View from the top of the tower at Domaine Serene in Dundee Hills, Oregon
Tag Archives: pinot noir
Spring makes her stunning debut not with the blustery, wet weather forecasted for this week, but with a knockout lineup of wine tastings from three stellar regions: Willamette, Oregon; Corsica, France; and Portugal. Rather wine than sun, right? Here’s where to taste this month.
Wines of Corsica Presents “Being” at Openhouse Mulberry Gallery (201 Mulberry Street), April 9 through 11
Transport yourself out of Manhattan and on to the rustic and beautiful Mediterranean island of Corsica with “Being,” a one-of-a-kind, artistic event series dedicated to the dreamy French Isle’s finest export — wine. Attendees will sample an array of local vins while viewing depictions of daily life through the eyes of two artists.
For three days — Thursday, April 9, and Friday, April 10, from 6 to 9 p.m., and Saturday, April 11, from 7 to 11 p.m., nine Corsican producers will be on hand to discuss their wines, walk patrons through the process of winemaking, and describe the various grapes commonly grown on the island.
The visual component to the tasting was conceived by Aaron Zebrook, a photographer and the wine director at NYC’s Beatrice Inn, and Gabriela Bravo Clavello, a Mexican painter and industrial designer. Both artists spent ten days on the island during the harvest season in order to capture the essence of Corsica, from the wine culture and the natural surroundings to the people who call it home. Bravo Clavello creatively incorporates organic elements into her paintings by using Corsican soil, vines, and rocks. Zebrook will present his inspiring photographs.
Tickets for “Being” are $30 and include the wine tasting, cheeses by Artisanal, and the art show.
Oregon “Pinot in the City” at City Winery (155 Varick Street, 212-608-0555), April 14
2015 marks the 50th anniversary of the Willamette Valley’s first pinot noir plantings. Pioneering winemakers, compelled by a vision to create an American “Burgundy,” riskily staked their hopes on a finicky grape in a wet and cool-weather-plagued valley. But the gamble paid off, propelling Oregon into the global spotlight for its delicate, nuanced, often achingly honest Pinots, and the region never lost its soul to corporate, moneyed interests in the process. Many farms and wineries are still small, family-owned operations.
Fifty of Willamette’s top wineries will showcase their favorite selections, including the Valley’s signature pinot noir and pinot gris, along with chardonnay and riesling. Familiar names include Penner-Ash, Erath, Ponzi, Drouhin, Adelsheim, and Domaine Serene. Hors d’oeuvres from City Winery will top off the evening.
Purchase tickets in advance for $75.
Wines of Portugal Progressive Tasting at Lobster Place (75 Ninth Avenue), April 16
Spend a joyous evening drinking Portuguese wine while noshing on small bites at Chelsea Market’s Lobster Place to offset the depression-inducing deluge of April showers slated for the month.
Organizers of this maiden event hope to introduce patrons to the incredible range of Portugal’s wine and regions, from the dry reds of Bairrada, to the crisp whites of Vinho Verde, to the elegant expressions of the Dão, and the rich and concentrated wines from Alentejo and the Douro. Guests will progress from station to station sampling regional offerings paired purposefully with appetizers from Lobster Place and Dickson’s Farmstand Meats.
The event takes place on April 16 from 7 to 9 p.m. Tickets can be purchased in advance for $60.
Yesterday’s post posited the argument that wine writers should join a harvest at some point in their careers in order to better grasp the fundamentals behind the bottle. I’ve decided to take that challenge and have joined the winemaking team at Paul Cluver Winery for a short, but hopefully illuminating, two week stint over February and March.
The Cluvers pioneered winemaking in the Elgin Valley, touted as South Africa’s answer to the global call for “cool-climate” wines. A review of their line-up confirms it: they produce Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, and Gewurztraminer. The family has owned the property since 1896, but came from Bremen, Germany originally. The vast farm boasts a renowned mountain biking track, and an amphitheater employed for summer concerts, in addition to commercial pear and apple orchards (and two zebras).
Prior to my arrival, Paul Cluver, managing director of the family business, answered a few questions about the farm, his best memories in 20 years at the winery, and the wines he likes to drink (other than his own Seven Flags).
When were the first vines planted and how have the vineyards/winery evolved since inception?
