I’m tired. I’m sore. I’m in awe.
Queenstown, in the bottom centre of the south island of NZ, is known to us Aussies as the party town. It’s where we love to go to ski, if we can afford it, but you never just ski in Party Town. For the wine lover it is also Pinot Town, being the largest centre near the Central Otago wine region. Party Town / Pinot Town… what lay ahead of me?
Being summer the season seems all wrong to be in Queenstown but I was soon to discover that summer is actually just as popular as winter if not more so. It’s the adventure sports time of year and this place pumps out adventure.
I wasn’t in town for the adventure, I was there over the weekend for the Central Otago Pinot Noir Celebration, a three-day event where the region gets to showcase their wonderful Pinot Noir to the world. I was a guest of Mud House Wine and I was soon to realize that I really hadn’t grasped the extent of what was ahead of me. It may not have been bungee jumping (it doesn’t pair well with wine) but it was nothing other than adventure and excitement.
After flying down through the valleys between the mountains and into the airport I arrived at the hotel to discover a welcome bag from Mud House and inside was a bottle of their lovely Claim 431 Vineyard Pinot accompanied by some Berocca and a box of Panadol. I LOL’d, then got nervous. The message was clear.
My room in the hotel was great! It wasn’t some top floor abode with boring views of the lake and mountains it was on the ground floor right up against the road and footpath. It meant I could hear everyone’s joyous captivating conversations and I’d often just arrive back to the room, switch on the light, forget to pull the curtains and strip off without a care. Hello Queenstown!
Central Otago is quite a new wine region and only arrived on the commercial stage in the 80s and 90s. It may be young but as each vintage goes by the wine from the region increases in intensity and excitement. It’s the Pinot that they are most known for, a style displaying subtle but complex fruit characters that run over a savoury mineral backbone to a lovely silky finish.
Mud House are a relatively large producer from Marlborough, which, in short, is not Central Otago. They are also owned by a corporate wine company Accolade. In saying that they actually have their own vineyards in Central Otago so they “technically” qualify to be at the event. The question in my mind on this was “but is their heart in it with the locals?”
I was one of four lucky guests of Mud House and it was straight into it for us soon after we arrived late in the afternoon. Along with another four from the Mud House team we all headed out for a drink and then off to the welcome event where all sorts of bottles of wine from the region were laid out on a table or in buckets for you to pour your own. I discovered here that there are some damn good Riesling coming through, something to potentially keep an eye on.
We stayed at the welcome event for a while then headed out to a wonderful steakhouse called Jervois where we gobbled down sensational food accompanied by some good wine by both Mud House and from Ben the chief winemaker’s own stash out of his cellar. After taking a pee at the urinals that will either fill a man full of confidence or fear we spent some time on the town. I got a few hours sleep in there I’m sure and I needed it for the big “serious” day ahead. I thought one night out would do me.
By 8am in the morning all 200 or so delegates of the event were on buses heading out to “The Shed” in the vineyards of Northburn Station. Tasting began at 9am and the region’s producers had to display their latest vintage of premium Pinot (2013) plus a bottle of any other Pinot of choice. This went for three hours and involved wandering around the shed tasting and talking with the producers. I quickly learned that spitting is a survival technique.
There was so much good wine that I couldn’t taste it from every producer and I’d hate to leave anyone out but some of my key favourites were Valli, Prophet’s Rock, Peregrine, Gibbston Valley, Quartz Reef, Mt Difficulty, Akarua, Rippon, Misha’s Vineyard and Chard Farm. On top of the wine there were some special moments like interacting with the famous Aussie, whoops, Kiwi (or is that Northern Irish) actor Sam Neill (who owns Two Paddocks) as if I didn’t know who he was (it’s un-Australian to make a big deal out of it). Then there was the fun act of taking a photo of the T-shirt being worn by the lovely lass at Mount Edward. I honoured my agreement with her to not show her face, which was a pity, believe me, but a deal is a deal.
