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Growers’ optimism rising in Central Otago’s Alexandra Basin

By Shaughn Jenkins

 
NZ-based wine writer Shaughn Jenkins taps into the passion of local producers in a developing corner of Central Otago to discover the bright future that’s ahead for the sub-region’s grape and wine industry.

 
Long held as one of the southern-most bastions of wine production on the planet, New Zealand’s Alexandra Basin is rising out of isolation with a bevy of revitalised vineyards, new wine brands and an increasingly obvious sub-regional character.

In the last ten years, the amount of planted vineyards in the region has grown from a few dozen to nearly 200, with much of the expansion centred around the town of Cromwell and the large glacial basin surrounding it and neighbouring Lake Dunstan.

While Cromwell Basin may be the current home of 70% of Central Otago’s producers, as well as the focus of much of the current industry growth and funding, the nearby Alexandra Basin features boutique vignerons toiling away in a unique range of micro-climates that differentiate them from the rest of the region’s many wine grapegrowers.

The basin has several unique geographical features with the depression ringed by eight different mountain ranges, and cut in two by the mighty Clutha River, the longest in the South Island.

Vines are to be found on both sides of the river, but with only around 25 producers in Alexandra Basin (despite the first vines being planted here in the 1970s around the same time the first Sauvignon Blanc vines were planted in Marlborough), there is still plenty of room for growth.

Economic hardships in the 80s made founding a vineyard a tough financial choice for many, and as such it wasn’t until the early 2000s that the region found its footing, though this was upset somewhat by New Zealand’s 2008-2012 recessions that led to the bankruptcy of several new and long-standing winegrowers.

“Spectacular schist rock escarpments litter the landscape, with the rock retaining warmth in the soil and forcing the vines to dive deep into the ground looking for nutrients”

 

With new owners (almost all of them New Zealanders) on board with fresh ideas, Alexandra is now poised to make waves again as a serious wine-producing sub-region of Central Otago.

The word from producers such as Sue and Paul Keast of Grey Ridge Vineyard (formerly Greylands Ridge), is that there is a true optimism that their vineyards and those of their neighbours have something special to offer.

“Alexandra Basin has colder nights for grapegrowing than anywhere else in New Zealand, which is crucial for retaining natural acids as the grapes ripen, yet the days can get hotter than anywhere else in the country too, and it’s this tension between hot and cold that really brings with it flavour development and the classic red-fruit characters native to quality Pinot Noir,” said Sue Keast.

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Similar sentiments can be heard from the owner/winemaker of Shaky Bridge vineyards, David Grant, whose family was one of the first to produce wine in Central Otago with their William Hill vineyards.

Growing up amongst the vines and with over 20 years of experience in winemaking, Grant (NZ Winemaker of the Year finalist in 2005), is keen to see more exposure and growth for the Alexandra Basin, which he believes has its own story to tell.

“The Basin structure here in Alex gives us clear, bright days that provide incredible luminosity for ripening, and crisp, cold nights to preserve acidity. That’s just the climate you want for northern European grapes, particularly those of Alsace: Riesling, Pinot Gris, Gewürztraminer and, of course, Pinot Noir,” Grant said.

“Spectacular schist rock escarpments litter the landscape, with the rock retaining warmth in the soil and forcing the vines to dive deep into the ground looking for nutrients.

“I think if you really dig around here, you’ll find dozens more sites with huge potential for quality wine production,” he said.

It is clear that there is a passion to this feisty little area, which is exactly what it takes to push a wine region to the forefront of the consumers’ memory.

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Distinct character
The wines of Alexandra have been shown to be distinct when compared to the hundreds of others around Central Otago.

The Grey Ridge Reserve Pinot Noir 2015, for example, displays lively aromatic notes of raspberry, blueberry, and thyme, while the Three Miners ‘Wardens Court’ Pinot Noir 2015 brought forth maraschino cherry, cranberry and sage, showcasing a sub-regional profile of red fruits and dried herb characteristics.

This profile was not limited to aroma with each of the wines containing a more Burgundian earth-red hue, instead of the dark, brooding purple colours of the wines from the Bendigo sub-region, for example.

Acidity levels in the wines were also taut and fine-tuned, like the strings of a harp, and rang out just as true on the palate.

While Pinot Noir is the primary focus here, as it is in the entirety of Central Otago, there is room for experimentation: Paul and Angela Jacobson from Judge Rock Vineyard, introduced the St. Laurent grape to the mountainous landscape.

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“The landscape must seem familiar to the variety, as it originally hails from Austria,” noted Paul Jacobson.

This wine, though produced only in limited amounts, has already made waves outside New Zealand with the newly released 2013 and 2014 vintages both winning silver medals at the Decanter World Wine Awards.

It will take the further development of wine-based tourism, as well as significant investment and marketing to truly bring Alexandra Basin in line with the excellent growth of the rest of the Central Otago wine industry, though with passionate producers, the future is looking bright.

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