The Amisfield Winery and the Bistro (Cellar Door) are not to be confused as they are a good 60k apart, a mistake that took us from Cromwell to an overnight stay in Queenstown, and then the drive back the following morning to Cromwell! We did however get to follow in William and Kate’s footsteps to the Cellar Door and then discover a gem of a restaurant in the backstreets of Queenstown. Apart from the cask samples at the winery we did get to taste five of the wines at the CD. Queenstown is very pretty and set in a lovely spot, like all other places down in the Deep South, of course, it has more steep hills than you can shake a walking cane at! The problem is that it is very much a tourist destination, in Summer it is hot and a diving, fishing and water sports centre and then in Winter it has the snow and thus is invaded by the Ski set! The result is that it has all the souvenir, clothes and equipment shops and fast food restaurants associated with tourists.

 A sombre note is that whilst we were down in Queenstown we heard for the first, but by no means last, time during the trip about ‘bad’ tourist driving. NZ, like UK, drives on the left, something that is proving a problem for many tourists who normally drive on the right. The main factor is that with such a small population relative to the land mass there are many occasions when your car is the only one on the road, the temptation, therefore, for drivers to slip into ‘auto pilot’ is high and when they do and assume their ‘normal’ road position on the wrong side of the road it can be fatal! We have seen reports of ten killed in at least three different incidents, as well as several reporting local drivers taking keys off tourists, so we are being very careful!

The restaurant, called the Bunker, I guess because it is windowless and wood panelled and I suspect more aimed at après ski than summer guests! In the centre of Queenstown, literally in the backstreets, in an alley called ‘Cow Lane’! There is, as in London, a big ‘shared platter’ starter culture over here which we had with an Amisfield Pinot Noir. We have also been taking advantage of the availability of a whole tranche of NZ locally caught fish, including Kahawai, Tarakihi, Hoki, and Gurnard and our friend, Phai, from the Little Hanoi restaurant will be delighted to hear that we have found the Basa from Vietnam, another popular fish over here! We had Tarakihi that night and a bottle of 2010 Peregrine ‘Rastus Burn’ (Central Otago), very good match! The Riesling is largely Bendigo and with this decent bottle age had lovely controlled mineral/petrol aromas, there was a steely dry quality to it but with lime and citrus notes that worked really well with the fish and the accompanying prawn and potato cake.

P1030243AMISFIELD WINERY AND BISTRO: On to Amisfield and having tasted some of their wines (see below) at the Lake Hayes Cellar Door we retraced our steps to Cromwell where the winery and vineyards are located under the still snow dotted peaks of Mount Pisa on the West side of Lake Dunstan, it is all lakes here! Hayden had stood on the opposite side on his Bendigo land the previous week when they had a freak snowstorm and the snow was halfway down the Pisa range.

You can see the extent of the vineyard with the winery slap bang in the middle of them! Amisfield is still privately owned and possibly the largest of the Otago growers with 200Ha. of land here, all on Pisa, of which 80Ha.s is currently planted. We met with the Winemaker, Dr. Stephanie Lambert, an Australian who is clearly very committed to Otago and its style of wine, as is her Viticulturist Andre Lategan from South Africa, a very good reason for experimenting with Chenin Blanc! One of the first points made by Stephanie is the freedom of choice and decision making that being privately owned gives the management team who can manage the wine and the vineyards without having shareholders calling out for increased returns. Nice thinking, and I suspect most private owners are not much different!

When we arrived in NZ Anita, our cousin, took us to see the cellar and mentioned some Amisfield Sauvignon Blanc, I was surprised and said “I didn’t know they had land in Marlborough”, no she says, “it is Otago” and of course she was absolutely correct! On both sides of this lake, at Misha’s on Bendigo and here at Amisfield on Pisa, there is a big exercise to grow S/B.

P1030242We first drove up to the ridge with its ‘Top Terrace’ where we found the Sauvignon Fume and the Riesling, two of Stephanie’s favourite varieties, both of which she is keen to promote along with the lower terrace of straight Sauvignon Blanc clones. The Riesling is 6 hectares and they produce a slightly sweeter style (6g/l Residual Sugar) with lower alcohol (11°).

The whole estate is gravel based but up on the ridge itself the layer on top is shallower, so the vines are closer to the gravel and so there is a premium on what is planted up there.,Apart from S/B and Riesling Andre has brought some of his native SA ‘Chenin Blanc’ which will be coming out next year as it is only available currently in very small amounts at the cellar door. Up here they also look for and try to achieve some late harvest and even botrytised fruit which creates the sweeter styles.

Yields are generally very low for all varieties, as well as the poor soil which restricts growth they green prune hard and leave only one bunch per shoot so harvest gives approximately 4.5 tonnes per Ha. To achieve all this they have 30 permanent crew and use 40 regular backpackers for the hand harvesting, the latter picking faster than the plant can sometimes process achieving 25 tonnes a day sometimes.

Stephanie told us “the land was previously wheat-land and a sheep station created on alluvial soil, comparatively young glacial wash, P1030220the result of glacial action 450,000yrs ago; it is light soil with generally poor nutrition and thus produces a lighter but still intense style of wine”. This creates a complex vineyard that is adaptable and is used cleverly by both Andre and Stephanie. Like all of the Otago vineyards they irrigate using water from both the Winery, recycled, as well as some from the man-made lake at the base of the vineyards, Lake Dunstan and like many they are in the process of going fully organic.

