Before we proceed any further, I know exactly what you’re thinking right now. Who or what the hell is Waitaki? More to the point – where is Waitaki, more like? To put it plainly and simply, the Waitaki Valley (a.k.a Waitaki) is a very small wine region out in the middle of nowhere in New Zealand. Or as Kiwis would say – “it’s out in the woop woops mate!” In fact, I passed through this remote and picturesque little piece of bush in 2004 during my road trip around the South Island. I was on my way up the east coast, travelling from Dunedin to Christchurch and decided to stop en route in Oamaru. Actually, the main reason for me being there on that occasion wasn’t wine, but the legendary Whitestone Dairies and it was my intention to sample their tasty casein morsels. However, in wine terms, this challenging micro climate in North Otago is considered extremely marginal, to say the least. Great for goat’s milk cheese though…
Much acclaim and fuss has been attributed to Central Otago, in particular, Bannockburn and this exciting region’s wines. I have to agree that there are some stunning wines coming out of here - some of which have achieved iconic status, especially for their Pinot Noirs. During this time, a lot of experimentation has been going on and the viticulturists and winemakers are continually improving and learning something new about their own terroir. Moreover, a small handful of talented winemakers, not only from Central Otago, but also from other regions, have broken away and have started to explore the potential of Waitaki Valley. Over the past three or four years or so, I have been following with great interest, not only this ‘up-and-coming wine region’, but also a few of its wine producers. For me, these people are true pioneers and it takes a certain degree of courage and commitment to develop this barren land, which almost everyone has written off.
It also requires a certain amount of bravery and risk to transform an idyllic plot of land, out in the middle of nowhere and turn it into an even more idyllic plot of land, but with grapes on it and the intention to make good quality wine. It requires patience and determination too. I’m no winemaker, viticulturist or expert, but I do clearly understand that you need to be prepared to take a risk if you are going to plant a vineyard in Waitaki. If you’re going there and your aim is to simply make a fast buck, then Waitaki is not the place for you. Winemakers and vineyards that deserve a mention at this point are: Pasquale, Jeff Sinnott, Jim Jerram, (The Ostler label), Michelle Richardson and Waitaki Braids. In fact, the latter vineyard is owned by arguably New Zealand’s finest chef, Peter Gordon and Michael McGrath (of The Providores in London), along with a couple of other business partners. It has been their ‘house wine’ label served in their award-winning restaurants since 2007.
Peter sets the scene beautifully: “The pristine Waitaki River flows from the top of Aoraki, the tallest mountain in New Zealand, also known as Mt Cook. It passes through several and huge beautiful lakes, coloured milky turquoise from the schist it contains. It wends its way along a braided riverbed until it hits the east coast between Timaru and Oamaru. The small band of youthful Waitaki Valley vineyards have been producing small amounts of highly-rated varietals, with our own Waitaki Braids producing Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Riesling and a 100% Pinot Noir Rose. Jancis Robinson MW rated our inaugural 2004 Pinot Noir highly enough to say Waitaki Braids had the potential to become a classic vineyard of the future – one of only 9 vineyards that she said this about. Pretty good, eh!”
Moreover, this pioneering spirit did not put off Marcel Geisen at Bell Hill and Claudia and Mike Weersing at Pyramid Valley, who craft tiny amounts of individualistic and expressive wines in North Canterbury. Back in the mid-1980s, they thought biodynamic trailblazer, James Millton at Millton Estate was mad for planting esoteric grapes in Gisborne, of all places. Just look at these guys now! In addition, take a look what’s happening within Marlborough itself? This wine region, synonymous with the New Zealand wine industry produces around three quarters of the country’s total output, yet some really exciting things are going on within various valleys and developing sub-regions. All you need to do is dig a little bit deeper than the tip of the iceberg.
