Monday, February 22, 2010

Rippon Vineyards – The Most Beautiful Winery in the World

(Feb. 11, 2010) Before leaving the States, I had scheduled an appointment to meet with Nick Mills, the winemaker and owner of Rippon Vineyards, which is often referred to as “the most beautiful winery in the world.” It was also the first winery that wine friends recommended when I asked where to visit in Central Otago. Furthermore, it is the home of the famous vineyard photo that appears on most NZ wine brochures, calendars, and other materials to lure tourists to NZ. Having traveled to more than 200 wineries around the world, I have to admit I was slightly skeptical. However, the first view of the vineyards, lake, and mountains literally took my breath away. I am now a believer – this is the most beautiful vineyard (not winery) in the world. The winery itself is a small tin barn with a cozy barrel room that reminded me of the small domains of Burgundy.

The linkage to Burgundy turned out to be correct, because Nick spent 4 years working in various domains there, including one year at DRC. In fact, before we left, he showed me a photo of magnums of La Tache and Romanee-Conti that he had corked. I am so jealous! It is also obvious that he incorporated some Burgundian philosophy in terms of crafting pinot noir, because he described himself as a “facilitator,” rather than a winemaker. He described his role as focusing on growing the best grapes possible to reflect the taste of the land on the shores of Lake Wanaka. He proudly told us that he is the 4th generation of his family to own and farm this land.

The vineyard is comprised of 15 hectares which fan out around the shores and hills of the beautifully blue, glacier-fed Lake Wanaka. All around the lake dramatic rocky mountains rise straight up – many part of the Mt. Aspiring National Park. To the left of the vineyard is a delicate waterfall that tumbles down the mountain and is called Waterfall Creek. In the middle of the lake is a small magical island. The town of Wanaka is hid behind a small rise to the right. So the vineyard is pristine and unspoiled in its beauty. Even the small winery tasting room (the size of a small bedroom) with huge open windows for walls is hidden back against the hill –so that the vineyard is the showpiece.

Finding Rippon Vineyards was not difficult, because we used Google Maps before leaving home. The drive from Queensland to the winery is 1 hour and 9 minutes, but the Cardrona Crossing on Route 89 is winding and remote. However, Mike enjoyed shifting gears and taking the tight and twisting corners – although I’m sure he would have preferred a BMW to the Toyota we had rented. On the way back to Queenland, we took the longer, but smoother, route along Highway 6. I would recommend driving both routes in order to get a better feel for the amazing mountains of Central Otago.

Nick immediately took us to one of his prize pinot noir vineyards up on the hill and showed us a piece of the schist rock which comprised most of the soil, along with some clay and loam. Altitude is 380 meters (1000 feet), which seems low considering you are surrounded by so many towering mountains. But Nick explained that it is the mountains and lower altitude that allow grapes to be grown in Central Otago. It gets warm enough at the lower level, and the mountains block the rain and cooler temperature from the ocean which is about a 2 hour drive. Rainfall is around 300ml per year, but they do not need to irrigate. The vineyard is protected from frost because the cool air flows down the slopes to the lake.

Farming is biodynamic (though he hasn’t pursued certification), and he keeps 3 cows on the property to make the prep and has huge compost piles. Rootstock is a mix of own rooted, as well as some 3309, and he has a variety of clones (777,667, 15, 14, etc). Spacing is primarily 1.75m by 1.5 m, but it varies. Of the approximately 3000 cases produced, 2000 are pinot noir, but they also make some excellent rieslings, gamay, gewutraminer, and an usual grape called Ostering.

Nick said friends, neighbors, and people arriving early for the ski season assist with harvest in late March and April. They use a sorting table, and then partially destem (usually around 60%) of the pinot noir grapes with the rest being whole-cluster -- but Nick stressed that it depends on the year. They use 2 ton stainless fermenters and natural yeast. He said it takes 6 to 9 days for the ferment to take off, and they use no temperature control. They sometimes jump in the tank to help get things started, and will use pigeage (all manual) to punch down once fermentation starts. The whole process can take up to 30 days to complete, but depends on the year. He uses a gentle press, and combines both free run and pressed juice to age in barrel. He believes that both aspects need to be married to make a complete wine. All vineyard lots are fermented and aged separately, and he names each barrel in white chalk with interesting titles such as “Barack, Dimaggio, and the Ganghi River,” as part of a coding system.

Texture is important with Rippon wines, and Nick says he prefers to talk about texture rather than fruit. “Terrior is wrapped up in texture and feel,” he said. He expresses this in several different pinots, which he blends after aging. The youngest is named Jeunesse, which is made from vines under 15 years of age and spends 10-11 months in old oak. We tasted the 09 out of barrel and the 08 in the tasting room, and they both displayed the fruity delicacy for which he was striving. My favorite was the 2007 Rippon Pinot Noir (which we bought), a classic Central Otago (in my mind) with deeply concentrated raspberry, velvety tannins, good acidity, and a long finish. This is made from 15+ years and older vines, and is aged for 16-17 months in 30-40% new French oak. No fining or filtering. We finished tasting out of barrel with Emma’s Block, which was a big intense pinot with savoury notes, dark berry, and earth. This was mouthfilling with many complex persistent flavors. Wow!

We were encouraged to head back to the tasting room to try all of the whites, as well as the current release pinots. Both Rieslings were exceptional, with great texture and fresh peach/citrus notes. The 2008 Rippon Gewutraminer was the most beautiful we tried in Central Otago, with a nose that jumped out of the glass; hugely floral, well balanced, crisp acid and long finish. As we were leaving the tasting room, a group of people rode in on horseback and tied up their horses in a little stall outside to come in and taste wine. Wow – NZ has great wine tourism, and they also have the most beautiful vineyard in the world at Rippon.

See short I-Phone video at:

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