Pyramid Valley.

Central Otago has just over 80% of its vineyards planted with pinot noir, with the balance mainly claimed by four white varieties (pinot gris, chardonnay, riesling and sauvignon blanc). So deciding to plant another red variety could be considered taking a gamble.  

Yet Dave Sutton, winemaker and general manager at Bannockburn’s Te Kano Estate, was keen to explore what other varieties might work. With one eye on the ever more mercurial weather patterns, he wondered what would happen if the region became too warm for its much-acclaimed pinot?  

Gamay was one possibility he considered (already championed by Mt Edward, Dicey and Rippon) but Sutton thought there could be other grapes that would thrive “on the fringe” – as he put it. One of Te Kano’s smallest vineyard blocks faces north; it’s protected from the prevailing winds but in a warmer year seemed much too hot to give pinot of the delicacy and drive Sutton likes to achieve.

Having done his research, he settled on cabernet franc. A parent of cabernet sauvignon, it buds and matures earlier so is easier to get fully ripe. Planted in many of the wine regions where cabernet sauvignon also thrives, it is found in places as distinct as New York State, the Loire Valley and Chile.  

Almost as diverse is the range of styles it produces, from fresh, juicy high-acid reds best served cool, to bigger framed, high-alcohol examples where the vibrant fruit is cloaked in tannin and oak.

Having tasted a variety of examples, Sutton landed on producing a wine at the lighter end of the spectrum. 2021 was the first crop, off the three-year-old vines. He decided to utilise an initial carbonic maceration phase, placing destemmed whole berries into the tank, followed by a regular ferment. Gentle punch-downs were kept to a minimum and ageing was in old oak.  

The biggest decision was whether or not to sulphur the wine. Trials were held post malolactic, one barrel sulphured and one not. Sutton describes the results as “night and day”, the sulphured barrel seeming harder and more angular with tannins to the fore, whereas the unsulphured barrel was bright and supple.

The wine was bottled unsulphured but when I tasted it, I didn’t realise this was the case. It was super clean and without any of the funky wild notes that can accompany low sulphur wines. My tasting note reads: “Incredible colour. Nose is very ripe and voluptuous with masses of blueberry, crème de cassis and damson. This initial burst of fruit gives way to a little touch of raspberry leaf and violets that give an attractive floral lift. Generous and densely fruited with quite gentle papery tannins and a lovely acid spine. There is a precision and poise to the palate and a crisp, satisfying finish.”

Te Kano Estate.

The 2021 Te Kano Cabernet Franc is an exuberant take on the grape, but definitely a world away from the high-toned, red-fruited Loire styles. Done with conviction and heart, it is instead an appealing, polished interpretation of the variety. While only 500 bottles were produced it was a good start in the exploration of newer varieties for the region and one to keep an eye on for the future.

Although my own website states “Jane loves all wines, especially gewürztraminer, Sherry, Madeira and Champagne, though she is not overly fond of cabernet franc”, having tasted this, I think I will need to rethink that statement.  

When iconic North Canterbury estate, Pyramid Valley, was put up for sale in 2018, the NZ wine industry was rife with rumours as to its possible purchaser. In the end Smith & Sheth (a collaboration between Steve Smith MW and Brian Sheth, a US-based venture capitalist) bought both Pyramid Valley and Central Otago’s Lowburn Ferry.  

In an inspired move, Huw Kinch was appointed as Pyramid Valley’s winemaker. Kinch had been working alongside fellow Australian Larry McKenna at the latter’s Escarpment Estate in Te Muna but moved with his family to take up the position.

Pyramid Valley’s founders Mike and Claudia Weersing were very passionate and completely committed to the vineyards they planted, and a philosophy of low intervention winemaking. Their wines were genuinely exciting and cerebral when done right although occasionally the boundaries were pushed a little too far and the resulting wines could be a little hit or miss.  

The challenge for Kinch was to stay true to the ethos of the estate while bringing his own style. The release late last year of the 2019 Botanical Single Vineyard Collection, showed Kinch’s deft hand with his beloved chardonnay and pinot noir, wines with a strong sense of place and a subtle winemaker imprint.

But the latest release, the 2021 Colour Collection, is the first set of new wines under Kinch’s stewardship. The rosé, a whole bunch-pressed old vine pinot noir is textural and satisfying. The Sauvignon + is named for the addition of a small amount of skin-contact pinot gris.  

Huw Kinch.

I was most interested to taste the orange. A skin contact wine was always part of the Pyramid Valley portfolio but Kinch wanted to make a clean interpretation of the style. He approached the task mindful of tannins and phenolics, so decided to whole bunch-ferment the pinot gris, pouring a small amount of juice over the cap each day and the period of skin contact was carefully monitored to avoid too much extraction. When I noticed a faint but fragrant bourbon rose petal note, Kinch admitted he’d added a little gewürztraminer – “you don’t need much” – along with some riesling and muscat.  

The finished wine is delightful. There is a textural grip on the palate but it forms an integral part, sitting alongside the dried apple skin and mandarin peel flavours. The wine finishes crisp and clean with a faint amaro edge.  

The wines are strikingly packaged, each featuring a plant or flower found in the vineyards, underlining the estate’s commitment to biodynamic philosophy. Apparently there are new wines waiting in the wings but in the meantime, the Colour Collection is a confident addition to the range.  

French-Canadian François Chartier has made a name for himself