My father planted the first vineyards in 1987, and in 1990 Paul Cluver Wines became the first wines bottled as wine of origin in Elgin. We planted a wide variety of grapes in the beginning, including varietals like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Shiraz. Over time we have focused more on the varietals which we found we excel at: cool climate white varietals and Pinot Noir. Our winery was founded after apartheid, so the dissolution of it did not affect our business.
How many wines do you currently produce? How did you decide on those varieties?
We produce a total of 10 wines from five different varietals. Sauvignon blanc, two Chardonnays, three Rieslings, three Pinot Noirs, and a Gewürztraminer. Our focus is to produce the best wine we can within South Africa for each wine we make given the area we are in and what our terroir can produce. Over the last 20 years we have started to better understand our terroir and which varietals do well here.
What are some of your best memories at the winery?
Being rated in the top ten wineries of South Africa, our winemaker joining the Cape Winemakers Guild, the release of our first Seven Flags Pinot Noir, and being recognized for our contribution to sustainable production.
Has keeping the winery a family operation been difficult?
We have an amazing family that has worked well together through the generations. Sure there have been challenges, but those challenges have helped us become better at what we do.
Has climate change impacted your region yet?
No, although it is something that we are very conscious about.
How has Elgin changed in the last decade?
The fruit industry in Elgin experienced a very negative cycle from the mid-nineties to about 2005. During this time, the wine industry took off in Elgin Valley. Luckily, the fortunes of the fruit industry have improved in the last couple of years.
How has the South African wine industry changed in the last decade?
One of the major changes has been the fact that the world has opened up for South Africa. This has given us the opportunity to travel and learn. Most South African winemakers end up working at least one season overseas, learning and experiencing the quality of what the world has to offer. At the same time, we have been privileged to be visited by some of the most passionate wine personalities in the world.
What excites you most about South Africa’s vinous future?
Our ability to pursue excellence without being limited by legislation like in European wine growing regions.
What frustrates you most about South Africa’s wine industry? What could be improved?
The fact that we have such a low image overseas. I believe our wines offer exceptional quality but they are not recognized for the quality they offer. We all need to work together to improve our image overseas.
Do you ever visit the U.S.?
Yes. I have been there every year for the last several years. I usually go to the East Coast (New York, Boston, Richmond and Florida), Chicago and recently have also been to Seattle and Dallas. I love New York City
Where do you like to go for a holiday?
My wife and I love going on safaris, although we also love travelling in general. We have our favourites like New York, Paris and Burgundy although we also love discovering new places.
What non-S.A. wines do you like to drink?
I try to drink as many different wines from as many different places as I can in order to learn as much as possible. My favourite areas are Burgundy, German Rieslings and Pinot Noir, and Loire wines.
The fundamental physicality and mechanics of winemaking have eluded me until now. Raised in the uniformity of America’s Midwestern suburbs, and seeking their antithesis for the last fifteen years living and working in New York City, neither locale has afforded any opportunity for immersion in vineyard life.
As a wine journalist, I’ve often wondered if it’s fair to producers of this highly romanticized elixir, to proffer opinions, particularly harsh criticism, without having learnt in situ how it’s made. I’ve studied books, and taken courses in viticulture and vinification (and earned my WSET Diploma doing so); I’ve traveled to vineyards as close to home as Long Island and far-flung as New Zealand and Namibia. The countless tank and barrel room tours, and long repasts with winemakers discussing the trials of a particularly tough vintage, have been illuminating, but knowing and doing sit on two different planes of experience. I’ve never beheld firsthand the hand-wringing over picking in the face of inclement weather, or witnessed the minutiae of decisions, as they occur, that lead to a wine’s final expression in the bottle; decisions that culminate with the consumer’s delight or dissatisfaction, and a critic’s reputation-making or -breaking score.
A deeper understanding of a subject always leads to a greater appreciation of it (e.g., oft bewildering modern art, with context, can become less so), so should participation in a harvest, then, be a prerequisite for a wine writer? What about a wine critic who calculates scores? Will knowing firsthand, for example, the struggle to grow healthy, sustainable grapes, while fighting pests and a changing climate, cultivate greater compassion, forgiveness even, towards the end product, especially a wine that might otherwise be determined unremarkable? Could it abrade objectivity? Conversely, a behind the scenes experience might dispense with part of the “backstory” illusion employed as a marketing tool (sometimes genuine, sometimes deceptive), and result in a more informed, and thus critical eye at tastings.
