Central Otago ‘on same journey as Burgundy’

Central Otago is progressing ever closer towards a Burgundian model of wine production, according to one of the region’s most respected viticulturists.

Mt Difficulty and Ceres Wines viticulturalist James Dicey (Photo: Grape Vision)

Mt Difficulty and Ceres Wines viticulturist James Dicey believes that Central Otago is on ‘the same journey of discovery’ as Burgundy (Photo: Grape Vision)

James Dicey, viticulturist for Mt Difficulty Wines and his own family Ceres Wines, said the region was on the “same journey of discovery” as Burgundy, with an increasing focus on individual vineyard parcels and vine clones for its Pinot Noir wines.

Speaking to the drinks business at New Zealand Wines’ Central Otago tasting in London, Dicey emphasised the importance of soil age on varietal expression in the region.

He added that the “huge variability” of the age of the soils within the region – “from 150 years old to 350 million years old, all in the space of about 10km” – provided the right conditions for terroir-driven Pinot Noir in the same vein as Burgundy:

“What it means for us is, [for] Pinot Noir, the site and the season make wines that are very distinctive to those particular sites in a particular season.

“You’ll see vintage variation, but the style produced from that particular soil will be very characteristic of that site year in, year out. That’s really going down the Burgundian route, which is following the characteristics of a particular site. We’re interested in the difference that brings.

“From Mt Difficulty, since about 2001-2, we’ve been creating single-vineyard wines. They are defined by the uniqueness, by their intensity, their concentration of both fruit and aroma, but also the structure of the wine.

“We’re moving away from talking about fruit aromas in Central Otago and towards what the mouthfeel is, how it progresses across the palate, how linear it is, how broad the palate is, how is starts and how it finishes.

“What we really see is the fineness of the tannin is related to the soil age. Younger soils – sand-orientated soils or those coarse alluvial gravels – have quite a coarse tannin structure to them and the older soil will have much more finely boned structural tannins.”

The Romanée-Conti connection

The Burgundian connection was further confirmed by a visit to Central Otago from Aubert de Villaine, co-owner of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, in 2014.

“We had the rare privilege of having Aubert de Villaine visiting us,” Dicey said. “We are following in [Burgundy’s] footsteps and that’s why he came to us to explore what we’re doing in our single sites.

“The two key things he was talking about were the creation of our own clones and that ‘the vineyard is the hero’.

“We label with brand first and vineyard second and de Villaine was suggesting it should be about the vineyard first and about the brand second.”

For Ceres Wines, the plan is that individual vineyard expressions will be bottled to reflect the character of each vineyard, a process which will begin from vintage 2015, Dicey explained.

“We are on that same pathway. For my [Ceres] series of wines we’re doing exactly the same thing. More and more we’re starting to celebrate the site in the way we create our wines and that’s a journey that we’re progressing with at the moment,” he added.

“For me the logical end point is that [our] vineyards get more granular and more focused. When we ferment [the different clones] separately in the tanks we’re seeing very, very different wines coming through.

“And as the consumers start to understand and celebrate that, we’ll become more known, like Burgundy, and you’re going to start seeing that granularity, focus and precision of individual sites being expressed more and more.”

The Burgundian approach

Claudio Heye, general manager of Domaine-Thomson in Central Otago, agrees that the region’s Pinot Noir production is increasingly being influenced by a Burgundian ethos.

The domaine makes two Pinot Noirs, each assembled from a variety of clones which are vinified separately. The domaine also owns vineyards in Gevrey-Chambertin. 

“We have certainly seen an evolution in adopting Burgundian approaches and philosophies in Central Otago,” Heye said. 

“We are much more aware of our viticultural practices, with many growers converting to organic or biodynamic [viticulture], showing a greater respect to the soil and what is happening underground.

“Also, winemakers are perhaps picking a little earlier and seeking more elegance and finesse as opposed to trying to make ‘big and bold’ pinots that were common a decade ago.

“Considering that Central Otago is still a relatively young wine region, I find it very exciting that we have learnt so much, so quickly, from a great historical region such as Burgundy.”

Mt Difficulty's vineyard plantings in Bannockburn, Central Otago (Photo: Mt Difficulty)

Mt Difficulty’s vineyard plantings in Bannockburn, Central Otago (Photo: Mt Difficulty)

3 Responses to “Central Otago ‘on same journey as Burgundy’”

  1. Mark Bixler says:

    Get a grip!! Sites first, brands second. In NZ?? (That’s not even really true in Burgundy.)

  2. Sylvia says:

    That sounds all very well – but until your region is able to move from making fruit-driven styles, as apposed to smelly cheeses, sex and truffle style Pinot, don’t call ….

  3. Cornelius says:

    All rather cringe worthy. How many times can one say the word journey? Give it a break. And of course people from that part of the world can’t open their mouths without name dropping Aubert de Villaine and Romanee Conti. Central Otago makes awesome wines and part of the strength of the region is talented, open minded, experimental people who think for themselves and do their own thing. Don’t change a thing.

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