rains, floods and biodynamics

The last month has seen heavy rains and some flooding across much of New Zealand. The South Island was effectively separated into two parts as rivers and lakes reached their capacity and water began to swallow up roads and bridges. Lake Wanaka had just reached town when the water started to recede.

In Central Otago, such heavy rain is unusual and water-stress is most usually a concern for farmers and winegrowers. Fortunately the soils here, a melange of schists compressed and pulverised by old glaciers, in other places gravel riverbeds and loess, drain easily.

This week (commencing Monday 9/12) saw a complete shift back to dry and hot and the first signs of flowering could be seen in the vineyard – not something you want to happen when it’s raining.

On Tuesday, with the weather having shown some mercy, I was able to participate (I was more of an active spectator, really) in the application of the biodynamic preparation 500*. Preparation 500 aids in the formation of humus and more broadly promotes good soil health – an increase in the presence of macro-organisms etc. In turn, soil structure gradually begins to improve over time, then root penetration, and so on…

Fresh manure was used for the assembly of the CPP**, or rather, two new ones. The CPP, or Cow Pat Pit, is manure mixed with ground eggshells and basalt dust and is used in the manner of a compost. The CPP receives the compost preparations 502 through to 507 and undergoes aerobic decomposition for 3-4 months.

It was a great day of learning for me and I had the additional pleasure of meeting Su Hoskin of the Biodynamic Community Otago. Su started her journey in biodynamics with Burn Cottage (established in 2002 by the Sauvage family and now one of the icons of Central Otago) and also worked with Domaine Thompson (who also make wine in Gevrey-Chambertin). Throughout the day she patiently and graciously answered a continuous barrage of questions from the team.

Of course, I’m left with as many, if not more, questions than I started with, as well as a bit of reading to do.

* This is the cow manure packed into cow horns (the picture of which adorns many books, articles and pamphlets on biodynamics) which is buried for a six month fermentation. It is diluted, using a process called dynamization and applied directly to the soils.

** The Cow Pat Pit is not one of Steiner’s preparations. However it is widely used in biodynamic agriculture to improve soil fertility.

mature wines from Rippon

It’s not my intention for this blog to be filled with tasting notes, chiefly because I dislike writing them (if I’m to be completely honest). Of course, I see their value, but I’m not writing for commercial purposes and I don’t wish to brandish trophies. Furthermore, wine tasting is subjective and often affected by mood, setting and expectation.

That said, I thought I’d share this because it felt very special to me. Both of these bottles are from Rippon, where I’m currently working in the vineyard*, and both were matured on the property. 

Note, before I go on, that both bottles were confidently sealed with Diam closures.

This is what I came here for. Eight years old and taking on the glimmer of gold the 2011 Riesling (mature vine) displays a honeyed and paraffin scented nose and proffers an abundance of ripe exotic fruit. Extended lees contact builds in a structure that forms an important part of this wine’s personality; that nourishing and chewy tannin that sits behind the fruit and residual sugar. It’s a distinctive feature of the Riesling made here.

This 2010 Pinot Noir (an unlabelled bottle) I was going to hold onto for a little longer, but my curiosity got the better of me. I was very grateful to have this. Quite ready to go after almost a decade, deep in colour and showing a particularly bold profile. It’s layered, sappy, concentrated and firm. Still, within that muscular exterior hides a beautiful quality of dark fruit and spice. By all reports this was a tough young wine, hence why it was put away for later release… still it begs for a few more years of patience… patience that I evidently don’t have.

An Australian journalist, Nick Stock (who now writes for jamessuckling.com), was particularly moved by the 2010 Rippon Pinot Noir (rating it 100 points) during a recent tour of New Zealand. You can read his article on New Zealand Pinot Noir here.

There you go, tasting notes. Don’t ask for more!

* Before the question of bias is raised, I have been transparent about my employment at Rippon. Here, I am sharing a wonderful personal experience and for no financial gain.

shoot thinning in the wind and rain

Wanaka’s resident Mallards seem unfazed by the inclement weather.

Some pretty poor weather has made both work and play rather difficult in the last couple of weeks. While the sun has shown its face from time to time, it’s been predominantly cold, windy and rainy here. That said, snow seems to be disappearing from the mountains at a rate of knots.