My internship at Paul Cluver Winery came about after I learned of a global search for female interns by the PIWOSA group (Premium Independent Wineries of South Africa). In an effort to encourage women to explore careers in the wine industry, the member wineries accepted applicants holding either a winemaking or WSET Diploma certification. The Cluvers, including longtime winemaker Andries Burger (married into the family) selected my application, and invited me to their winery and into their homes.
Prior to departing, I emailed a few questions about the farm, the region, and South Africa in general, to Paul Cluver, the managing director of the family business. To read that interview, click here.
I hope the culmination of my time at the farm will conclude with clarity on the winemaking process, and lend a deeper respect for the people who get grapes from the vine, into a bottle, and to our tables. But as is often the case with learning, it rarely settles curiosity and questions, but rather drives deeper inquiry.
Over the last few years, the term “mindfulness” has steadily crept into mainstream American lingo, becoming an accepted secular pursuit rather than a “New Age” hippie philosophy ripped from the pages of Eastern religions (i.e., Buddhism). Articles outlining the benefits of mindfulness and techniques for observing it in daily life are published across a spectrum of media outlets, from the Wall Street Journal to the estimable HuffPo, which felt compelled to declare 2014 the year of the timeless concept of “mindful living.”
Mindfulness, at its core, is a simple idea: It means to be present, in the moment, intentionally and non-judgmentally. Tasting wine can be an exercise in mindfulness.
Wine professionals are trained to engage their senses, noting the details of color, smell, texture, and taste, blocking out distractions to do so, while putting aside evaluation and conclusion for afterwards (even if it is a mere minute or two later).
How often do you actually taste what you are drinking?
Perhaps you recently gulped down a glass with a friend while rehashing last weekend’s drama or fretting about a looming work deadline, without knowing whether the red wine the waiter dropped in front of you was the Côtes du Rhône. Or did you ask for Rioja?
Our brain runs like an endless chyron, constantly distracting; our thoughts filled with agonies and regrets of the past or worries about the future. If last week no longer exists and next year is still fiction, why do we avoid the present so frequently?
The constant barrage of technology and social media doesn’t help us focus either, while supplying us with new ways to manifest guilt.
The growing number of wine apps encouraging users to photograph, record, grade, and transmit each tasting experience, while earning “likes” and “followers,” makes it difficult to just sit and be quiet with the wine. Can the bottle be as dazzling as we claim if we ignore it while submitting to the compulsion to tweet, Instagram, and Facebook the details of our good fortune? And if it was dazzling, and we — gasp — didn’t take a photo and mark our impressions, are we lazy failures doomed to repeat a cycle of self-reproach?
Moving on to tasting techniques: If you want to be a more mindful drinker, but don’t (yet) trust your ability to analyze wine, consider how you might engage with a pet.
When I need to disconnect from the overload of the world, I break to pet my red Dobie. She’s usually curled up (adorably) and dozing on her bed nearby. I sit down on the floor, observe the warm chocolate color of her fur, and run my hand down her soft head, feeling her warmth, her life, and perhaps catching the scent of her breath (which, admittedly, has its bad days, but I’m not judging, remember?). I pet my dog mindfully, and doing so delivers a few minutes of calm and awareness of the moment.
Apply this same technique to wine tasting; “pet” your wine, if you will, noting its qualities without worrying about your lack of training or whether the wine fits some subjective notion of good or bad.
Consider the color: Maybe it sparkles in the glass, and mirrors the deep golden hue of straw bales or the Burmese ruby your grandmother wore on her finger.
How does it smell? Is it dull and lifeless? Perhaps a funky Roquefort cheese or barn odor floats from the glass, or a lively fragrance of flowers and citrus inhabits the wine.
Taste it. Do strawberries, stewed with rhubarb and baked in a pie, spring to mind? What about leather, or smoke from a campfire? Lemons and lime? (Highly unlikely you’d detect all of these flavors at once, unless someone mixed white and red in a glass and cruelly gave it to you blind.)
How is the texture? Are the tannins astringent, like oversteeped tea, or silky and smooth? Does the wine linger in the mouth a few minutes, or vanish like a phantom?
The truth of the wine lies in these details.
While you needn’t judge the wine while tasting — we are being mindful, not awarding scores — you should evaluate the experience afterwards. Did you like it? Why did you buy it: because of the price or brand or grape? If you discover you don’t like it (which you may, when drilling down into the details), then why not try something else next time?
