Great wines... and other stories

Author: Joelle Thomson (page 2 of 109)

New winemaker in Central Otago’s coolest region

Rosie Dunphy pours Pinot Noir and announces her new winemaker at Coal Pit.

Rosie Dunphy pours her Coal Pit Pinot Noir for a group of trade and media in March 2019

Rosie and Mark Dunphy may live in Auckland but their hearts are in New Zealand’s biggest red wine region, Central Otago.

The couple bought a six  hectare vineyard in the region’s highest altitude grape growing area, Gibbston Valley, in 2001, and this year they have hired a new winemaker to take their wines in new directions.

Anika Willner has made wine in Stellenbosch, South Africa, in Marlborough at Wither Hills; in the Mosel River valley in Germany and also in the Yarra Valley, Tasmania and Oregon.

Anika Willner is the new winemaker at Coal Pit in Central Otago

“I think Central Otago is a benchmark region for Pinot Noir in Australasia, especially Gibbston Valley, which is truly cool climate – and also alpine – which is unusual and very interesting. This year I’m going to do a lot more experimentation with vineyard expressions – we’re going to ferment some of the wines at 480 hectares above sea level, up behind the winery,” says Willner.

“I think Coal Pit Pinots have been very beautiful expressions of Central Otago Pinot Noir for a long time – elegant and sophisticated. There’s always room for improvement everywhere you move but it’s about refining small details rather than overhauling a whole wine.”

Coal Pit Wines is relatively unusual in that it has its own winery facility – an uncommon benefit for such a small scale producer. And it is a 100% estate winery. This means its wines are pure 100% expressions of the grapes grown on its home vineyard in the Gibbston Valley, which begins at 420 metres above sea level at the bottom of the vineyard, rising to 480 metres behind the winery. There are only two grapes grown and three wines made, at present. This are Pinot Noir and two different styles of Sauvignon Blanc – one fresh and zesty while the other is an oak aged/fermented style with more body.

There is also a rosé, made entirely from Pinot Noir, given light skin contact.

Consultant winemaker Olly Masters has also been brought on board by owner Rosie Dunphy to assist with stylistic directions. Masters if the winemaker for Misha’s Vineyard and formerly of Ata Rangi in Martinborough.

The Coal Pit winery is gravity fed, which means minimal handling of the grapes. Future innovations may include a basket press and large format oak as well as an overall reduction in the use of oak by 25 to 30 per cent because stylistically this suits the fruit more, suggests Willner.

Dunphy, who studied viticulture at Plumpton College in the United Kingdom, has another dream too – an innovative new style of wine that pays homage to one of the great French classics, but that’s a future hope and dream. For now.

There’s boutique and then there’s boutique. Coal Pit Winery in Gibbston Valley is one of the smallest wineries in the world’s southernmost wine region, Central Otago.

  • Coal Pit Wine is at 121 Coal Pit Road, Gibbston, Central Otago

Wine of the week… Top new Pinot Noir

2014 The Honourable Pinot Noir $75


Ever wished that all Pinot Noir lived up to the promise of being great red wine?

Well, meet a new wine from a big producer that does just that.

The Honourable Pinot Noir is named after Charles Bigg Wither, a farmer in the 1840s who did a brief stint in Parliament, hence the name The Honourable.

This wine is a fitting tribute to an early pioneer.

His evocative name is also used for the arid but beautiful Wither Hills; backdrop to this country’s biggest wine region in Marlborough’s Wairau Valley. And that’s exactly where all of the grapes in this top drop were grown. The Taylor River Vineyard has long been home to outstanding single vineyard Pinot Noirs made by Wither Hills Winery, which was founded in 1994 and began producing single vineyard wines in in the mid 2000s. About 72% of Wither Hills’ total wine production is Sauvignon Blanc, with the balance being evenly spread between Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Gris.

The Honourable is the pinnacle of the winery’s Pinot production – silky, subtle  and fresh; it gains its power from elegance and lingering flavours on the finish. A stunning new wine that drinks well now – it’s five years old – but has great potential for aging further too.

Still strong 25 years on… Sauvignon central makes great Pinot Noir

Wither Hills Winery turned 25 this year and the winemaking team celebrated the way winemakers do best, opening older wines from a new(ish) cellar.