The vineyard team at Rippon (including myself lagging dutifully behind and asking too many questions) has been busy shoot thinning over the last couple of weeks, first with the whites (Riesling, Gewürztraminer etc.) and now Pinot Noir. This has been pretty tough on back and knees, but the process is teaching me a lot about the attention to detail required by that most coveted of vines.

Tuesday afternoons provide welcome respite from all the kneeling and bending. Artfully dubbed “poo’s-day”, this is where we head out on the truck with shovels and buckets in search of the finest cow dung in the Southern Lakes. Perhaps not for everyone, but I rather enjoy this important task. A hearty and nutritious compost is an integral part organic and biodynamic farming (most farming, for that matter).

On another note, the potential for the application of biochar in vineyards, as well as its many other benefits, has recently attracted my interest… but more on that at a later date.

That’s all for now. Bis später!

my new job…

Four weeks ago I started a new job in the vineyard at Rippon. I was excited and nervous… and I still am. This family-run biodynamic farm is one of the main reasons I was so drawn to Central Otago and Wanaka in particular. Call it a pilgrimage, if you like.

The 2019 Farm Voices event, last Monday, was a wonderful opportunity for the team to get in touch with and gain a deeper understanding of the whole farm entity; from the ancient geology of the land to the cows, the compost, the vines and the cellar. It was a great day of learning… with “Lunch & Rieslings” generously provided.

Of great interest to me is the history of the place and the story of Sir Percy Sargood who purchased the land (then a part of Wanaka Station) in 1912 with the vision of nurturing a wholly self-sustainable farm. This great foresight has informed a tradition at Rippon that is upheld to this day by the current generation of the Mills family.

Lamont of Bendigo

I met Craig Gasson in a bar quite late the other night. I had just had dinner (and a few beers) and he had just arrived back in Wanaka having personally delivered some of his wines to a venue in Albert Town.

I had come out full of questions about Lamont, the vineyards of Bendigo and Craig’s day to day work but I leaned quickly that a conversation with this very energetic man demands some serious mental agility. He also seemed to have as many questions for me, “why Central?” for example, “couldn’t you have just gone to the Yarra Valley?” – of course, that’s another story entirely.

Gasson completed a degree in viticulture and oenology at the University of Adelaide before joining the McLachlan family at Lamont in 2001. Prior to that, he had laboured intensively in vineyards around south eastern Australia; “hoeing… smoking rabbits out of holes” and the likes. I don’t doubt that his enthusiasm helped drive a great deal of prolific work during Lamont’s early days, but the young man was itching to see more of the wine world.

Though he was to eventually to return to Lamont, he found himself in Kent, England, working for Chapel Down, where he played a key role in the expansion of the estate into new vineyards. He also met his now wife Angela in the UK, and together they spent a couple of years working in the Okanagan region of Canada, where Craig worked for Culmina Family Estate.

It was when the McLachlans were beginning to focus on other wine ventures that Craig was invited back into the fold and so he and Angela packed up, headed south (as far south as the vine will grow) and together took the helm at Lamont in 2012.

Supposedly the sunniest and warmest subregion of Central Otago, with hot summer days and cool nights, the vineyards of Bendigo are situated in the area above the north-eastern end of Lake Dunstan and rise to quite remarkable elevation – up to about 450m.

The Pinot Noir wines here, are dark and intensely flavoured and the the whites (in my experience, Pinot Gris and Riesling, particularly) show impressive structure and age-worthiness.

Craig’s 2017 Pinot Noir is deep in colour and flavour, exuding an earthy, organic and mineral, charm. It’s a very graceful, effortless, wine with satin like fruit and sappy tannins. The 2018 rosé (Pinot Noir) is savoury, acutely varietal and mouth-watering.

The 2017 Dry Riesling (which I posted on Instagram a couple of weeks ago) is tense and vivid, with striking aromatics and crystal-clear fruit flavours, highly recommend for both immediate drinking and cellaring. 

I also really enjoyed the 2018 Pinot Gris for its decidedly refreshing style; lemony and delicately floral, finishing with good length and cooling acidity.

I haven’t tasted all of Craig’s wines, nor visited his vineyards (though I hope to make the most of any opportunity to do so soon). I have, however, been quite taken by what I’ve drunk so far and I was impressed by his knowledge and passion for the industry. He also kindly offered to lend me his car.

The Pennikets and Minaret Peaks

I have been in Wanaka for nearly two months now and I’ve been able to taste through a fair amount of local wine… this was one that made quite an impression on me.

