Story and strategic choices in talking about Central Otago subregions

Central Otago went from zero to international recognition in less time than it takes to test the merit of a great Burgundy vintage. Good for them. It’s occupants had the advantage of a favorable climate, enthusiastic pioneers, and in many cases an enviable lot of capital investment, but they also experimented generously and — most importantly — became polished storytellers. The stories may in fact have outpaced the wines, which is less a criticism of the latter than an acknowledgement that they are very much still figuring out what they’re about. And so, while it’s obvious that subregional differences are dramatic enough to shout about, not much shouting actually happens on that account. One: they don’t yet have the maturity for more than broad subregional outlines. Two: it might not be part of the story they want to tell in any case.

Driving through Central makes it clear that subregional differences should be important. Driving in from coastal Otago (the Dunedin area, where I live), the first substantial growing area you encounter is Alexandra, a dry, flattish valley with a large (for this area) town. Cross the hill and drive past the dam and you’re in Cromwell, where many vineyards enjoy the mitigating effects of Lake Dunstan. North at the top of the lake, the Bendigo vineyards are widely known as seeing both the hottest and the most extreme weather. Go east toward Queenstown and the Bannockburn vineyards are perched above the Kawarau river. Through the pass further toward Queenstown, the Gibbston valley has the highest elevation and the coolest climate. And then there are the outliers: dear Nick Mills at Rippon in Wanaka; vineyards in Waitaki closer to the coast. These are obvious differences. Central Otago doesn’t tend toward subtle.

Plenty of conversation is happening about subregions, none of them questioning whether they’re significant. The questions instead are about what is significant. Are site differences principally related to soil differences as you move up the “terraces” from the valley floor? Or is the elevation more significant? Maybe it’s enough to talk about those big subregions. There’s that first problem: it’s hard to tell in part because vines are young, but maybe even more so for want of continuity. Vineyard managers, winemakers, owners, directions, and styles have flexed enough here that two challenges become significant: creating distinctly regional pictures independent of those other factors, and passing down sensibly kept records and knowledge gained from experience. The openness to experimentation and international flux that has helped these folk find a niche in the pinot world so quickly has, at least in some cases, come at the expense of some stability. Point the first.

Point the second: wine, and Central Otago, is all about story. Subregions may not be the story people want to tell here. Yet. Adept storytelling is a stand-out feature of many successful wineries here: to justify selling $70 pinot noir with nearly no history behind them, it has to be. Telling a story doesn’t mean talking about everything that goes into making a wine; it means carefully curating elements that create a specific image. Subregionality may not be part of that story. In some respects, that choice is about market readiness, which is obvious. They’ve succeeded when someone in Louisiana or Newcastle knows where Central Otago is; talking about Bannockburn is too much.

But it’s also a choice about style and direction. Some wineries here bottle from estate vineyards. Many blend fruit from different vineyards for balance and complexity and, no doubt, economy and ease. Matt Kramer told producers in 2013 that using many clones was (one; he had a few other interesting points) key to making exciting pinot noir, and it could be said that blending across multiple vineyard sites is similarly looking for complexity. As those vineyards age, and maybe as they’re planted with increasingly diverse clones, maybe

Back to choosing a story. Wineries here have mostly built their identities around concepts other than subregions. If that’s working for them, serious investment may not go into defining, refining, and emphasizing subregional stories.

Since differentiating yourself is ever necessarily the new world winery game, it makes sense that a (but not all) winery here is built expressly around exemplifying subregional differences. That’s Valli, where Grant Taylor bottles separate pinots from Gibbston, Bannockburn, and Waitaki. Tasting those three wines, made by the same winemaker in essentially the same ways, is an education that makes me wish Taylor’s portfolio included bottles from Bendigo and the other subregions as well. The Gibbston wine is the sharpest with the highest acidity, the Bannockburn the biggest and smokiest, the Waitaki the spiciest with the most prominent tannins. The Waitaki stands out to me as the most interesting wine, possibly because it’s the least standard and, dare I say, maybe the most complex: while the Gibbston and Bannockburn are well-made and enjoyable wines, the Waitaki has the thing that makes me want to keep coming back to the glass.

That’s the direction I hope Central Otago pinots take as they grow up: not just well-made wines with fancy labels and nice stories, but intriguing and maybe even intellectually satisfying wines. Whether they find that intrigue in multiple clones on single vineyard sites, blending across regions, or even just older vines under winemakers who decide to stay put, I’ll hope that Valli keeps doing what Valli does, and maybe more of it.

**By the by, “Central Otago” is a “district” within the “region” of Otago, where a “region” is roughly equivalent to a province or a state. Central Otago is a recognized Geographical Indication — it can be used on labels going to the EU, with a defined meaning — and various subregional names are allowed as “Appellations of Origin” on labels going to the States.