Delving into the Waitaki Valley

Waitaki Valley vista. NZ Wine Catalogue

Waitaki Valley Feature Week

The youngest of New Zealand’s commercially productive wine regions, the Waitaki Valley, is a fascinating region.

It has its own GI. Geographically, the Waitaki Valley system encompasses quite a vast area in the central South Island, stretching from Aoraki (Mt Cook) through Mackenzie Country with its beautiful glacial lakes—Pukaki, Benmore, Aviemore—along the Pukaki River and subsequently the Waitaki River, all the way down to the coastline just north of Oamaru, where South Canterbury meets North Otago.

Currently, it has around 59 ha of vineyards, 24 of which are pinot noir, 17 ha are pinot gris with riesling and chardonnay coming in at about 6-7 ha each.

Etymologically, it translates as the ‘river of (Aoraki’s) tears’. As a viticultural area, we usually refer to the much more compact area where the Waitaki turns into a braided river system, in the vicinity of Kurow and the Hakataramea Valley which branches north off it. Currently, it has around 59 ha of vineyards, 24 of which are pinot noir, 17 ha are pinot gris with riesling and chardonnay coming in at about 6-7 ha each. The rest is made up of small plantings of 10 more varieties. However, at its peak, it boasted about 120 ha of vines, double what it now has.

The area has a few defining characteristics which play a part in its creation and also its fortunes over the past two decades. First of all, it is rich in limestone, a result of uplift along a fault line which exposed a north-facing slope of 38 million year old Pacific seabed along the river. This was then subjected to glacial and riverine erosion and deposition across thousands of years to create the patchwork of weathered limestone and free-draining old riverbeds which combine the limestone fragments with greywacke gravel and schist which was brought down from the Southern Alps.

These stony soils are important for heat retention and solar reflection in a region which is distinctly cooler than Central Otago. The relatively warm summers and long, dry autumns, along with the very dry climate resulting from being in the rain shadow of the Southern Alps, all result in a late-budding and late-ripening region which makes it prone to both frosts and late season weather with a relatively low number of sunlight hours.

The former owners of Clos Ostler—then known as Ostler (Jim and Anne Jerram as well as Anne’s brother, Jeff Sinnott)—decided to settle in the area in 1998 after a lengthy search for suitable vineyard land to make premium wine. The Ostler syndicate planted their first vines of pinot noir in 2002. They were not the first, that honour goes to the Doctors Creek vineyard, which was planted in 2001 and is still in operation today.

Most of those first vines including several Italian varieties like nebbiolo and barbera were killed by frost and he replanted to cooler-climate alternatives.

The first winery facility to set up in the Waitaki was by Dr. Antonio Pasquale at a cost of NZD $3 million. He also planted vineyards in 2002 including in the colder but less windy Hakataramea Valley. Most of those first vines including several Italian varieties like nebbiolo and barbera were killed by frost and he replanted to cooler-climate alternatives. Although Pasquale Wines (subsequently Black Star Wines) was not to survive, the winery changed hands in early 2020, ahead of the COVID era, being sold to Te Kano, who already owned vines in Central Otago.

It remains the only full winery facility in Waitaki to this day, although cellar doors without wineries do exist, and late last year, Valli (which is seen as a fierce proponent of Waitaki) opened a wine bar in the region when it bought the old Ostler tasting room. Grant Taylor (of Valli) was also early to enter the region, making his first vintage from Waitaki grapes in 2004, albeit from growers’ vineyards. He only purchased his own 4 ha of vines in the region in 2017. The vineyard was initially developed by River T’s Murray Turner. Like Pasquale’s vineyard, this was also formerly a fruit orchard.

Te Kano vineyard and winery in Kurow, Waitaki Valley. Te Kano Wines

Jen Parr, Valli‘s winemaker, jokes that Grant Taylor has become somewhat of a Waitaki celebrity, having moved to the Hakataramea Valley from Central Otago recently. He was actually born in Kurow so it is a return of sorts. Coincidentally, one of the major roads in Waitaki with wine addresses, including the Valli vineyard, is called Grant’s Road.

There are still a handful of wineries going at it in Waitaki, such as Q Wine and of course Te Kano and Valli along with some wineries which draw fruit from the Waitaki to make wines within a larger range.

