Is wild thyme Central Otago’s eucalyptus?

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Environmental influences on wine aroma and flavour are a pet subject of mine. The most obvious such characteristic in Australian wine is mint, in its various guises, which is caused by the preponderance of eucalyptus trees in our rural areas.

I have written about this many times, and mentioned that the ‘garrigue herb’ aromas of southern Rhone and Provence wines may be another such example.

In New Zealand’s Central Otago, winemakers speak of the ‘wild thyme’ which thrives in the region, and its influence in the aroma of their famed pinot noirs.

Winemaker John Forrest offered some insight on this recently. He told me his Central Otago vineyard, in the Bannockburn sub-region, was bordered by 500 hectares of wild thyme, and he swears it can be smelled in his pinots.

“It’s very strong and very distinctive,” he said. “It’s different from the thyme commonly used in cooking, but it is also useful in cooking. Every time I visit the vineyard I take a big bag with me and stuff it full of wild thyme. ” His favourite use for the herb is when barbecuing lamb.

“I take a great big armful of it and throw it on the barbie with the lamb. It tastes great.” Forrest reckons wild thyme is a trademark of Central Otago pinot in the same way gumleaf or mint is in Australian reds.

Tasting his 2010 John Forrest Collection Bannockburn pinot noir ($55) l, I noted aromas of black fruits, dried herbs and spices, with a suggestion of violets.

It became increasingly chaffy or savoury herb-like on the nose after a while in the glass. It’s difficult to describe, but I suspect this was the vaunted ‘wild thyme’ regional character.

It was certainly very different from the two other pinots under the same label, from Waitaki Valley (North Otago) and Brancott (Marlborough). It is fascinating to speculate what other wine aromas might be caused by environmental influences. (Forrest Estate’s tasting notes)

Pine forests, for instance, in such regions as the south-east of South Australia. I’m also convinced I can detect eucalyptol (more correctly, 1,8 cineol) in some white wines.

An example is at Sevenhill in the Clare Valley (tastings), which has always made some of Australia’s mintiest reds, but whites also seem to be affected. Their 2012 St Francis Xavier Riesling is an example (tasting note). During a recent riesling masterclass I swore the dominant aroma was peppermint.

Later, consulting my comments on this wine in a blind tasting four months earlier, I was pleased to see the word peppermint also appeared!

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