Paying attention to your wine, consuming it consciously, will also reward you with another benefit: awareness of your level of intoxication. It’s easy to get carried away with a second or third round of drinks or crack that second bottle, so savoring each sip keeps you focused on your intake.
Along with the rest of your 2015 resolutions (how are those going, by the way?), consider adding mindfulness when drinking your next glass of wine. You may find you love — or loathe — that Chardonnay more than you’re now unsure if you remember.
(For more information on mindfulness, and meditations that help you achieve it, start by looking into the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn. He launched a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program back in 1979 at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. He’s written lots of books on the topic that are easily downloadable onto Kindle for subway self-improvement sessions.)
Last week, I posted about my visit with Brian Bicknell of Mahi Wines. After our boat excursion on the Marlborough Sounds followed by an impressive wine tasting at his cellar door, I took off for a weekend in idyllic, low-key Nelson to spend a few days with the wine community out on the far northwestern tip of the South Island, not far from renowned Abel Tasman Park. My first stop in Nelson was with the team from Richmond Plains and Te Mania, owner and sales director Lars Jensen and winemaker Steve Gill. Initially separate wineries, Te Mania and Richmond Plains eventually merged, retaining individual labels, but converging ownership and winemaking. Gill, who has been there since 2009, was my steward that morning. I had sent out a request prior to arriving in NZ suggesting to winemakers eager to break from the traditional winery tasting format, that I was keen to get outside into the sunshine and do something active, if convenient. Taking me up on the offer, Steve planned a picnic of local fish, spreads, crackers, and cheese, plus all the wines for tasting, to take out on a morning bike ride along the Nelson/Tasman Great Taste Trail. Signature Wines and Prices:
- Richmond Plains Sauvignon Blanc NZ$ 25
- Richmond Plains Pinot Noir NZ $25
- Te Mania Sauvignon Blanc NZ$25
- Te Mania Reserve Pinot Noir NZ$ 35
What philosophy guides your viticulture and winemaking? My philosophy is that wine is a magic blend of pleasure and healthiness. Organic viticulture and oenology means that our wines are healthy for the environment and for drinking. I have had winemaking experiences around the world (California, Burgundy, Alsace, and the Mosel) and have learnt that if you have a great site and healthy vines you will make great wine that is unique. Biodynamics: I have always felt that there is a spirit and energy in everything and that respecting this increases the positive energy in life. Richmond Plains was the first in NZ to make certified Organic/Biodynamic Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir. What is your biggest challenge as a winemaker (e.g., volatility of Mother Nature, expense to income ratio, having to actually market your wine)? Having our wines judged in wine competitions where a judge spends minutes tasting the wine. It’s like trying to know someone through speed dating; wine should be experienced with food over an evening. It’s the difference between shaking hands with someone, followed by a quick chat, and spending the evening with someone. We have been very successful with wine competitions but I wish they didn’t exist as wine should not be a competition, it should be a celebration! What are the benefits and drawbacks of grapegrowing/winemaking in your region? The benefits are that we have the highest sunshine hours in NZ, a cool climate that makes crisp refreshing whites and aromatic elegant Pinot Noir. Another benefit is the two distinct soils types (Waimea river gravels and Moutere Clay) which produce wines that reflect these soil differences. An ironic drawback is that we make amazing wine from so many different varieties that we haven’t a single variety for which we are recognized. This has resulted in a recognition for aromatic wines which spreads from Sauvignon Blanc to Pinot Noir. Another drawback is that we are a small region with artisan family owned wineries that struggle to get exposure when competing with large, Marlborough, foreign-owned wineries with big marketing budgets.
What excites you most about New Zealand wines right now? Pinot Noir. With increased vine age and viticulture/winemaker experience, there are consistently exciting wines coming from the Pinot Noir regions. And they are great value! How do you think Americans (or the outside world) perceive NZ wines? Where the hell is NZ? They make wine there??? (only joking!) I think that most Americans know we produce great Sauvignon Blanc, though there is a growing realization of how good our Pinot Noirs and aromatic whites (Pinot Gris, Riesling, and Gewürztraminer) are. What is your favorite non-kiwi wine region? Least? California or Oregon are my favorites: amazing, friendly people, great food, beautiful places — shame the wines are so expensive! I love all wine regions as there is always something special about the place, people, or wines that is worth discovering. My least liked wine is Australian Shiraz that has added tannin, acid, and sugar. It tastes artificial and that is not good for you. Which wine or grape (in the world) is the least understood or respected? Pinotage, and it deserves its bad reputation! What do you drink at home when relaxing? I have eclectic tastes and like constantly trying new wines from around the world. Currently I am drinking a lot of really delicious Alsace whites (Binner, Boxler, Meyer Fonne, Bott-Geyl, and Paul Blanck). How do you spend your free time (if you have any)? I spend as much of my spare time with my two-year-old son Theo who is pure joy to me. Also I am very committed to a local 700 hectare bird sanctuary. I am a pest trapper and love hiking through the wonderful Kiwi forest. We are fund raising to build a pest-proof fence if anyone is interested in contributing? Brook Bird Sanctuary Nelson. If you could be traveling somewhere else right now, where would you be? I would love to travel with my wife and son around Tuscany. I have been a few times before with my wife, but I think my son would love Italy at his age at the moment. Give one surprising fact about yourself. While at University getting an honours degree in Neuroscience, I was in a punk band called Leper Sweetheart!
