About Gibbston, the Valley of the Vines
The story of Pinot Noir in Central Otago began in the 1980s when Alan Brady planted the first vines at Gibbston Valley. The first commercial production of Pinot Noir being by Gibbston Valley Wines in 1987. Today Gibbston stands out as the coolest sub region of Central with a unique geographical position. The vineyards of Gibbston are planted along just six kilometres of land sloping down to the dramatic Kawarau Gorge.
The valley narrows dramatically to a canyon at both ends. To the west visitors from Queenstown pass the historic Kawarau Suspension Bridge and A J Hackett Bungy. At the eastern end the road lies precipitously, above the roaring and extremely dangerous rapids on Nevis Bluff, and the towering schist cliff faces of the mountain itself. The ruggedly beautiful mountains frame Gibbston to the north with the Crown Range and Mounts’ Rosa, Edward and Ben Cruachan to the south. Nestled in between the mountain ranges the thin strip of viable vineyard land provides wonderful conditions for growing grapes of the highest quality.
Whilst many critics have recognized that, at their best, Gibbston Pinot’s are amongst the finest in the world, Grant Taylor founder of Valli is living proof of the outstanding terroir of Gibbston. Grant has won the trophy for “Best Pinot Noir”, for his Gibbston Pinot Noirs, at the prestigious International Wine Challenge in London an unprecedented four times-a feat achieved by no other winemaker in the world. Robin counts himself extremely lucky to have Grant as his mentor and adviser in all things Otago, but especially with regard to all things relevant to growing Pinot Noir in Gibbston.
Pinot Noir famously known as “The heartbreak grape” will only reach its potential if grown in ideal conditions. Gibbston with its semi continental climate and GDD average around 900 is truly a cool cool region! The trouble with averages in a steep sided valley is apparent when you consider that High Garden Vineyard is over 100 metres higher in altitude than the vineyards planted along the highway. In very cool regions the warmest sites are usually the best. During April, the critical ripening month, High Garden Vineyard, which slopes steeply towards the north, has between one and one and a half more hours of direct sunshine than the vineyards at the bottom of the slope.
In Gibbston with enough warmth and intensive vineyard management to achieve fully ripe fruit (with the attendant low yields) the result can be sublime long lived Pinots that combine both elegance and power. The catch is that the cost of growing fruit per tonne could easily be double that of vineyards managed to a strict budget for commercial expediency.
Many commentators decry comparisons with Burgundy but in Gibbston no-one is trying to make Burgundy. However there is no denying Burgundy is the global gold standard for Pinot Noir, with over 800 years of written records detailing budburst and harvest dates, cultivation and canopy management practices, etc. In that narrow strip of sloping land called the Cote D’Or the finest wines from the best sites are established global benchmarks for Pinot Noir. I believe that in Gibbston it is possible to consistently produce a wine every bit as delicious and intriguing as the finest Grand Crus. Only time will tell.
Robin Tedder MW