Monday, 12 November 2012

Otago: The Heart of Lightness



The flight from London to New Zealand is the closest I will ever come to intergalactic travel. On my last trip I stayed for 4 days. After a weekend in the air, the plane touched down in Queenstown late on a Sunday afternoon. Saturday had been lost, light turned into darkness, 24hrs whittled down into a quick bowl of soy-drenched noodles in Hong Kong.
At the airport urinals, flanked by two giant Polynesians, the three of us pressed together like the pipes of a church organ, I pondered Darwin’s observation that evolution encourages diversity rather than dominance, and that Nature likes a niche, and one size really doesn’t fit all. I wasn’t built for oceanic migrations, they weren’t built for airline seats, and all three of us were too tall to dock effectively with the low-slung porcelain bowls in front of us. The man to the right of me seemed intent on making a particularly personal statement about the shortcomings of standardisation by recklessly  hosing my hand-luggage. The horror!
Queenstown offers geography in the raw: mountains, lakes, rivers, lenticular clouds and adrenaline-filled rides between them; but most importantly, it held out the prospect of sleep. I rolled into bed at 10pm, only to find that the Boeing’s west-to-east navigation had wedged a void of space-time between me and unconsciousness. I switched on the AM radio, and caught the tail-end of some irate exchanges about the Chinese taking Kiwi jobs, and rallying calls to resist the New World order of slave cities and poorly made white goods. Calm was restored by a record break, Allan Sherman’s ”Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah” followed by “Big John”. The combination of moribund songs and fury was reminiscent of my childhood. the scene was set for 70s punk to explode into these angry famers' 21st Century lives.
The following day I drove out to Cromwell, past Chard Farm and through Gibbston Valley. The day’s first visit was Mt Difficulty, where all the money seemed to have been spent on the smart new canteen. I tried a few uncared for bottles, ullaged by out of season visitors, but the guy pouring them still seemed zombified by summer’s mass influx of tasters. When I asked him about oak handling, he replied that “the wine showed good fruit”; and he reacted to my question about “malo” by pointing me toward the male loos.
Next-door to Mt. Difficulty is Felton Road, where I was greeted by the expansive Nigel Greening. Immediately Nigel started referencing France and Germany, making anecdotal associations between his vineyards and the finest terroirs of Vosne and the Mosel. One of his pets, I soon found out, was called “Jancis”. Minimizing degrees of separation seemed to be at the bottom of nearly everything Nigel said, and after half an hour I concluded that all Europe had contributed to the making of Felton Road in one way or another.
Vineyards at Felton Rd are called “blocks”. At Mt Difficulty the viticulture had been slapdash, whereas the “blocks” were immaculate: shoots of even length and even vigour carrying similar amounts of crop. Nigel went into considerable detail about biodynamic production: goats, hawks, cover crops, preps; yet, as ever, the whole reasoned panoply of self-contained production seemed at odds with the accompanying anti-enlightenment yarns about totemic animals. The conversation went from a reasoned and visible account of the workings of an enclosed agricultural system to absurd anthroposophical flights of fancy. The goats were doing a good recycling job, that much I could see, but by the time Nigel had finished I was prepared for a bleating chorus of Odl-lay odl-lay odl-lay hoo! hoo! 
Despite all of Nigel’s attempts to lock them together like the north and south poles of a magnet, Otago isn’t Burgundy. The first wine we tried was a Chardonnay. Someone whose name meant nothing to me had likened this to “Montrachet” I was told, but it wasn’t. Wild fermentation had supplemented the simple citrus nose with flavours of yeast and barley. It was a good wine, quite acidulous, and a fitting reward for all the hours spent in the vineyards.  Next we had a pair of Pinot Noirs, Felton Rd Estate and Block 5. Nigel got into his stride about how they had identified thin seams of calcareous gravel within the schist, and the roots had threaded along these, so despite the fact Bannockburn’s geology seemed very different from the Côte de Nuits, the cameo appearance of marl had contrived to make them twins of a sort. As I tasted the wines, Nigel reiterated the cross-hemispherical connection with an anecdote about draught horses ploughing la Tâche, but my memories of hideously extended air travel were all too raw for this.  
