remain oblivious to seasonal fluctuations when working in wine production. So, next time you are relaxing with a crisp white in summer or a hearty red in winter, spare a thought for the year-long labour of love that has allowed you to inject a little seasonal sentimentality into your day.

Wednesday, 13 April 2016

Wineries of Central Otago - Cromwell Day 2

Awakening in Cromwell on our second day in the area, I felt a sense of deja vu.  Like the Okanagan Valley in Canada, where I worked a vintage in 2014, the region has a thriving stone fruit industry. Across the road from our accommodation, there was an extensive cherry plantation: rows upon rows of cherry trees entirely protected by netting and complete with frost dispersing windmills. 

Perhaps these will one day be replaced with grapes?
As I touched on in the previous post, the region is an old gold mining area. Many people from the Bendigo goldfields in Australia were drawn to a second rush in this region, hence the common name. On a morning stroll along the banks of the Kawarau River, we could see evidence of old gold diggings. 

Our plan of attack for the day was to check out a few more of the wineries in the Bannockburn subregion (we were enjoying that particular style of Pinot Noir greatly) and then head further north to the Pisa Range subregion, where we had a very special afternoon and evening planned with the owners of Pisa Range Estate.


First off the rank for the day was Akarua. Their well presented tasting facility was manned by an equally polished cellar door attendant. Akarua have vineyards near their cellar door on Carnmuir Road as well as on Felton Road and at Lowburn. My picks of their solid offerings were:
Beautiful tasting bar at Akarua

Akarua Vintage Brut 2010
60% Chardonnay, 40% Pinot Noir, made in a fresh and crisp style with 18 months on lees.

Akarua Pinot Noir 2013
Deep earthy berries dance above a layer of charred meatiness.

Akarua Pinot Noir 2011
This wine saw at least 1.5 years of bottle ageing prior to release. The fruit flavours integrated well with silky, rich tannins.


We needn't have bothered to move the car to get to Carrick, which was literally across the road. They follow an organic philosophy, with this theme running through their operations in the vineyard, winery and on-site restaurant. On the back of great reviews of their Pinot, I was pleased to discover their white wines to be just as enjoyable:
2014 Carrick Sauvignon Blanc
I almost skipped the sauv blanc, but was then glad I did not miss out on the delightfully aromatic aromas of tropical fruits such as lychee and passionfruit.

2013 Carrick Bannockburn Riesling
With moderate residual sugar (26g/L), this gorgeously balanced wine had the hallmark kerosene nose, with lemon/lime flavours championing the palate.

2012 Carrick Bannockburn Pinot Noir
With a couple of years in bottle, this wine has already developed personality with some chewy meatiness and earthiness making it dinner party ready.


Named after the 'rugged, rock-strewn landscape of Central Otago', I definitely sensed a focus on terroir behind Rockburn's endeavours. Like Quartz Reef, the winery and cellar door is situated in the industrial estate of Cromwell in order to be a central point between their vineyards at Gibbston and Lowburn. 

The rugged, rock-strewn landscape of Central Otago
Rockburn Fume Blanc 2013
A far cry from tropical fruit punch, this textural wine had a mealy creaminess from malolactic fermentation whilst exhibiting strong minerality - smelling like a road after rain. An intriguing wine.

Rockburn Reserve Pinot Noir 2013
16 months in barrel has allowed a depth of berry fruits and an elegant earthiness to establish itself. I preferred this wine to the premium version (Eleven Barrels), which was slightly too powerful for me.

Pisa Range Estate

Leaving Cromwell behind us and heading 10km north, we arrived at Pisa Range Estate. This sustainable patch of paradise is nestled below the mountain range of its namesake, with Lake Dunstan not far away. Along with the Waenga loam soils, the geography creates a much sought-after microclimate suitable for Pinot Noir.

With a background in NZ diplomacy, but always with a love for wine, Warwick and Jenny Hawker selected and purchased the property in 1995. From the outset, their focus has been on minimal intervention and this has underpinned all their business decisions. As we walked through the poplar-lined vineyard, Warwick explained the challenges of the growing season, especially 'frost fighting'. 

Buds and young shoots are particularly susceptible to damage from freezing. The result can be disastrous losses for the vintage. Many techniques are employed in an attempt to disperse the cold air which settles around the vines and causes freezing. At Pisa Range, we observed heaters lining the rows as well as wind machines, which mix warmer air from above the vines with the cooler air below. Not many vineyard managers sleep well during spring - graveyard shift awakenings are not uncommon!

Heaters and wind machines fight frost in the vineyards at Pisa Range Estate
Pisa Range Estate wines are made at Quartz Reef in Cromwell by the talented Rudi Bauer, whose own wines I have described previously. The serious business of tasting the current vintage was with Jenny in the old woolshed which has been beautifully restored to house their cellar door. As we enjoyed these wines plus some library wines at dinner that evening, I will leave my description until later in this recount.


Our lodging for the evening was a bit of a splash out for us, but worth it. Aoturoa is a luxury villa outside of Wanaka on the banks of the Clutha river. We had selected the Dinner with Winemakers package, which included the tour and tasting at Pisa Range Estate. When we arrived at the bed and breakfast style lodgings, we were greeted by Jon and Lesley who made us feel right at home with a much welcomed cuppa and then left us to rest and reset, ready for an evening of good food and wine.

Jon and Lesley were as charming as Jenny and Warwick (with whom they are close friends). We were very interested to hear Jon's anecdotes about fishing and other outdoor pursuits in NZ. Lesley's cooking and hospitality was amazing. Walking into her kitchen was like stepping right into a Margaret Fulton cookbook. Warwick and Jenny also provided lively commentary, not only on the wine, throughout the meal.

On the banks of the Clutha River at Aoturoa

Dinner with the Winemakers

The menu and wines spoke for themselves across the evening. Of course, I was enjoying myself too much to take tasting notes, but I have included some links to New Zealand wine critic Raymond Chan's reviews if you are at all interested. The courses unfolded as follows:

1. Taste
Spinach and Feta Triangles
2013 Pisa Range Estate Riesling
(Raymond Chan Review)

2. Entree
Westcoast Whitebait & Asparagus with Buerre Blanc Sauce
2012 Pisa Range Estate Riesling
(Raymond Chan Review)

3. Main
Southland Lamb with sauteed potatoes, baby beetroot and salsa verde
2007 Pisa Range Estate 'Black Poplar Block' Pinot Noir
(Gold - 2010 San Francisco International Wine Awards)

4. Cheese
Kapiti Ramara golden washed-rind cheese
2012 Pisa Range Estate 'Black Poplar Block' Pinot Noir
(Raymond Chan Review)

5. Dessert
Chocolate & roasted hazelnut cake
2013 Pisa Range Estate 'Run 245' Pinot Noir

Of the rieslings, my preferences was the 2013, as I found it more pure in fruit and minerality. Of the reds, I loved the 2007 Poplar Block and the 2012 shows promise to be just as good, if not better, in years to come.

Needless to say, it was a another highlight of our Central Otago adventure.

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!