To better understand how the region emerged and grew, we have to look at the expansion of New Zealand wine in a broader context, and that includes considering what was happening in Central Otago at the time. The late 1990s saw eyes turn to Central Otago as the region started to experience a rapid rise in interest. 70% of the production of Central Otago is believed to have come on-stream between 1999 and 2008, even though the pioneers of Central Otago were making wine as early as the 1980s.

With land prices beginning to increase and an influx of money into the wine industry targeted at producing top-notch pinot noir and chardonnay, the 2000s saw a flurry of exploration and land-prospecting which is colloquially called the lime rush—after the obsession with finding limestone-influenced soils to mirror the geology of Burgundy’s famed Côte d’Or (which is a gross oversimplification, but that’s for another article). North Canterbury and Central Hawke’s Bay were other regions to benefit from this lime rush. The Waitaki had fossiliferous limestone soils, which met the conditions many were searching for.

That said, it took a while for pinot noir to find its feet there. When Valli produced its first vintage in 2004, Craggy Range was also an active participant in the region—the late Doug Wisor had great belief in the acid profile of Waitaki but believed that wine could only be made in some years. As he had predicted, the region was very inconsistent, with viticulture really operating at the edge of viability. There was no pinot noir harvested in 2005 and the region suffered again in 2007 with only one barrel worth of pinot noir surviving. That barrel belonged to Valli.

Finally, in 2008, Craggy Range exited the region. Pasquale has closed, the Jerrams and Sinnott sold Ostler a few years ago and Forrest has changed the focus of its Waitaki operation towards lower alcohol wines. There are still a handful of wineries going at it in Waitaki, such as Q Wine and of course Te Kano and Valli along with some wineries which draw fruit from the Waitaki to make wines within a larger range, but only the most resilient and stalwart (or perhaps also deep-pocketed) believers in the Waitaki remain.

Part of that is the risk of frost and crop loss, but part of it is due to the low-yielding nature of the region’s free-draining, cool and dry climate, which significantly limits the yields even when things go smoothly. Three tonnes/ha is considered a good crop and it rarely gets as high as 5 tonnes. In contrast, Marlborough regularly delivers four to five times as much crop, on average.

The grape varieties are streamlining as well. Although pinot noir still dominates and is likely to continue dominating plantings, there is a belief that chardonnay is the great hope. Certainly geologically, there is precedent as most of the limestone-rich soils in Burgundy are planted in chardonnay (not pinot noir). Valli has actually top-grafted its 1 ha of pinot gris vines over to chardonnay.

Winemaking also has to be adapted to suit the region’s acid profile, late-ripening nature and low yields. For instance, over time, the inclusion of whole bunch fermentation has been scaled back. By about 2014 or 2015, Grant Taylor had recognised that the smaller berries in Waitaki pinot noir (averaging a very low 45g per bunch) skewed the proportion of stalks in each bunch, so he had to actively reduce the amount of whole bunches used in ferments to account for the higher proportion of stalks in each bunch.

Pinot gris does have a future, as the variety tends to suffer qualitatively when it is cropped more heavily—not something likely to happen in Waitaki.

Riesling is the other variety which holds great promise, though it is rarely botrytised. The dry and cool weather tends to result in clean grapes and late-harvest riesling is highly dependent on the late season weather. However, where the slight lilt of herbal and high acidity can result in pinot noirs which are unfriendly in their youth, these traits are very much part of riesling’s identity.

Lastly, pinot gris does have a future, as the variety tends to suffer qualitatively when it is cropped more heavily—not something likely to happen in Waitaki. The lower-acidity inherent to the variety is also offset by the naturally high acidity of the region. Similarly to how pinot noir and chardonnay performs in Waitaki, the pinot gris also comes across edgy and austere in its youth, but there is a proven track record that Waitaki wines age very well, as a result of their high acidity and restrained cool-climate profiles.

There are some hopeful signs that the region will start growing again, albeit slowly. If this growth centres on suitable varieties like chardonnay, there could be a bright future ahead for Waitaki once more as it transitions from the frontier days of its early pioneers into a more established region which understands its various pockets of vines, the patterns of its climate and the varieties and styles which harness the special qualities of the region.


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