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2003 Akarua Pinot Noir, Central Otago, New Zealand

I remember a time not too long ago when I wasn't really convinced that New Zealand could grow good Pinot Noir. This wasn't because the Kiwis weren't making some stunning examples of this varietal, it was because most of what I had encountered up until that point was fairly crap -- green, woody, simplistic Pinots that didn't have the depth or complexity that I was looking for. But I continued to hear from People Who Know that there was some good stuff out there, so I kept looking.

Then one day I had some wines from Central Otago, and that silly phase was over right away. This small area of New Zealand's southern island is the southernmost winegrowing region in the world. Sandwiched literally between rainforest and desert a mere 20 miles in either direction, this area of New Zealand has notoriously variable weather, and extremely varied soil types. The area is also New Zealand's highest winegrowing region, with most vineyards situated at about 600 to 1200 feet above sea level.

Not unlike the struggle that winemakers on California's Northern coast endure with the fog and chill, winemaking can be difficult in Central Otago, but there are those who are not only persevering, but positively triumphing. Of all the wineries in the area Akarua may be the best known internationally. Established in 1996, Akarua was started by a gentleman by the name of Sir Clifford Skeggs, who, having lived in the area for a long time and watched it become a fledgling winegrowing region, decided one day that he was going to take things to the next level. Skeggs and a few others who independently came to similar conclusions at the time, was one of the first people to establish a sizeable winery operation in the area. Getting in early, as it were, Skeggs managed to purchase what are now some of Otago's finest vineyard sites in an area that has become known as Bannockburn Heights.

Akarua's first vintage was in 1999, and it has grown its operations from a few hundred cases to a few thousand in the last seven years. The winery has planted about 116 acres across the Bannockburn Heights, mostly to Pinot Noir, but also small quantities of Pinot Gris and Chardonnay. The winegrowing is overseen by the jocular Gillian Wilson, who came to Akarua with a degree in horticulture and landscape architecture, as well as six years of vineyard management experience in the area. Winemaking has been done since 2004 by the young Jacqueline Kemp, who came to Akarua after winemaking stints at Rippon Vineyard (on Lake Wanaka) and Chateau Xanadu Winery in Western Australia.

The winery produces two Chardonnays, a Rosé of Pinot Noir, a Pinot Gris, and two Pinot Noirs, of which this wine is the flagship bottling (the other being a wine known as "The Gullies"). Unusually, the winery also produces several beers.

This particular wine comes from selected blocks of Akarua's highest vineyard sites, with the lowest yields. Grapes are destemmed before crushing and fermentation, which judging by the looks of the wine, includes a long cold soak to extract color. The wine is aged for at least 10 months in oak, presumably French from the taste of it, but I don't have information on what percentage is new. I also don't know how many cases are produced, but as this is a fairly commercial operation, I'd guess several thousand at least, possibly as many as ten.

Gotta love the screwcap.

Tasting Notes:
Medium ruby in color, this wine has a lovely, deep nose of ripe raspberries, pomegranate, plum, oregano and other mixed herbs. In the mouth it is well balanced, with good acidity and lush, deep fruit flavors of cranberries, pomegranate, cherry, dried redcurrants and notes of spice and minerality that linger in a very long finish. The wine has a beautiful depth, and the cool fruit that is typical of the better made wines of this region.

Food Pairing:
This wine would be a great pairing with a slightly earthy dish like a ravioli stuffed with duck confit and black chanterelle mushrooms. Anyone got a recipe?

Overall Score: 9/9.5

How Much?: $32

This wine is available for purchase online at various merchants.

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