After departing Pinot-centric Central Otago, I carried on north to the next New Zealand wine region of Canterbury, located about 45 minutes outside of Christchurch. One of my three winemaker visits included the eye-opening Pyramid Valley, known for being the first vineyard in New Zealand — and one of only a few in the world — to be established from nascency under strict biodynamic principles, as well as stick to a strong non-interventionist/natural winemaking philosophy.
My lovely host for the afternoon, Brittany Thompson, Assistant Winemaker and Production Manager, picked me up in her truck full of energetic dogs. Our visit started not with a traditional winery tasting, but rather a picnic on top of a nearby hill with wine box “baskets” prepared by winery co-owner Claudia Weersing, who dabbles, quite effectively, in cooking. Apparently, I was the guinea pig for the wine box-cum-picnic basket concept, and I wholeheartedly gave it a green light, suggesting they make it available to future customers. The box included a clever dessert in a jar, smartly wrapped sandwiches, and the elusive greengage plum–my first. I was also introduced to the country fun of sliding down a hillside hay field on one’s belly or back, an activity apparently never endeavored with journalists — until meeting me.
Set in Northern Canterbury, Pyramid Valley Vineyards, was founded in 2000 by Mike and Claudia Weersing. They spent ten years working to find the perfect tract of land with the ideal limestone and geology make-up for the vines they wished to plant. They knew they’d hit proverbial paydirt when the consultant back in France reviewing their soil sample asked where they were in Burgundy. After pulling the hay from my hair and out of my shirt, and socks, and pants, we sat down at the tasting bar to go through their entire line-up of wines. I had a hard time holding back my surprise at how characterful, how evocative of place each wine was. Certainly no poker face could I project. I was particularly fond of the Cab Franc — it was the best I tasted in all of New Zealand. I recommend tracking down their Pinots, Chardonnays–frankly, anything from this winery.
THE OWNERS MIKE AND CLAUDIA:
Mike and Claudia Weersing came to New Zealand in 1996, when Mike began making wine with Tim and Judy Finn at Neudorf Vineyards in Nelson. After a long and intensive search to find a site for their own vineyard, they purchased a farm in the Pyramid Valley, near Waikari in North Canterbury, in 2000.
Mike studied oenology and viticulture in Burgundy, beginning at the Lycee Viticole in Beaune, and continuing at the Universite de Bourgogne in Dijon. He has worked extensively in the vineyards and cellars of Europe, for producers such as Hubert de Montille, Domaine de la Pousse d’Or, and Nicolas Potel in Burgundy; Jean-Michel Deiss and Marc Kreydenweiss in Alsace; and Ernst Loosen in the Mosel. He has made wine in France and in Spain for Randall Grahm of Bonny DoonVineyards, vinifying in the Rhone Valley, the Languedoc-Roussillon, and the Navarra. New world vintages include apprenticeships with James Halliday at Coldstream Hills in the Yarra Valley of Australia, and with Russ Raney at Evesham Wood in Oregon’s Eola Hills.
Claudia was born in Schleswig, Germany. A fashion student and skilled clothesmaker by trade, she is now a committed biodynamicist which guides her approach to the land.
Wine to us is a genie, genius loci; our job is to coax it from its rock to bottle. Every gesture we make, in vineyard and winery, is a summons to this spirit of place. Biodynamics, hand-based viticulture, low yields, natural winemaking – these are some of the means we’ve adopted better to record and transmit this voice.
