You can’t drink wine and not consider the geography, botany and geology of the place that goes into your glass. Wine descends from the surface soils, bedrock, aspect, slope, winds and the geological cocktail of minerals and nutrients that feed the viticulture in the region. Most of us tip, pour and drink and never really consider the genesis of the fruit in our glass.
For me, one of the most interesting things about wine is understanding why certain regions consistently produce such great wines.
So allow me to nerd out on the delicious complexities of Waipara Valley terroir where I’ve been hanging out for the last few days….
The Waipara Valley sits in a really interesting pocket of the South Island of New Zealand. The wines from this western, North Canterbury region are extraordinarily complex because of the macro, meso and microclimate affecting viticulture in this area. I’ve had a chance to speak with a number of winemakers in the region including Ross Trowsdale at Dancing Water, Theo Coles at Mountford Estate and my host for 10 days, Dom Maxwell at Greystone. They’ve all waxed eloquent about the terroir idiosyncrasies that provide the grape-growing framework here.
The Waipara Valley is a cool climate region, but is generally 4 – 5 degrees warmer than the town of Amberley, which sits due south of the valley. That’s because the area is protected from the cool easterly winds blowing off the Pacific Ocean by the Teviotdale Hills. It also sits in the rain shadow of the magnificent Southern Alps mountain range so it’s further enveloped and protected by this alpine spine. The Alps are also responsible for the region’s infamous hot dry nor’west winds. Looking north, the Waipara Valley is sheltered by the Kaikoura Ranges in the northeast creating a fantastic triangular microclimate and sun trap for grape ripening. Add to that long summer days with heaps of sunshine (7 hours a day), a long dry cool autumn, 600 mm of annual rainfall and the Waipara Valley comes close to the perfect grape-growing case study. In fact, Waipara Valley has the highest summer temperatures and lowest rainfall of any of the New Zealand wine regions.
Greystone and many of the other producers in the area have a lot of terroir to work with. The soil profile changes depending on the slopes and aspects of the blocks, and in Greystone’s case, their planting and clone selection on those soils has come from years of trial and error. Greystone’s name is a reflection of the limestone bedrock that’s found throughout the vineyard and according to Dom Maxwell, that limestone is a mix of fossils, sea shells and pebbles that were part of the seismic movement that shaped North Canterbury (and if the earthquake in Christchurch in Feb 2011 is any indication, the region continues to test the geological underpinnings/fault lines of the South Island).
Pinot Noir, of course, loves limestone which may explain why the pinots from both Greystone and its partner vineyard, Muddy Water, are so rich, savoury, and complex and why they continue to win international recognition. Importantly, almost all the Waipara Valley pinots I tasted were a pleasure to drink, including a 2004 Mountford Estate Pinot, which still haunts me.
The Waipara Valley offers good soil differentiation. Further down the slopes and on the valley flats the soils shift from limestone to marine sand to a mix of calcareous clay and well-drained gravel. It’s this fantastic matrix of soil types that has allowed producers to grow other cool climate favorites like Chardonnay, Riesling and Pinot Gris.
My efforts in the field (see Row, upon row, upon… ) were rewarded with a bottle of Erin’s Reserve Chardonnay, which is grown from low yielding clones on Greystone’s highest limestone block. This special gift has a lot of miles to travel with me here in New Zealand but pretty much guarantees a return to the Waipara Valley very soon.