Day 5: An Otago Offering

Jake Skakun is one half of Cherries and Clay.

The Original All Blacks wreaking havoc on the rugby world in 1905.

I was originally slated in for tomorrow, but who really wants to follow Joe Dressner? Isn’t that why he was given Day 31 last year? The first four posts have already stressed the depth of talent involved with this collaboration (which I am humbled to be a part of) and proven that it doesn’t matter who you follow.

Dozens of producers have wowed me over the past year – most of which I would consider natural. I had the brilliant opportunity to live in San Francisco for 7 months where I got a glimpse into an inspiring scene supporting interesting wine, which I only hope will eventually spread with nearly the same intensity to my hometown (Vancouver). During my brief stints at Nopa and Terroir (especially), I was able to taste and discuss thought provoking wines on a nightly basis. Clos Rougeard, Paolo Bea, COS, Occhipinti, Puffeney, Noella Morantin, Foillard, Ganevat, l’Anglore, and Henri Gouges are names that come to mind. I’m certain there are few places anywhere that sell as much Jura and Cru Beaujolais as Terroir, which is true bragging material. While chewing over potential topics for this 32 Days post, I knew the Old World realm was sure to be covered by plenty of very capable writers (but I have been impressed by the attention to homegrown wineries so far (and go Texas!)). I sought to introduce something different into the mix, for which I turned to a region that I hold in very high esteem: Central Otago, New Zealand. I find one producer especially compelling who, with fellow Otago resident Felton Road, is responsible for my favourite bottles of New World Pinot Noir period. The winery is Rippon, run by the Mills family, and my ambition is to simply spread the word about what they’re doing.

When defining ‘natural winemaking’ I’m one who leans towards a non-dogmatic definition. I believe a ‘natural wine certification’ would be detrimental to the cause. Transparency is supreme. Nick Mills is making wine with the intention to accurately express the unique landscape it comes from, whether or not he considers them ‘natural’ isn’t something I’ve bothered asking him. The Mills family farms free of chemicals and follows biodynamic principles, uses no copper sulphate (Bordeaux Mixture) in the vineyard (an area of debate with some bio producers), practices natural uninoculated fermentations with no additions (nutrients or vitamins), doesn’t artificially control fermentation temperatures (other than opening doors), uses zero or minute sulphur before fermentation, doesn’t inoculate malolactic fermentation, doesn’t fine the must, and adds low sulphur at bottling. Their use of water is judicious. Rippon only waters young vines until they are established (Lake Wanaka receives around 650mm of annual rainfall) and most of the vines are ungrafted. The proof is the wine and I think Nick is succeeding with stunning results.

The People. Nick and Jo Mills.

Rippon is owned and run by the Mills family on their fourth generation family farm at the southern edge of Wanaka Lake. Lois and Rolfe Mills began experimenting with viticulture in the 1970s. Rolfe was one of the first to plant vines on the South Island and is considered by many to be the father of the Central Otago industry. The winery was named after the family’s ancestor Emma Rippon who, with husband James Sargood, left England in 1850 to establish a merchant company in the new colony of Victoria, Australia, before grandson Percy made it a couple thousand kilometers further to New Zealand. Today the vineyard is 15 hectares sitting at around 350m elevation and planted on schist-based soils – most of the vines are Pinot Noir and Riesling, but also small amounts of Gewurztraminer, Sauv Blanc, Gamay, Osteiner. They have experimented with and ripped out over 15 other varieties since the 70s, unsatisfied with the results (including many of today’s major commercial grapes – Chard, Cab, Merlot). The vineyard has always been farmed organically, but Nick began with biodynaics in the early 2000s upon his return to NZ after living in France for 4 years (he worked at Nicholas Potel, Albert Mann and DRC). As you can see below, the view from the winery is ridiculous.

Iconic view of Rippon’s vineyards with Ruby Island off the shore. Photo credit Tim Jordan.

Central Otago’s landscapes are the source of a past gold rush, home to grazing sheep, and the backdrop of a Lord of the Rings trilogy. There are unique factors at play here: at 45 degrees it is the world’s most southerly wine region; it’s the only region in the country with a continental climate, which lends hot, dry summers, cool autumns and cold winters (the hottest, driest and coldest region in NZ); it’s on the eastern side of the largest mountain range in Australasia (Southern Alps), creating an important rain shadow effect, shielding Otago from the infamous ‘Roaring Forties’ airflow and causes the dumping of 5 to 10 meters of water a year before it reaches the vineyards. is an impressive website that lets you look at maps that anyone farming anything would want to see (soil, drainage, rain, temps, wind, etc).

Bonus points for anyone who names what restaurant this photo was taken in.

Rippon 07 Pinot Noir (12.9%)
There’s an infancy here that is easy to sense. I tasted the wine over the course of 8 hours or so. It started as a point – lots of acid, red berry fruits and chalky minerality – and expanded to a small tight ball – floral, depths of brambly berry fruit, orange citrus – and eventually softened more – smoke and iron. I love the power and intensity from such a light, pretty wine. Note the alcohol. This is the real deal.

Nearby in Bannockburn is the larger and perhaps better known Otago producer Felton Road. They too are making killer wines while farming biodynamically. Winemaker Blair Walter recently told me that they have been using indigenous yeast since their first vintage in ‘91. “Using the indigenous yeasts furthers our opportunities to make site specific wines with a more consistent Felton Road house style. Allowing everyone to take part (some indigenous fermentations have had up to 150 different yeast species identified) is consistent with our biodynamic approach in the vineyard: biodiversity is paramount.” He also mentioned some sound rationale stating that the money saved on yeast can be spent on beer. I specifically love the Pinots from the Calvert Vineyard and Block 5.

Rippon is imported into British Columbia by Lanigan & Edwards and Jeff Curry is the man to talk to. The Pinot Noir is available at Kitsilano Wine Cellar. Matt may tell you that he also has bottles of the 04 and 06, but he is probably just bragging and likely wont sell you any. Felton Road in BC is represented by Liquid Art and the whole line is available at Kits Wine Cellar as well.

Follow day by day here:

Up next: Joe Dressner updates us from France, or; How much Pinot Noir is really grown in the Languedoc?

~ by Cory Cartwright on June 23, 2010.

3 Responses to “Day 5: An Otago Offering”

  1. Thank you, Jake. The Central Otago is full of promise (and also, overproduction and what-does-it-matter vinous greed, and Great Names coasting, and surprising names excelling), and it is certainly one of the more beautiful wine regions anywhere. Even aside from Rippon, any drive along the Kawarau is going to be an exciting one.

    I admit I was far less enthusiastic about Rippon on my one visit and bracketing encounters, but I’m eager to revisit after reading this.

    Thanks again.

  2. Thank you Thor. It’s my impression that the winery has been undergoing a resurgence since Nick’s return in 2002 – perhaps many of the wines you tasted were before the change or early on in the transition. I’d be curious to know your impressions next time you try the wines!


  3. I had a few of wines in 2002 (but didn’t visit on that trip), and the actual visit was in 2005. On that visit, I liked the 02 riesling and 04 gewürztraminer, but the 01 pinot noir was just OK, and I did not at all care for the rosé, the 00 merlot/syrah blend, or the 04 osteiner. But yes, I will definitely go back — Wanaka’s so beautiful, how could I not? — on my next trip. Hopefully next year, or the year after.

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