P1030233The winery is state of the art and, as with many modern wineries (and one or two older ones, Bruce Tyrrell’s for instance in Hunter) it P1030238is built on the side of a hill so that the fruit can be delivered on a high loading bay for destemming and maceration and then delivered by gravity to the fermenters after which the wine is racked down into either maturation tanks or oak barrels. The barrel store is dug into the hillside to give it added insulation and as you can see above they are not short of barrels. A tradition is developing that the temporary pickers sign a particular barrel, just to mark their stay at the vineyard, we came across a tank at Ata Rangi later that is somewhat similar, although that one is all cricket puns!

P1030219P1030225Sauvignon at Amisfield — The S/B is machine harvested, all else is hand-picked; partly because of the way in which the fruit forms on the S/B (see left) and with modern machines (see Philip Shaw) the picking is very accurate and there is just fruit and no stems at all. There are at least seven S/B clones grown on the top terrace amongst which is the Sauvignon Fume unusual to find out of the Loire never mind in Otago. This is fermented in barrel with 100% wild yeast ferment and matured in 1000L ‘foudre’ style barrels (see left), the first that I have seen which are temperature controlled! Of the ferment Stephanie said “all wild ferment, we just leave it to get on with it so when its stops it stops”. In fact Auckland University are studying the S/B wild yeast population on the estate and apart from the common yeasts have established at least 11 unique ‘fume’ strains as part of their work.

P1030226We then went down to the barrel store where the S/Blanc from 2014 vintage has been maturing in Demi Muid and the temp. controlled foudre to taste the wines that will be bottled later this year.

‘Sauvignon Fume’ Amisfield Estate 2014 – This is the ‘wild ferment’ fume as is the finished 2013 which we tasted later. This has only seen new oak and is currently in Demi Muid (600 litres), still resting on the fine lees, from which we tasted. This is fermented through to leave just 1gm. of residual sugar and has full malolactic secondary fermentation to reduce the most aggressive acidity. The aromas and palate both reflected yellow grapefruit notes, a really steely minerality and clean very dry finish. In other words right up my street, with that keen hint of austerity. This will be a cracking wine when it is bottled later in the year.

Sauvignon Blanc, Oak Aged, Amisfield Estate 2014 – This wine is about halfway through its maturing cycle as it will have 18mths in total before bottling. Very different to the ‘Fume’ in that the aromas are more open and richer and rather more typical of S/B as we know it. That carries through to the palate which is more rounded and textured, as a result I guess of being matured in the Foudre rather than new smaller oak, as well as the obvious points that its terroir was different and it is a different clone.

‘Sauvignon Fume’ Amisfield Estate 2013— This is a fascinating wine, of which Stephanie was kind enough to give us a bottle, P1030237Brian looking very impressed and Stephanie I feared was having second thoughts! We kept it until we could taste it with the family back in Coromandel as it is not on general release and we wanted to share it with other drinkers and get a consumer point of view. We opened it with Anita’s Wine Circle and it met with absolute approval so much so that I have written to Stephanie to thank her for her time and asked that Anita be informed when the 2014 becomes available! It has clean fresh tropical fruit aromas with some background oaky spice notes, the palate is very fresh. This is the wild ferment ‘Fume’ fresh oak spicy note on the finish which is lingering and clean, a real winner! Having made only 70 cases of this, it is a rare beast and many thanks to Stephanie for the chance to taste it.

Sauvignon Blanc ‘Noble 2’ Amisfield Estate 2014 – A botrytised Sauvignon Blanc is a rare beast anywhere, (although we have had some from Henri Bourgeois), but to find it in Otago was yet Another surprise! Hand Picked in late May (November in the North) fermented and matured completely in French oak, this was a real treat. The nose is already rich and has that hint of almond and marmalade so often associated with ‘Noble Rot’, as soon as it hits the palate there is a background of dried apricot and again the Kumquat bitter orange quality despite the fact that this is sweet wine. The oak has a soft spicy presence and the overall balance of the wine, sweetness and acidity, is perfectly managed. This is still a baby but if you see some when it is a teenager grab it, it is going to be a fabulous wine in due course.

P1030241Pinot Noir ‘RKV’ Amisfield Estate 2014 – RKV stands for Rocky Knoll Vineyard, it is the top Pinot Noir from the Company. First planted in 1999 the 10th anniversary release of the 2007 was highly acclaimed and is drinking superbly now. The fruit is grown on a small, north-facing slope, loessial in origin, with very lean soil which are much older than the alluvial sediments on the valley floor. Stephanie said “It took a lot of effort to get the vines established, the low fertility and water-holding capacity ensure that vines here grow slowly and the crew must carefully train and manage them so that when the fruit arrives at the winery they are of the highest quality.” Whole bunch pressed, wild yeast fermented and matured for 18mths in French oak it has a long way to go as yet as we tasted the 2014. It sells Ex Cellars at 95NZ$ so it is not cheap. The sample we tasted from the cask was naturally very new oak forward and had a raw quality to it, however, it has the ripe fruit and power already to match it with its highly acclaimed predecessors.

This is a very well planned winery in exceptional terroir making innovative wines, they are not cheap but we have yet to taste one that is not of the highest standard and as the vines mature so the quality and breadth of the wine will just get better!


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