About 45 minutes drive north of my hometown of Christchurch, NZ, lies the North Canterbury wine region of the Waipara Valley. The valley is nestled between the Teviotdale Hills, which shelter the region from the cool Pacific, and the foothills of the Southern Alps. The everchanging interplay of light and shadow on these surrounding hills and the immense Cantabrian skies make this one of my favourite places to visit.
New Zealand’s wine industry is still very young (about 30 years) by global standards, yet the Waipara region has been recognised for less than half of that. While there are some well-established names in the area (Pegasus Bay, for instance), many of the wineries have only been around a decade or so, and a whole host have sprung up in the last two or three years. I’ve long been impressed with the quality of wine issuing from Waipara’s small-scale, boutique wineries. A recent visit over the New Year reconfirmed for me why this spectacular region is receiving a surge of interest and that the future looks stellar for quality wine production.
Inasmuch as such a young region can be ‘known’ for a particular style of wine, Waipara is fast becoming a home to Riesling in New Zealand, an alternative base for Pinot Noir, and a lighter, less pungent style of Sauvignon Blanc. Chardonnay is also planted and there are small plantings of other reds including Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec.
Unfortunately, my visit coincided with a public holiday, so I was unable to see many of the region’s top wineries on this trip; however, we had a lovely tasting and lunch at well-established winery Waipara Springs, newcomer Black Estate wines opened their doors up especially for us, and a trip to a family friend’s farm at Limestone Hills resulted in a tasting of their very small-scale (and delicious) Syrah and seeing a champion truffle-sniffing dog in action!
Waipara Springs is one of the more established wineries in the region. They have a well-equipped tasting room and a charming garden restaurant serving delicious food designed to match with their own wines. Waipara Springs produces a wide variety of styles. I was most impressed with their 2012 Sauvignon Blanc, which was very smartly-made, melding fresh gooseberry and passionfruit flavours with a high-acid, dry palate and a long, lemony finish.
The ‘Premo’ series wines all showed great character and were a significant step up in quality from the house wines. The Premo Riesling, 2008, showed toffee notes of bottle age, zesty lime fruit, and was medium-sweet. Quite a full, luscious body for a lowish alcohol wine and a refreshing tartness to the finish. The Premo Chardonnay, 2011, I found to be a rather light, elegant wine. Perhaps not one for those who like their Chardonnays to be bold and assertive, but a very pleasing wine nonetheless. The Premo Pinot Noir, 2010, seemed to me to have a bit much oak on the nose; the wine is aged in French oak for about 15 months, 20% of the barrels are new wood. But this is something that will resolve with time. Otherwise, the wine showed lovely concentration of dark plum fruit on the nose, an appealing sour cherry palate with green, herbal notes, crisp acidity and finely-etched tannins.
You can find a list of Waipara Springs’ overseas distributors here.
While the Black Estate winery and cellar door is reasonably new, the site was planted in 1993 with Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. The purchase of the estate by the Naish family in 2007 has seen the estate extend its plantings, with a constant eye on terroir and what the soil and mesoclimate bring to the wine. Their first Riesling release was in 2008, and I tried their 2011 incarnation. A beautiful nose with lime blossom, cream, mint leaf and sage was followed up by a rather intense lime sorbet palate. Crisp acidity was balanced nicely by the off-dry sweetness; medium alcohol (11%) and a medium length, but very pleasant finish.
Interestingly, the winery releases two different Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs: Black Estate and Omihi Series. Each comes from separate plantings with artisanal winemaking techniques (such as foot treading, and avoiding pumping) designed to bring out the terroir character in each wine. I enjoyed all of the wines and it was fascinating to see the difference the vineyards made. The Omihi Series Chardonnay, 2011, was a lean, delicate and very well-balanced wine. I discerned lighter, floral notes, with apple, cream and some truffle hints on the nose. By contrast, the Black Estate Chardonnay, 2011, had more apricot and peach notes on the nose and a heavier, more rounded body.
The Omihi Series Pinot Noir, 2010, was very aromatic, with a bright slightly estery, raspberry note along with hints of mushroom. The palate began with this bright fruit character and evolved savoury, stemmy notes all the way through to a crunchy, firm yet quite finely-etched tannic finish. Delicious, though my one criticism was the finish came through a bit hot. The Black Estate Pinot Noir, 2010, had more boysenberry on the nose, was less estery, with appealingly Burgundian ‘cooked carrot’ and white pepper hints. The palate showed a riper entry than the Omihi, with less of a progression to savoury (at least at this stage in its evolution); however, a slightly fuller, ‘gutsier’ body I felt balanced the alcohol on the finish more.
Black Estate wines are imported to the UK by Lea & Sandeman.
A highlight of the day was seeing Rosie the truffle-snuffler unearth an enormous truffle at the Limestone Hills farm. Well, I thought it was enormous, though Gareth Renowden, our host, assured me it was probably only a about 200 grams and therefore just a ‘medium sized one’! Gareth also grows Pinot Noir and Syrah grapes for his own wine made in vanishingly small quantities. I tasted the 2011 Limestone Hills Syrah and found a very interesting complex nose: black plum and berry fruit with medicinal, peppery hints alongside lavender and manuka honey. The palate showed only a medium body – a far cry from the full-bodied Shiraz of much of Australia, and even lighter than many Northern Rhone examples. Green, herbal flavours came through on the palate with a rich concentration of spicy strawberry and peppery plum. The wine had moderate acid, well-integrated alcohol and the classic, ‘ragged’-textured tannin profile I associate with Syrah. Overall a fascinating and very palatable wine.
Waipara certainly is a region to watch in the very near future. One of the risks with hyped-up new regions is that many people can flock to invest there, resulting in huge increases in quantity and a dramatic decrease in average quality. However, as Bob Campbell MW suggests in this article, the difficulty of securing reliable yields in Waipara means that viticulturists and winemakers really do need to focus on quality to bring about a return. Long may this continue!This post also appears on the international gastronome site, The Rambing Epicure.