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Cool chronicles

Published:  18 January, 2007

Dotted with marine fossils and rugged limestone outcrops, the other-worldly terrain of the Waitaki formed one of the dramatic backdrops in the recent Narnia film. Back in reality, this landscape of limestone and north-facing slopes is starting to shape wines from New Zealand's newest wine region which could prove equally dramatic.

The viticultural potential of the Waitaki Valley was first spotted by New Zealand entrepreneur the late Howard Paterson, who saw the limestone slopes of this valley east of Central Otago while on flights between business interests in Dunedin and Queenstown.

Since he set up the first vineyard there in 2000, the Waitaki Valley has already found a place on the wine map through the big names that have bought into the region.

In a partnership that includes top Kiwi chef Peter Gordon, ex-Villa Maria chief winemaker Michelle Richardson has invested in a Waitaki Valley vineyard, recently launching the Waitaki Braids brand.

Other vineyards in the region are owned by Dr John Forrest - who made the first wine from the region in 2003 - and Craggy Range. Valli's Grant Taylor is also sourcing fruit from the region.

To date, just over 80 hectares (ha) has been planted, with a further 400ha of prime viticultural land remaining, according to Steve Harrop, general manager of Waitaki Valley Estates, which has been marketing the land originally purchased by Paterson and manages most of the region's vineyards.

Generating the most excitement and currently the most widely planted grape is Pinot Noir, while Pinot Gris is Waitaki's great white hope.

Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Gewurztraminer and Chardonnay are also in the ground, and Italian varieties such as Arneis, Dolcetto and Nebbiolo have been planted by Antonio Pasquale in the more inland and extreme Hakataramea Valley.

Waitaki is cool literally, with just over 900 growing degree days and one of the longest, driest growing seasons in the country.

In terms of heat accumulation, it's slightly above Central Otago's Gibbston Valley and below that of Bannockburn. However, the temperate maritime climate of the Waitaki means it doesn't experience the same summer heat spikes or possess Central's major frost risk.

Some still fear that the region might just be too cold to ripen grapes successfully every year, although this has not yet been a problem, albeit in its very short history.

It is poor flowering that could prove to be Waitaki's main issue, but as the region's main viticultural consultant, Paul Viggers, notes: 'No cool area doesn't have flowering issues.'

He considers that as the region develops, sourcing labour in this sparsely populated and relatively isolated area might be a greater challenge than climate.

For John Forrest, the potential of the Waitaki in 2006 is similar to the early days of Marlborough: 'I think Waitaki could virtually be Marlborough in 1988.

At that stage, Marlborough had only a thousand-odd acres of grapes, half a dozen wineries, had just got some international acclaim for the beauty of its Sauvignon Blancs, and had an interested but sceptical local community.'

Low yields and high production costs mean Waitaki's wines are being priced towards the higher end of Central Otago's bracket.

With significant volumes of Pinot due to come out of Central following its bumper 2006 harvest, does New Zealand really need another higher-priced Pinot region? If the Waitaki is to survive, it will have to produce something stylistically unique.

For me, the first wave of wines has proved extremely exciting and suggest the Waitaki could indeed be capable of offering something distinctive.

The 2004 Waitaki Pinots have less emphasis on upfront fruit than those in Central, show some good structure and fine tannins, and possess a savoury, gamey complexity that runs through the wines.

The region's first rich and spicy Pinot Gris from Craggy Range was also an impressive indication of great things to come from cool-climate white varieties.

'We believe we've produced a wine like nothing else in New Zealand,' says Jim Jerram of Ostler Vineyards. However, like most in the Waitaki, he's quick to acknowledge that the region is still relatively unproven.

'The small amount of wine that has been made in the region so far has been extremely promising, but it still has to prove that it's financially viable.'

The Waitaki Valley is truly winegrowing on the edge - just how close to that edge it will only discover in the years to come. But from the wines released already, I think it could really turn out to be a magical land for cool-climate wines.