Although the Mud House premium Claim 431 Vineyard Pinot is a good expression of the refined fruit balanced across a backbone of mineral texture that the top wines of the region are displaying, I was impressed with their entry-level local Pinot that winemaker Ben described as a “Monday to Thursday” wine. It’s far more fruit and spice driven and would probably appeal to the average wine drinker more especially when it sits around the $20 mark. One thing about good Central Otago Pinot is that it often sits in the price range that the sort of people who travel to Queenstown can only afford.
For lunch we headed to the spectacularly scenic Carrick Wines where the theme was local including all the decorative arrangements from out of the garden that adorned our tables. It hardly ever rains here so we were seated outside… but it rained! So much hard work had gone into the tables so it was sad that we had to pull them all off and move the tables inside. All part of the adventure and the food was just magical with great wine to match!
The evening involved a wonderful informal cocktail event at a local golf club where we got to drink, you guessed it, more local wine! I wasn’t complaining. And, of course, we ended up at some bar back in Party Town where I switched to Champagne followed by a “cleansing” ale and then discovered the joys of the local “Dark n Stormy”. Asking for trouble! Like the previous night I still managed to get in a few hours sleep.
We had a formal tasting event on the last day where we spent a few hours tasting Pinot from two other regions in the world that have schist soils almost identical to Central Otago’s, these being one wine from Chile and five from Germany. They were all quite special wines with a few of them being knock-outs! We were trying to determine whether or not the similar soils produced similar wines and although there were things in common with those of Central Otago, primarily the minerality, there were so many differences. We were left wondering whether climate plays the real part in shaping the wine.
We had another spectacular lunch this time at Botswana Butchery. There were four courses and the first course was pretty-well 3 entrées on one plate and the second was two. Another feast! Here I discovered that the restaurants participating in the event had all been asked to develop special menus using local produce to showcase the matching local wines. They were in on it and they exuded the same passion of expression as the local wine peeps.
The evening event was the close of the whole celebration and it was, of course, spectacular. We took the gondola up to Skyline restaurant where the theme was formal and the wine was mostly “bring your own”. Those who had “got the memo” like myself brought at least one bottle of wine to the event from out of their cellar. I took it literally and had one bottle stuffed in my bag but some people brought loads. There was so much good wine that I got lost in it all. I brought along a 1972 Seppelt Show Sparkling Burgundy (Shiraz) that turned out to be spot on beautiful, intense on the nose while still having lovely fruit and aged complexity along with a bit of sweet kick at the end, but polarizing as some people couldn’t quite deal with how different it was.
And when the formal event finished what was there left to do? Well hit Party Town again of course. Another few hours of sleep in there too, I think.
One thing I noticed at the official events and the “after parties” was just how much the Mud House team interacted with the locals, helped out, and had a great laugh with them. And after checking with some key locals it was clear that Mud House had very much been both accepted by and accepting of the Central Otago wine community. My question had a clear answer.
I met so many good people, wine lovers from around the world, and I know I was lucky to have been invited. It was a privilege I’d like to think I made the most of. I got involved and immersed myself so that I could discover the true essence of people and place. What I found was a dedicated bunch of local wine producers who are very serious about building up both their wine and their brand but at the same time they are all having lots of fun working as a cohesive team to make sure this happens.
Wine regions of the world take note! This was a spot-on event that totally showcased people and place in relation to the wine. I will definitely be on the lookout for more Central Otago Pinot.
Those Berocca and Panadol came in handy! And it’s salads and water only for the rest of the week…
Author: Conrad Grah
Disclosure: If it’s not already obvious I was a guest of Mud House Wine meaning they housed me and made sure I was well fed and lubricated but I was not paid to be at the event and opinions are totally mine although the enjoyment of the occasion always enhances the wine. I had to take a couple of days annual leave from my day job to go, but it was worth it!
Important: Always drink responsibly. Yes it was a celebration but a lot of time was sadly spent spitting while the rest of the time I spent pacing myself and balancing it all with drinking water. Yes, a boring message but necessary! 😉