Having purchased land from Rolfe Mills of Rippon Farm, Sue and Andrew Penniket planted their 1 hectare vineyard in 1993, with no previous experience in the wine industry (they both met while studying biology, and moved to Wanaka from Dunedin). It was Rolfe himself who encouraged the plantings and the Pennikets still have a close relationship with the Mills family and friends to this day. Rolfe Mills passed away in 2000.

Planted on free draining glacial moraine soils and situated much further back from the lake than their neighbours at Rippon, protection from the cold is limited and the threat of frost is higher. Andrew does mention, however, that truly woeful frost events (like the loss of a whole crop, which sadly did happen) have become infrequent in recent years. It’s undeniable that this is due to climate change, however small a blessing it is for some.

One hectare of ungrafted vines (“I hope you haven’t been walking in any bad places” Andrew says to me – note: I bought my boots in Wanaka) is divided equally between Chardonnay and Pinot Noir and with apparent clonal diversity. Being part of what Sue called the “second wave” these are some of the oldest vinifera vines in Central Otago.

Despite having briefly experimented with sparkling wine in their early days, the Chardonnay is now sold off to another estate. The remaining half a hectare yields an average of 200 cases a year as the Penniket’s Minaret Peaks Pinot Noir.

[I’ve made a small edit here as I identified an error in my notes. The 2015 was the bottle I purchased and took home with me, the 2016 I enjoyed at both Pembroke Wine & Spirits and at the home of Sue and Andrew]

The 2016 caught my attention at a local wine store recently, and is the reason I sought the Pennikets out. The fruit here is dark, pure, sweet-toned and layered with savoury aromas and flavours along with a subtle glint of minerality. It’s concentrated but not at all bulky and the use of oak is discreet, playing well with assertive yet soft tannins. A bright line of acidity is a hallmark of wines from this marginal climate. For the time being, I’m afraid, you’ll have to travel to Wanaka to enjoy a bottle.

I was very grateful for the time (and wine) that Sue and Andrew kindly shared with me when I visited on Monday. It’s worth noting that the Pennikets are also highly involved in local conservation and reforestation efforts. See Te Kākano for more information.

a bit of back and forth.

Three nights in Queenstown was just about enough for me and so I’m happy to be back in Wanaka and, of course, to be joined by Elena (who has only just caught up with the 10 hour time difference between here and Milan). I must say that, despite the pleasant hikes and the beautiful lake Wakatipu, Queenstown was not my sort of place.

Having previously only taken the route between Wanaka and Queenstown that runs via Cromwell and along the precarious (and spectacular) Kawarau Gorge, I was happy to travel via Cardrona on the return journey. Well… that’s some road… and I’ll be damned if I ever take it during winter frosts!

I fortified myself with a couple of glasses of Pinot Noir at the Cardrona Hotel [pictured above] and took my rightful place in the back seat for the remainder of the drive to Wanaka.

Elena and I walked out to the Rippon vineyard yesterday as I wanted to show her the site and the home of those amazing wines. I’ve promised we’ll return for a tasting at a later date.

We did, however, visit the Maude tasting room today. It’s nowhere near the Mount Maude site, but rather in an accessible and picturesque spot above the golf course and the town itself.

The Mount Maude site was planted in 1994, somewhere between Lake Wanaka and Lake Hawea (to the north east), by Dawn and Terry Wilson.

Riesling is grown in two plots, the sunnier of the two offering a very tense dry wine and the shadier being better suited to an “off-dry” style that both Elena and I were very fond of. Not much further information was offered… but I plan to visit the vineyard eventually.

Both the Chardonnay and ‘KIDS Block’ Pinot Noir from the original Mount Maude site were powerful wines by any standard and very well crafted. The latter was my favourite. The Maude ‘estate’ Pinot Noir (sourced from sites in Queensberry, Cromwell and one between Cromwell and Queenstown) is bright, charming and offers a great deal of depth given time in the glass.

For those visiting Wanaka, I strongly recommend the Maude tasting room. It’s a short walk from town and a beautiful place to drink wine. The staff, also, are brilliant.

On another note, I consider myself very fortunate to have been introduced to two more local wineries today (one by an ANZ bank clerk) that are both producing really compelling wines… but more on that later.

Goodnight, for now.