The sixth Alexandra Basin Winegrowers New Release Tasting was held on the Sunday afternoon of Labour Weekend at Olivers’ Garden in Clyde, Central Otago. I was one of two media and industry guests invited to attend this tasting and associated events to gain a broader and more in-depth view of the region, the wines and the people behind them. Such invitations are a two-way thing, and as guests, writer Jo Burzynska and I were asked to convey our perspectives on what we saw, tasted and experienced. Also in attendance were Dunedin-based journalist Charmian Smith, a regular visitor to the region and strong supporter of the wines of Central Otago, and my partner Sue Davies, who has a long wine industry involvement. As a group we were able to confer and share much of the experience. There were several occasions where we could speak and offer feedback, and I provide an overview of the weekend here, as well as some of my personal observations and conclusions. www.alexandrabasinwines.com
The Region, Wines and Winemakers
The Alexandra sub-region figures in the beginning of the modern era of winegrowing with Verdun Burgess and Sue Edwards establishing Black Ridge on Conroy’s Road in Earnscleugh in the early 1980s. In my formative wine days in the mid to late 1980s, I enjoyed visiting Alexandra as much as the Gibbston Valley and Wanaka regions. At present there are around two dozen winegrowers with their own labels. Although Alexandra is home to a number of high profile and successful producers, it is almost the forgotten region. It is the furthest away from Queenstown airport, so visiting is dependent on having personal transport.
As a vignoble, it is the most spread-out and diverse of all the Central Otago sub-regions. Some of the earliest plantings were on the heavier alluvial soils of the Earnscleugh area west of the town, which experiences more warmth. The other main area is the easterly area, which is actually north of the township. The soil is sandy on the flats alongside Dunstan Road, but becomes stonier as one progresses higher in altitude to Hillview Road and over to Letts Gully Road, where it is cooler. There are other pockets of plantings on the outer Earnscleugh, Airport Road and Clyde township areas. All of these microclimates have their distinctive characters, but in general, the Alexandra climate is cooler than the Cromwell Basin, due o the wide diurnal range, resulting in wines which are more elegant and less in the archetypical Central Otago ‘fruit-bomb’ style.
All of the winegrowers are small producers, mostly family operations, with their vineyards based solely in the district. Sam Neill’s ‘Two Paddocks’ also has holdings in Gibbston and now Bannockburn. But he, as with the other growers are proud of their Alexandra location. While some of the winegrowers personally make their wines, the services of contract winemakers play an important part. Foremost is Antony Worch of Alexandra Vintners, the local professional. The Grants at Shaky Bridge also play a significant role in winemaking. Dean Shaw of C.O.W.Co and Pete Bartle of VinPro, both in Cromwell make many Alexandra wines.
Separate or Part of Central Otago?
The Alexandra winegrowers are very aware of their lesser recognition among the Central Otago sub-regions and have taken steps to be active in self-marketing. In a way, they are taking their destiny in their own hands. Comprised of very small businesses and operations, it is difficult for the Alexandra region wineries to raise funds to participate in all the generic Central Otago wine promotional activities. Thus they tend to missed out on opportunities and being involved in the bigger picture. The creation of the Alexandra Basin Winegrowers group and the sub-regional focussed activities, such as the Annual Release Tasting is their way of compensating.
It would be too easy to become too separate from the rest of Central Otago as a result of feeling left out or as the ‘poor country cousin’. Self-promotion is positive up to a point. The danger for Alexandra is that if the region is too distanced, it will lose out on the magical cache that the words ‘Central Otago’ possess in the wine world. There are precedents to a separation that has negative results. In the Wairarapa, there are those who see clear distinctions for the ‘Martinborough Terrace’ compared to the rest of Martinborough. Then some feel that the Greater Wairarapa benefits from Martinborough’s strong reputation. The forming of the Gimblett Gravels ‘appellation’ caused friction with those who felt that Hawke’s Bay as a whole should be promoted first.
As the wine consumer market becomes more sophisticated, and the gatekeepers of the hospitality and liquor industry gain more expertise, the understanding of sub-regional differences grows. Educated drinkers nowadays want to know the uniqueness of Martinborough versus Gladstone, and the Bridge Pa Triangle as opposed to the Gimblett Gravels. And likewise, the characteristics of Bendigo, Bannockburn, Lowburn, Gibbston and Alexandra, all in Central Otago.
The key to facilitating the acceptance and willingness to explore sub-regionality is providing the knowledge to understand what the differences are and why they occur. The style of Alexandra wines must be described clearly. The causation in terms of climate, soils and topography must be explained. And the wines must be tasted by the consumer.
Vineyard Visits – Saturday 25 and Sunday 26, Mornings
Sue and I visited 13 (approx. half) winegrowers and their vineyards. All of the visits were relatively short, but we were impressed with their enthusiasm and knowledge, and surprised by the generally small size of their operations. Click here to read my report on these visits, and to view photos of the owners.
‘Best Foot Forward’ Tasting – Saturday 25, Afternoon
A tasting of 37 wines submitted by the winegrowers for our appraisal. The theme allowed for older wines as well as current releases. Pinot Gris, Gewurztraminer, Riesling, Rosé, Pinot Noir and Bordeaux-varietal wines were tasted. Click here to see my notes on the wines, and my thoughts on each category.
Alexandra Basin Winegrowers Dinner – Saturday 25, Evening
A dinner with the winegrowers at the Clyde Bistro. We presented our findings from the ‘Best Foot Forward’ tasting.
Annual New Release Tasting – Sunday 26, Afternoon
The main event with 19 producers offering tastings of their wines to the general public at Olivers’ Garden in Clyde in a wine festival format. This ran from 1.00 pm to 4.00 pm. The wines were current and new releases. The standard of the wine quality was high, and the wines showed the Alexandra and Central Otago style as they should have. Some interesting varietals, styles and different vinification techniques were seen. As usual in this type of tasting, I ran out of time to visit all of the exhibitors. The attendance was healthy and there were many visitors from outside Central Otago, a number from Dunedin, who regard the Central Otago region as their local winegrowing region, of which Alexandra is the nearest sub-region. As guests, we offered a quick few words on what we tasted to the attending public and exhibitors.
‘Cuisine at Clyde’ Food & Wine Matched Dinner – Sunday 26, Evening
Part of a food programme for the Cuisine at Clyde group, running in Alexandra over Labour Weekend. On Saturday afternoon, after the ‘Best Foot Forward’ tasting, we met with Alan Brown, AUT chef lecturer, to select wines to match with his menu. At the dinner for 60 people, we were asked to comment on each of the wine and food courses served and their matching.
Conclusion and Acknowledgement
The Alexandra Basin Winegrowers Annual Releases Tasting is an event well-worth making the effort to attend. You’ll taste many wines that are hard to get hold of and seldom seen outside Otago. The wines are different to the produce of the other Central Otago sub-regions, and their elegance and more textural style is attractive and food-friendly.
I recommend spending the weekend there to give yourself the time to visit the vineyards. Being small, you’ll meet the proprietors, often in their homes. Making appointments will ensure a warm welcome. The website www.alexandrabasinwines.com has a good map, and contact details. The towns of Alexandra and Clyde have their own charm and personality, very Central Otago, but uniquely so.
My thanks to the Alexandra Basin Winegrowers for their hospitality, especially John and Suzanne Grant of Hawkdun Rise, Patrick and Judy Medlicott of Greylands Ridge, Jenny Hughes of Perseverance Vineyard and David Smythe of Barrington/Clyde Bistro.