I attended the Annual New Zealand wine trade tasting in London in January 2012 and tasted quite a few interesting wines and made even more interesting discoveries. I met with the Pasquale people and noted that they are still seeking representation in the UK. Could someone please take on these beautiful wines? I think they’re really good. I had a quick catch up and chat with Warren Adamson over on the Craggy Range table. I have been a big fan of their wines for many years, believe them to be of excellent quality and admire them for their varietal/terroir approach. I tasted their range of wines (the current UK releases) and asked Warren a couple of questions. I was aware that they produced wine in Waitaki and was wondering if they had any to taste. Unfortunately, I was informed that “they no longer produce wines in Waitaki”. In fact, I won’t reproduce Warren’s response because he told me that it was strictly ‘off the record’. But he mentioned that it was mainly for economic reasons. On further probing, here is the ‘official’ Craggy Range response to my question.
“One of our greatest challenges with this vineyard was its isolation. In order for us to be as particular as we like to be with our vineyards we need to ensure that we can regularly walk through the vineyards and this was very difficult with the Waitaki vineyard. We are now focusing on our own estate vineyards closer to our home base with the only exception to this being Calvert Vineyard. As this is looked after by the exceptional team at Felton Road we have no need to ever be concerned over the management of this vineyard.” Michael Henley – Craggy Range Vineyards
To be honest, I left the Craggy Range table feeling a little bit disappointed, even though I respect and understand their point of view and reasons. However, I was led to believe (certainly because this was the impression I got and the way that they appear to market their wines) that Craggy Range’s ethos is based upon leading the way, discovering, embracing, developing and focusing on New Zealand’s vinous terroir and planting the most appropriate wine styles in those regions. However, at the end of the day, with Waitaki allegedly they pulled out purely for economic reasons. Yes, most of us are in the wine business to make money. We are probably not just doing this for a bit of fun or neither do we have a completely unrealistic and idyllic point of view. Wine businesses are not charities either. Like I mentioned, to own a vineyard and make wine costs a lot of money and somewhere along the line you will need to take some risks, calculated or not and make some important decisions. Perhaps, Waitaki was too risky for the guys at Craggy Range and a sufficient return on their investment could not be guaranteed? However, this makes me feel even more let down by the ‘champion of terroir’ it claims to be.
For example – putting this into context with a simple comparison in Burgundy, would be as if Domaine de la Romanee-Conti (DRC), one of the most iconic and biggest names in the world of wine, which owns and makes heavenly wine from vines planted on some of the most hallowed ground on earth (e.g La Tache, Romanee-Conti, Richebourg etc etc) turning around one day and saying “We don’t wish to mess around with ‘smaller’, lesser-known appellations!”. On the other hand, this approach hasn’t stopped one of the greatest winemakers, Dominique Lafon at his eponymous domaine in Meursault to explore the potential within the Maconnais. Yes, these more approachable and ‘simpler’ versions of Chardonnay are not rivals to his exquisitely expressive and complex elixirs from the great soils of “Clos de la Barre”, “Charmes” and so on in Meursault, yet they deliver great quality and value for money, at a far lower price point. Do some winemakers and vignerons suffer from some sort of wine snobbery ‘elitism’?
For me, Waitaki Valley has great potential for good quality wines, yet at the moment it’s still early days. The winemakers, who are already there, know exactly what they are doing and have cut their teeth in the New Zealand wine industry for many years. They know where the good spots are and they truly believe that this region has a good future. According to Dr John Forrest of Forrest Wines, Waitaki has immense minerality in the soil, which is one of the main reasons why he has planted some Chardonnay, Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir there. He also believes that the quality and expressive personality of the wine from the Otago region is good enough to bottle a Pinot Noir under his flagship “John Forrest Collection“. Interesting and characterful wines come out of this region as a result. More to the point, surely they also express a genuine sense of place? These clever, ambitious and experienced winemakers know that grape varieties such as Riesling, Pinot Gris, Gewurztraminer, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are very appropriate in this challenging micro climate to flourish successfully. I certainly hope so, as these wines deserve to be discovered and am eagerly watching this space with great anticipation.
Either, I have got this situation completely wrong and I’m just hopelessly dreaming or my gut is telling me that Waitaki could have real potential. Where’s your spirit of adventure?
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