For example, all of our wines are fermented with their own yeast starters, cultured every year, from the vineyard itself. If wine is meant to be the bottled breath of a certain place, from a certain moment in time, then we feel that working with yeasts from that site, of that season, is an important step towards transparency and authenticity. Our cultures allow very long, very regular ferments: most of our whites ferment for more than a year. During this time, the wine is protected, so no sulphur is necessary. After so long a ferment, the wine is stable: thus most of our wines are bottled unfiltered, again with little or no sulphur.
Each wine is allowed to flower as it wishes. If the Pinot Blanc stops with 4 grams RS, so be it. If the Gewurztraminer ferments to dryness, that is its choice. As my friend and hero Edmond Vatan once replied when I asked him about malolactic fermentation, “Pwah, le malo, si ca se fait, ca se fait.”
So, at home we’ve sponsored a marriage of clay-limestone soils to Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, hoping to bring to the wine world a special, new place-voice. With the Growers Collection, we are allowed to work with admired colleagues, and with sites, soils, varieties different than those at home. All of our wines are devoted to people and place; all bring rich rewards of community.
Each block is planted to reflect a specific soil type hence the somewhat irregular looking blocks. In total we have only 2.2 hectares planted in 4 separate blocks. The differences you can taste reflects the soil and climatic differences between each block, which is never more than 400 metres at most. We vinify each block and variety separately but identically in a mixture of old oak and clay amphorae so the outside influences on the grape are minimised.
The blocks themselves were named by Claudia after the weed varieties predominant in each, which also reflect the different soil. The Angel Flower is a more exposed block, north facing that reflects a lightness, delicacy and an ethereal scent. The Lions Tooth with its golden dandelions and obvious lime rich soil shows a rich golden colour with a toasty sulphite nose. The Earth Smoke is a heavier clay, with a denser, wild, gamey outcome. The Field of Fire slopes away to an eastern aspect and into the heaviest clay and makes typically a green-hued delicate wine.
Setting a new definition for the term “flying winemaker”, Blair Walter is both renowned winemaker of Felton Road and local pilot. I had the pleasure of spending heaps (to use a Kiwi term) of time with this charming fellow during the Central Otago Pinot Fest, at the winery, and up in the air, soaring above the Milford Sound of South Island. Fortunately, the day was clear and still so we didn’t have to test his poor weather flight skills.
Blair has been the winemaker for Felton Road–founded in 1991–since 1996. He took some time before my arrival in New Zealand to answer questions about his winemaking, as well as reveal he was formerly a guitarist in a rock’n’roll band, the “Shagnasty & the Texan Medium Fries”. Fortunately, after visiting in person, I can say that the wines are phenomenally better than the name of that band.
Signature Wines and Prices:
- Pinot Noir ($40-$75 USD)
- Chardonnay $30-$40)
- Riesling $26 USD)
About the Vineyard (from the site):
Considerable research by Stewart Elms (hence the Elm tree logo) in 1991 identified the north facing slopes at the end of Felton Road, Bannockburn as being one of the warmest and most ideal sites in Central Otago for the growing and production of premium wine. Heat summation data and soil maps of the area, developed as a result of the construction of the Clyde dam, were helpful in this decision. The three different soils identified are free draining with low fertility characteristics, and combined with the unique climate, are ideal for the production of premium quality Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Riesling.
Our vineyards are managed by our own viticulturist, Gareth King, and his team of dedicated staff. Meticulous summer management of a single vertical shoot positioned (VSP) canopy ensures even and early fruit maturity. Shoot thinning, shoot positioning, leaf plucking and bunch thinning are all carried out by hand as required to ensure optimum quality fruit. We have inter-row planting of various different cover crops in order to assist in controlling vine vigour, improve soil health and general biodiversity.
What philosophy guides your winemaking? Our aim is to make vineyard-expressive wines of clarity, finesse, and precision; farm as sensitively as possible (Biodynamic certified on all 4 properties) and make the wines as hands-off as possible.
What are the benefits and drawbacks of grapegrowing/winemaking in your region? We have low rainfall and low humidity; pair that with our warm days, and cool nights, plus high sunshine hours, and we’ve got very low disease risk. We get bright acidity from the cool nights that translates into vibrant wines; schist soils contribute to the mineral infused and driven wines.
What excites you most about New Zealand wines right now? The ever increasing quality from ageing vines and minds!
How do you think Americans perceive NZ wines? The rest of the world regards NZ Pinot Noir as the finest Pinot Noirs outside of Burgundy. In America, it is different because you have your own very large domestic production of fine Pinot Noir.
