This past January and February, I attended the 10th Central Otago Pinot Celebration. I was asked to reflect on my time at this year’s event by New Zealand Winegrowers, but will start with the story of a tree…
Strolling around Lake Wakatipu in Queenstown a few days after the event, the girth of an unusual trunk, a species of which I’d never beheld, drew my gaze up along its grand frame, and into the intertwined branches of its shadowy canopy. I stood for a while, watching the interplay of the waning sunlight on dappled leaves. Habit triggered me to reach for my camera. I twirled the machine in my hands, trying different angles to determine how to collect the moment digitally, forever, but I just couldn’t frame it as I experienced it in life.
Suddenly I was struck by a duality of emotions brought on by the paradox of great beauty: it has the ability to ignite immense joy and sorrow in the beholder, simultaneously. I could not take with me the beauty of this tree, and recognized the ephemeral state of the moment, meaning my brief interaction with it was only that. I felt oddly saddened.
So why do I ramble on about a tree when I should be talking wine? Because the tree left me pondering the various manifestations of beauty experienced at this year’s 3-day Central Otago Pinot Noir Celebration, and the emotional arc each one created.
Beauty is a complex and highly subjective concept, with several definitions in the dictionary, the first being “the combination of all the qualities of a person or thing that delight the senses and please the mind.” Considering that definition, I start with the obvious: the scenery of Central Otago. Set within the magnificence of the region’s natural good looks, the festival utilized various winery and restaurant sites nestled beneath the jagged peaks that ring Otago’s neat rows of vineyards, and at the center of which sits the sparkling, aquamarine-hued Lake Wakatipu.
The Grand Tasting featured participating wineries inside The Shed at Northburn, a former station (ranch) picturesquely set on a ridge, now home to a winery and a rustic-chic barn. Each producer supplied its 2012 Pinot for vintage comparison, and a second bottle of its choosing.
We tasted the beauty of local foods. Vineyards and wineries hosted festival goers for a sunny, outdoor repast. I was fortunate to dine at Amisfield on sensationally fresh produce such as zucchini and leeks. The highlight, however, was a 20-hour, spit-roasted whole lamb, delivered with unintentional theatrics via a pitchfork, to our tables fringing Amisfield’s vineyards and duck-filled pond.
On the first night, welcome canapés and drinks — a showcase of white wines from the Pinot producers — started the evening off at Rata, a stylish, contemporary spot in downtown Queenstown. On our last evening, we celebrated at Skyline, a restaurant perched high above the glittering town, with a menu of regional highlights such as cured Aoraki salmon and tender venison filet.
Despite the stunning backdrop and fare, most attendees joined the celebration for one reason: their devotion to Pinot Noir. In Central Otago, Pinot especially is beauty in pure form. Through a colorful spectrum of hues from vivid ruby to gentle garnet in mature vintages, to nose and palate tendering floral notes; the garrigue of local, rampant growths of thyme; warm spices; and red and dark fruits, washed forward in waves of silk and velvet.
But Pinot isn’t merely a sensual, shallow pleasure; it expresses beauty conceptually. Love drives folks to rationalize crazy decisions, and the Central Otago winemakers who’ve fallen for the finicky grape have enduringly committed their souls to her care. Pinot vines cling to vineyards at the end of the earth, such as those of Two Paddock’s Last Chance Vineyard, arguably the furthest place south in the world that a grape can be nurtured to ripeness while struggling against a marginal, frost-prone climate and hellacious winds. These dedicated stewards bottle each vintage’s expression of site, weather, and toil, telling the love story of their year, no matter how tragic.
Considering further the notion of beauty as “an outstanding example of its kind”, many Pinots at the festival demonstrated Central Otago sub-regions do, quite prominently, exist. Wanaka trended towards minerality; Alexandra, a land of great diurnal range, explored spice and fragrance; Wanaka Road, e.g., Pisa, Cromwell, and Lowburn, tendered sweet fruit and florals, while Gibbston, the highest elevation, celebrated the savory balanced with fine red fruit character. Bannockburn developed natural structure, and riper tannins, while Bendigo, the warmest region, added blue fruits and more powerful tannin.
We also explored the beauty of vineyard site: Felton Road Cornish Point. Beauty of vine age: Terra Sancta Slapjack Block. Beauty in viticultural philosophy: Burn Cottage. Beauty of clones, and even in Steve Davies’ Doctor’s Flat soil microbes, or so he would argue.
There were beautiful displays of generosity and collaboration. Skilled orator John Hawkesby coaxed bidders out of nearly ten-thousand dollars at the charity auction to benefit Mercy Hospital Charitable Outreach and the Sport Otago Trust. The winemakers of Central Otago demonstrated a deeply ingrained spirit of sharing and partnership not just with each other, but also in the region’s bond with Burgundy, illustrated by the presence of French delegates who traveled thousands of miles to join, including Aubert de Villaine of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti.
But the conundrum of the immense joy wrought by beauty is the equal measure of sadness derived from knowing it and losing it, each glass drunk, another bottle gone, never again to be tasted; each festival event concluded, that day never to be regained.
This may appear a glum ending for a recap of an ebullient occasion, but it’s not meant to be. By recognizing the fleetingness of life and the unstoppable passage of moments, I’m drawn to conclude, all from meeting a tree one evening in Queenstown, that Pinot people don’t spend life in anticipation of tomorrow, or focused on regret. They are present, alive in each moment, and lovers of life. To quote the Pinot celebration’s spokesperson Jen Parr of Terra Sancta: “Pinot is humanity.” Pinot lovers accept that what we cannot take to the grave makes precious what we have before us now, and for that, I will always be a Pinot person.