Our Unique Conditions

2016: A Case Study

One of the puzzles of Central Otago is why arguably the coolest Pinot Noir region in the world produces such dark, intense and relatively high alcohol wines: surely these are characters of a warmer region? For a while now we have had theories that the combination of high ultra-violet light levels and very cool nights is the secret: details on how this might work can be found at the end of this piece.

We know that the cooler years, especially with the colder nights, produce the most intense wines. So, what happens when we see the warmest run into harvest, with by far the warmest nights we have seen for at least 10 years? The first thing to say here is that while this period was relatively warm in 2016, it wasn’t destructively hot, so we aren’t looking at a cooked season; rather one where Central Otago had the sort of weather we might see in a good year in many other Pinot Noir regions.  Our theories would suggest such weather would give us lower sugars, hence lower alcohols, and an opportunity to see physical ripeness at a much earlier point in the flavour ripeness cycle. As we are not so familiar with the character of warm season’s fruit (and would not like to see baked or stewed fruit characters), 2016 was an ideal opportunity to try to capture a fresher, more ethereal, more aromatically driven moment, rather than wait for a fuller riper style. 

And so 2016, our 20th vintage, is one of the most surprising. Boasting the lowest set of alcohols we have ever seen, this is a different side to our vineyards. Although our labels all read 13.5%, the 2016 Pinot Noirs actually range from 13.3% to 13.6%. We always label to the EU legal requirement of accuracy to within plus or minus 0.5%, which is also required to be reported in decimals of 0.0 or 0.5. New Zealand and Australia labelling laws only require a plus or minus 1.5% degree of accuracy – be careful therefore when reading the alcohols of some labels!

Gone is the high impact dark fruit: it’s replaced by a mineral seam; driven by perfume and transparency. Each vineyard is still indelibly showing its personality, but in a pure, more subtle tone rather than our usual cascade of flavour, aroma and texture. Maybe this is a vintage that will divide opinion. Some will miss the fruit depth, others might celebrate the more cerebral tone. 

Please don’t like this too much as it isn’t a trick we are likely to be able to pull off without the help of another considerable warm spell. Indeed, as we can already see from the 2017’s, which come from a cooler, windy, snowy and generally more challenging growing season; normal service will resume next release whether we like it or not!

It seems appropriate however, that such a unique vintage as 2016 should have a distinctive thumbprint. It may be counter-intuitive that a warm season gives a lighter, more dancing style, but seizing the moment seems to have pulled off a surprising result. And in doing so, it has helped us understand the process of ripeness in our unique wine growing environment.

Why does a warm, late summer create lower sugars and a relatively earlier harvest opportunity? We have three factors playing here. The first is that peak efficiency in photosynthesis occurs below 30ºC. So, as the weather gets warmer, vines produce less sugar. The second is that our normal nights are so cold that the vines go into a sort of dormancy for the coldest part of the night. As the vines get colder, their metabolism slows down and they respire less. Since respiration uses up sugar, slowing up the respiration causes less sugar to be consumed. This results in retained sugars becoming higher with cold nights and conversely warmer nights resulting in lower sugars. Lastly, that dormancy at night stops the clock on the physical ripening process, so it takes longer for the fruit to get physically ripe. Since the physical ripeness is the cue we look for to determine the optimal time to pick, if the nights are cold, the harvest is later. So, if the harvest runs, say, 7 days later; that is an extra 7 days of daytime ripening which is adding to the sugars.