What is your favorite non-kiwi wine region? Burgundy. Least? I love all wine regions that are making vineyard and regionally expressive wines (there will be some that don’t focus on this but I am not about to try and name them!).
Which wine or grape (in the world) is the least understood or respected? Riesling is a bit of a challenge for some – incredibly interesting and versatile as a food wine because of the possibility in our cool climate to make very balanced and poised wines of varying sweetness levels.
What do you drink at home when relaxing? White or Red Burgundy.
How do you spend your free time (if you have any)? Sailing, flying, mountain biking, and tramping (hiking).
If you could be traveling somewhere else right now, where would you be? Vietnam.
Give one surprising fact about yourself. Was guitarist in a rock’n’roll band called “Shagnasty & the Texan Medium Fries!”
Stephanie Lambert, PhD, is one of a small percentage of female winemakers in Central Otago (and New Zealand generally). She started as assistant winemaker at Amisfield Vineyard in December 2008, and was promoted to winemaker in August of 2010.
Amisfield is still a young vineyard, like many in Otago—it was first planted in 1999, and rewarded with an inaugural vintage in 2002. They are members of the Sustainable Winegrowers of New Zealand. The owners of the winery opened a restaurant, Amisfield Bistro, not far from Queenstown, that developed a popular following for their locally sourced food and tasting menu called “Trust the Chef” which runs $65/person and requires a leisurely 3-hours of one’s time.
Stephanie answered a few questions prior to my arrival in New Zealand, although filled me in on much of her life while we tasted wines and had lunch at the Bistro. We dined on an excellent artisan bread board which had a flavorful sourdough and herb butter combo, plus whitebait (fish gold) and stuffed zucchini blossoms. Relatively unique to the region, Amisfield makes a small amount of Chenin Blanc—definitely track it down if visiting in person.
Signature Wines and Prices:
- Amisfield Pinot Noir $45
- Pinot Gris $30
- Riesling $25
- Sauvignon Blanc $25
- Plus other varieties in very small quantities: Chenin, Gruner, and Pinot Blanc
What philosophy guides your winemaking? Our goal is to make wines with personality, that are a pure and true expression of their site, the weather, and the people that help grow and guide the wine. In Maori: He tangata! He tangata! He tangata! means “It is the people, it is the people, it is the people.”
At Amisfield we try to grow and make wines with integrity. We are very hands on in the vineyard with a full time permanent crew that has some of our longest serving staff. We want our raw environment to lead us rather than for us to put too much influence on the site. We are continuously trialing and experimenting with different techniques and applications in the vineyard to help balance our vines as well as have as little impact on the soils. We put as little on the vines as possible and try to maintain biodiversity in the vineyard. We have ducks, guinea fowl and trout in our ponds. We have an onsite wetland that treats all our winery wastewater which we can then re-use for irrigation. We are slowly converting one of our blocks to organic viticulture. We like weeds as this promotes biodiversity.
The grapes at the winery are treated very similar. We like to handle the grapes as little as possible and have a gravity flow winery built for Pinot Noir. I do not like to push the wines, and over the years I am becoming more relaxed with the grapes and the wines. For our Pinot Noir, we do natural fermentations; I like the complex wild dynamics!
With the whites, I use a combination of natural and inoculated fermentations. Again, I like to make wines with soul or personality. Some bits of the personality might be a bit strange but as long as they are telling a story, I am happy; imperfections can be interesting.
What is your biggest challenge as a winemaker (e.g., volatility of Mother Nature, expense to income ratio, having to actually market your wine)? In Central Otago, it is the weather: no two vintages are the same or can be predicted. I am very lucky at Amisfield, as the company’s philosophy matches my winemaking style. We are driven to make wines of interest, and not so much for the market.
What are the benefits and drawbacks of grapegrowing/winemaking in your region? A benefit for grape growing is the perfect weather for Pinot Noir; but that same cool weather often makes it difficult to get our Chenin ripe. We have a South African Vineyard Manager, so the most important wine in the shed is the Chenin!
What excites you most about New Zealand wines right now? We are still young but now have some history behind us. We are learning what works on our sites but are also young enough to plant or try different varieties. We have 13 vintages behind us now at Amisfield, and I am just starting to feel I understand the land and the grapes. We can taste our back vintages and see our progression not only in vine age but also as winemakers. It’s a very positive outlook for the region. I like how most winemakers from NZ have travelled and seen other techniques from around the world and come back home and adapt and use these to our wines.