Otago is cooler and drier than Burgundy, it’s also geologically younger. At the height of summer the bleached karst scenery of the Côte d’Or can evoke the Midi, whilst Otago in February still looks periglacial, with fast moving streams icily under lit by refracted blue/green light. But stepping out into the late “Central” summer the most striking contrast is not the landscape but the luminance; New Zealand’s sun seems nearer and hotter, like the encroaching star of an apocalyptic sci-fi novel. 
“Sunlight into Wine” was one of the seminal texts of my MW studies, and inevitably it influenced my tasting of Felton’s Pinot Noir. Not only is irradiance 40% higher in Otago than it is in Burgundy, but the lateness of the harvest means bunches hang in the sunlight for longer. What struck me about both the Felton Rd and Block 5 was the range of flavours; there were black fruits, red fruits, rhubarb, citrus, ivy, oak and spice; in fact, if wine quality was measured by the lexicon of descriptors a single variety could inspire, then Otago Pinot would be slugging it out with Californian Zinfandel and Barossa Shiraz for best in show. The contrast with the Côte de Nuits could not be greater. The finest red burgundies show homogeneity in fruit character, their flavours pretty much tow in the same direction and the attribution of quality is in part a measure of the intensity this red fruit element attains; the lasting impression is something like a perfectly sustained piano note, rather than a damped chord. By contrast, the Block 5 separated into a range of different flavours, a melange of tart, ripe, overripe and spicy characters that were all vying for my attention.  
Depending on your point of view, a prism either scatters light into its constituent wavelengths or refocuses them back into a single beam. Loosely applied, this seems a reasonable analogy for the differences I tasted between the Pinot Noir of Felton Rd and the wines of Vosne Romanée; viticulture, vinification, elevage, maturation, and polymerisation act like a lens in Burgundy, drawing everything to a point, whereas at Felton Rd, the studied application of the same techniques produces a hugely varied palate.
After Felton Road, I called in at Burn Cottage. Where Nigel had managed to make biodynamics sound like la dolce vita, Jarryd Connelly played out the role of the ascetic priest: filthy finger nails, crumpled, his hands buried up to the elbows in preps, he was some of Kurt Vonnegut’s mud that happened to sit-up. When I first met Jarryd he was hand-weeding 60,000 vines, though he subsequently sent me an e:mail asking my thoughts on the potential benefits of weed stress on young vines (There are none.)  The wines are made by Claire Mulholland and Ted Lemon, a formidable team, and the first vintage of their Pinot was more subtle than Felton Road’s, though I’m not sure subtlety is what one should necessarily expect or even strive for in Otago.
Wanaka is more humid than Cromwell, and its rainfall totals are not dissimilar to Burgundy’s, but the high irradiance levels still rip moisture out of the soil faster than it can be replenished. Rippon Vineyard borders Lake Wanaka, and the views to Mt Cook arguably make it the World’s most photogenic vineyard, but don’t be fooled into thinking this idyll is incapable of doing useful work.
Nick Mills took over Rippon from his pioneering father. Nick worked a few vintages in Burgundy, and spent long enough at DRC to tell me their viticulture wasn’t the best he’d seen, though the wines were something else. Nick wasn’t unctuous; he was spare with his commentary. He gauges how much he needs to tell  you from the rigour of your questioning. Like Burn Cottage and Felton Rd, Rippon is biodynamic, and as part of the tour I was taken to the estate’s fermenting compost piles; in fact, we spent 40 minutes with the compost, which made me think that Nick was deliberately trying to break the spell of the vista. Compost is essential to Rippon, not least because Nick dry farms the older vineyards. Pinot Noir seems to show at its best when the supply of water and nutrients is uninterrupted, and the magnitude of the compost piles proved this balance was hard earned.
Rippon’s Pinot Noir did seem more homogeneous than Felton Rd’s: it was softer and less exotic; but the preference for one estate over the other is a matter of individual taste. I liked Nick a lot too.  At the end 16,000 miles of travel you need to be inspired, because you’re a wreck, and Nick did this. After 3 hours at Rippon, I got back into my car, returned to Queenstown and did what I had wanted to do for the previous 3 days, slept until morning.   

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