Celebrating quarter of a century the way wineries do best, opening older bottles from the new-ish cellar… Wither Hills Pinot Noirs…

Winemaker Matt Large and his team took their cue from the global wine industry – wine always tastes better shared – and invited a lucky bunch of writers along for the ride. What a trip.

The day began by flying into Marlborough and driving to the 160 hectare Rarangi Vineyard, home to more Sauvignon Blanc than you can shake a proverbial stick at. This vineyard is divided into 34 different blocks, so it’s high maintenance. It’s surrounded by natural wetlands, so the water table is also naturally high.

When John and Brent Marris first planted the land in 2002, cattle were roaming through the diminishing wetlands. Gorse, old man’s beard and other non native plants have since been removed and the wetland area is now twice the size it was back then. Vines remain important but their fragmented planting means that viticulture now fits around the natural environment rather than the other way round.

One of three groups of writers invited to share in 25 years of Wither Hills wines in Marlborough, March 2019

We tasted older Sauvignon Blancs that had aged surprisingly well, especially since screwcaps were introduced in 2001. The 1996 and 1999 Wither Hills Sauvignon Blancs had both turned deep gold and oxidative, but wines from 2001 onwards all remained pale lemon and fresh.

Next stop, Ben Morvan Vineyard.

This one has had organic certification since 2009. No herbicides or other man made chemicals are allowed on organic vineyards so weeds are plentiful and crops of grapes are smaller than they used to be due to lack of man made inputs. This means the flavours in the grapes taste more concentrated too. A good thing. Wet weather fungal disease can be combatted with copper sulphate and Sulphur dioxide (SO2), which are allowed on organically managed land.

“We’ve learned a lot about vine growing from this organic vineyard,” says winemaker Matt Large.

Technology is the biggest thing. Gentler machine harvesters can maximize time and minimize damage when harvesting grapes. Another big change took place in 2007. The winery moved away from a single brand to making single vineyard wines, namely Ben Morvan Pinot Noir and Taylors River Pinot Noir. The latter has always been a fave, for me, and a new tasting of an old wine confirmed it yet again.

Top shelf Pinot Noir in the Wither Hills winery cellar

Marlborough is all about Sauvignon Blanc, which is understandable, given that 72% of Wither Hills wine production is Sauvignon and this reflects the focus of most wineries in the region. The entire region is focused on Sauvignon in this type of ratio and it’s a big export earner for this country, so it’s easy to forget Marlborough has more than one strong string to its wine bow.

This tasting of 25 years of  Wither Hills wines reminded us all how impressive Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from Marlborough can be, when thoughtfully made.

Without further ado, here are my highlights of a fascinating snapshot of Wither Hills’ first quarter century.

Top Wither Hills Pinot Noirs

2011 Wither Hills Wairau Valley Pinot Noir (magnum)

Silky, spicy, smooth and way better from magnum than from 750ml bottles; this wine was my pick of the older wines for drinking now. It’s an outstanding New Zealand Pinot Noir from the country’s biggest wine region. Sensational.

Drinks well now and can still age for 5 to 6 years, possibly longer.


2014 Wither Hills Wairau Valley Pinot Noir

Dry, full bodied and fruitier than the 2011; a bigger, more expressive wine. The vintage began well and was good for Pinot Noir, which comes through loud and clear in this lovely fruit driven wine. A great expression of Pinot from Marlborough.


2016 Wither Hills Wairau Valley Pinot Noir

Current release.

The Pinot Noir spent 14 to 16 months in barrel and is dry, fresh, fruit forward and youthful. Lithe, silky and drinks well but will unfold more complexity with age.


2014 The Honourable Pinot Noir $75

This is the first vintage of The Honourable Pinot Noir, made in homage to the late Charles Bigg Wither, a local farmer in 1840s who owned thousands of hectares of land around the Wither Hills winery. He was voted into Parliament, which is where this wine is named The Honourable in his honour.

The wine is made from grapes grown on the Taylor River vineyard. Only 3000 bottles were produced and it’s drinking well now with youthful fresh flavours, which means it needs to be decanted to allow its youthful flavours to open up.

It’s not a big red but this powerful Pinot Noir derives its impressive flavours and structure from being a subtle wine. Fresh, youthful, long on the finish, drinking beautifully now and with great potential for aging.

  • About 72% of Wither Hills wine production is Sauvignon Blanc with the balance evenly split between Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris.
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