How do you think Americans perceive NZ wines? Hopefully Americans perceive our wines as high quality and unique. (And not Australian.) Our wines are cutting edge, coming from a small yet sophisticated country. I think in general our products are perceived as premium.
What is your favorite non-kiwi wine region? Least? I had a fabulous time in Oregon but that could have been more for the Mexican food and tequila. I was there in 2003 and 2004,so the region and winemakers were still learning a lot, but it certainly made me see how passionate and focused the region was on Pinot Noir. I loved that. I fell in love with Pinot and I fell in love with the Pinot winemakers: their outlook, their friendliness, and dedication to the one grape was fascinating. I love Alsace and Burgundy also. Champagne was not pretty but has a very interesting history, especially since visiting gave me the opportunity to see exactly what the wars did to the region. Least favourite? Well, I worked in Australia for a while and I think the Riverland region in SA/Vic would be my least favourite. Never been there, but mass-produced, clean and calculated winemaking doesn’t suit me.
Which wine or grape (in the world) is the least understood or respected? Well I must say I am a bit boring on this topic as I like the status quo grapes the most and I’m not much of an experimenter. Carignan, or closer to home, Gewürztraminer, perhaps. I wish we made/planted more of Gewürzt. It’s a lovely wine when made well but also takes a lot of skill to perfect.
What do you drink at home when relaxing? Riesling. I love Riesling with a hoppy pale ale on the side.
How do you spend your free time (if you have any)? I am a solo mum to a 2 year old boy named Jasper, so all my spare time is spent with him having fun and playing games at Lake Wanaka.
If you could be traveling somewhere else right now, where would you be? Right now, I would be sailing around the Whitsundays off the Australian coast. A relaxing holiday in the sun, no hassles, just swimming — I love swimming. Probably more realistically, if I was around home, I would be on the wild west coast of NZ, camping with my son in the tent at Okarito Lagoon, hunting for greenstone on the beach, making drift wood huts, and looking at the stars. The added bonus is that there is no cell phone coverage!
Give one surprising fact about yourself. Hmm, not much surprising here. I ran away to Australia for my education and then came back to NZ, so all my secrets are in Oz. University was so much fun, that’s why I stayed so long, and then once I finished my PhD I went back to get a Brewing Post Grad certificate also. Yet to be put to use…
Northburn Station Winery near Cromwell in Central Otago, had a previous life as a sheep station, founded back in 1882. Tom Pinckney, co-owner with his wife Jan, purchased the property in 1993, and planted vines in 1999–their first vintage was a Pinot Noir from the 10×5 clone. Jan’s brother Richard Broadhead (above in photo) is the company wine operations manager and winemaker. They’ve since built an event space/barn they call The Shed and run a restaurant, and farmgate shop from the property. They also serve a wine and small bite pairing menu.
Before my arrival in Otago, Tom took some time to answer questions about his winemaking philosophy and distaste for corned beef.
Signature Wines and Prices:
- Northburn Station Reserve Pinot Noir RRP NZ$45
- Northburn Station Riesling RRP NZ$25
What philosophy guides your viticulture and/or enology? We are organic and bio-grow certified, and practice biodynamics.
What is your biggest challenge as a winemaker (e.g., volatility of Mother Nature, expense to income ratio, having to actually market your wine)? Attracting people to our facility (cellar door), and selling volumes at appropriate prices; expense-to-income ratio always a problem mainly due to the low volumes we produce, therefore fixed costs are spread over a small revenue base. However, sales are growing strongly!
What are the benefits and drawbacks of grape growing/winemaking in your region? We are ‘on the edge’ therefore yields are low and canopy management costs high.
What excites you most about New Zealand wines right now? Their quality and potential to maintain high prices.
How do you think Americans perceive NZ wines? High quality, high cost.
What is your favorite non-kiwi wine region? Bordeaux. Least? Southern England.
Which wine or grape (in the world) is the least understood or respected? Riesling. People still don’t get this grape.
What do you drink at home when relaxing? Our own Riesling and Pinot Noir and a wide range of European wines.
How do you spend your free time (if you have any)? I play a lot of sports with my young family.
If you could be traveling somewhere else right now, where would you be? Japan to go skiing.
Give one surprising fact about yourself. Hate corned beef….too much at boarding school!