Wednesday, February 27, 2008

February 25, 2008 - Alexander

In recent years, New Zealand pinot noir has won accolades at international wine competitions. When we got here in October, we were anxious to try some. Then we got to the grocery and found that it typically goes for between $24 and $50 (US) a bottle. That's a bit steep for us for everyday drinking. But curiosity got the best of us and so we bought a bottle of the Mt. Difficulty Roaring Meg to check it out. It was fine. Unfortunately it was too pricey for weeknight drinking for us, and not good enough to be a special occasion bottle.
After trying a whole lot of insipid pinot noir in Marlborough, we were looking forward to trying the award winning pinot that is being grown here in Central Otago, to see what all the fuss is about - without having to spend half our grocery budget for a bottle. We also felt it was our duty to work our way through the local offerings, to save you all from having to spend your hard-earned dough on anything less than a stellar bottle. After many days of tastings (hard work, I know, but somebody has got to do it), our favorites are the First Paddock Pinot Noir, from the actor Sam Neill's vineyard - Two Paddocks, and the Waitiri Creek 2006 Pinot Noir. There are only 50 - 100 cases made of the former each year, but almost 3,000 cases of the latter are usually made.
Central Otago pinot is regularly hailed as being the most Burgundian pinot noir grown outside of Burgundy. Just looking around the vineyards in Alex and Cromwell, it is easy to see why. Pinot grapes grown in a lush, damp environment produce very boring wine. But plant them on the edge of sustainability, in a hostile environment, such as this one, with its blazing hot summer days, virtually no rain, and brutally cold winters, and the result can be a wine with the tannins and minerality to support a fruity bouquet of cherry and berry flavors. However, the vineyards here are still young - most have been in operation for fewer than 20 years - and for the most part, what they are producing isn't exceptional. Good, but not great. It will be exciting to see what comes out of this region in the future.
Walking around Central Otago is a treat for the senses. The gold miners who settled these hills planted thyme. It has since gone wild and covers the hillsides. Each step causes a cloud of the sweet, spicy aroma of the herb to perfume the air. Unfortunately, the Europeans also introduced rabbits to New Zealand. With no large mammals to hunt them, they quickly got out of control. Lots of methods have been tried to control them, but they are still destroying the countryside. One of the most effective methods seems to be shooting them; and so each year Alex holds an Easter Bunny Hunt where teams compete to see who can bring in the most hares.

Rabbits terrorize the vineyards, eating anything they can. My favorite story from this pioneering wine region is of a vineyard owner who became so fed up with the rabbits that he trapped a few, tied dynamite to them, and sent them back into their warrens, intending to blow them sky high. Unfortunately, one bunny had another idea and headed straight for the winemaker's Land Rover. That must have been an interesting insurance claim.

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