I
dig into the soft pile of earth and take two fistfuls to my nose, breathing deeply. It smells like dirt, though if I close my eyes I can eke out notes of fudge brownie. A worm wiggles. Down the hill past a few hectares of vineyard the surface of Lake Wanaka glimmers in the hot, late-summer sun. “This is our pantry,” says Jo Mills, co-owner and export manager here at Rippon Vineyard. “Our compost area. This is the center of the property and the most important site for us. Vine prunings, headland hay, cow poo, stems from the winery. It’s recycling, but it’s also about giving as much information from the land back into the land.” Your typical vineyard tour doesn’t start in the compost heap, but Rippon, located in the Central Otago region of New Zealand’s South Island, isn’t a typical vineyard.

New Zealand is best known for its sauvignon blanc, much of which comes from the country’s flagship winemaking region on the northeastern tip of the South Island, Marlborough, a spot that accounts for 73 percent of the country’s total production, coming from 23,232 hectares of grape-producing land. Here in Central Otago, we’re roughly 500 miles south of Marlborough — indeed, at the southernmost commercial winemaking region in the world — where only 2.4 percent of New Zealand wine is made on 1,909 hectares of land. Pinot noir flourishes here. And what makes this region even more special is that several of the vineyards are experimenting with organic and biodynamic methods of production. This is happening at only 6.8 percent and 0.2 percent of vineyards in New Zealand, respectively. There is, in other words, some very special wine being made in Central Otago, which helps explain why a tour might start with compost rather than a glitzy tasting room.

“Biodynamics scares the shit out of people because of its seemingly alien concepts.”

Rippon observes organic and biodynamic practices (organic agriculture is a prerequisite for biodynamic), and their wines are predominantly pinot noirs or other lesser-planted varietals like riesling, gewürztraminer and osteiner. “Biodynamics scares the shit out of people because of its seemingly alien concepts,” Mills says. “It can get a bit airy-fairy, a bit esoteric.” Biodynamic practices are based on the ideas of Rudolph Steiner, an Austrian philosopher (among other things) who in the 1920s researched and gave a series of lectures at the request of farmers concerned about degrading soil and livestock health from the use of chemical fertilizers. Steiner emphasized a holistic approach to agriculture, which included practices aimed at sustainability — and also some that were more esoteric, spiritual and mystical. These might range from composting to burying cow horns to shaking hands with colleagues in the morning. For Mills, it’s just plain sensible. “Ultimately, it’s a purely mechanical process,” she says.

WINES TO TRY

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Rippon and Felton Road make what are considered some of the best pinot noirs in all of New Zealand, so it goes without saying that you’ll want to try those. We were also surprised by some of their other wines. Here are four bottles that we recommend.

Like vineyards in Burgundy, Rippon is divided into many smaller parcels within the vineyard. Tinker’s Field, named for founder Rolfe “Tink” Mills, has the oldest vines on the property and is the source of the grapes for the 2012 Tinker’s Field Mature Vine pinot noir. Rippon describes it as “layered, detailed, compressed power, precise, unforced masculinity.” The 2011 Osteiner, on the other hand, made from a rare riesling-sylvaner hybrid, is a super refreshing, lively white wine.

The first experience with Felton Road should be their 2013 Pinot Noir Bannockburn. It’s the wine they produce the most of and it’s a study in dark cherry and spice with some green notes. The dry Rieslings from Central Otago are also extremely unique. Try the 2014 Dry Riesling, which is extremely bright, aromatic and has a wonderful acidity that makes you want to drink more.

“The way we talk about our wine isn’t about flavors. We talk about balance: acids, sugar, all of these different things phenolic. It’s kind of the same thing in the land. We’re growing what is essentially forest plants, a vine, on schist soils, and they are highly reflective, refractive silicate soils. They are not obvious bedfellows. What are we going to do to balance this? That, for me, is ultimately how biodynamics works.”

These agricultural methods, in concert with the ideal growing conditions at Rippon — high ultraviolet light, long sunshine hours, highly refractive soils, temperate climate, schist soil — creates wine that’s truly spectacular: elegant, complex and well-balanced pinot noir that tastes of cherries and spice; rieslings so bright and aromatic that they practically explode on your tongue; in osteiner, the odd combination of a rare grape and an affordable price, joining in one of the most refreshing wines we’ve tasted.

About 40 miles south of Rippon is Felton Road, a vineyard with close ties to Rippon. Blair Walter, formerly the winemaker at Rippon, has been making wine there since 1996; he, too, runs a completely organic and biodynamic vineyard specializing in pinot noir. When we arrive his team is bottling the 2014 Bannockburn Pinot Noir, making space in the barrels for this year’s harvest which will happen in a few weeks time. Walter, too, stands behind the biodynamic principles for their practical effect on the wines he produces.

“We really are looking for wines with a stronger sense of place, that have a character that talks about the region where it’s grown.”

“The most obvious thing is the visual vine health,” he says, walking us between pinot noir vines. “The vines seem more resilient to weather extremes. Whenever we get periods of hot and dry conditions or cold, wetter conditions, the vines seem much more resilient and able to carve their way through that without showing signs of stress. They also produce, I think, not necessarily more intensely flavored fruit, but fruit that’s more reflective of the place. They seem to ripen easier. We’re able to pick a little earlier and to make wines with more finesse and precision. They wines speak about the place more than they ever used to.”

To demonstrate, he sits us at a picnic table shaded by wisteria to taste the 2013 Bannockburn Pinot Noir, the previous vintage of the one being bottled. It’s a blend from three different Felton Road vineyards. “It’s got that classic, sort of Central Otago dark cherry,” Walter says. “The fruit is normally always to the fore in Central Otago pinot noirs. We should have some lovely, underlying spice characters, some of those slightly green shades and a little bit of root vegetable.”

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Our otherwise tranquil tasting is interrupted briefly by the sound of a shotgun fired into the air to scare off the birds intent on destroying the nearly ripe grapes. There are, after all, only a precious 32 hectares of grapes here at Felton Road. It’s a tiny but influential portion of New Zealand wine; though Felton Road only produces about 12,000 cases of wine per year, it’s the kind of wine that garners reviews in industry publications and ends up on wine lists at Michelin-starred restaurants abroad, like The Musket Room in New York. In a country where winemaking really only took off in the 1990s and then skyrocketed into the sixth-largest export, the fraction of a percent of vineyards like Felton Road have an important voice. They may indeed be the best representation of the country’s winemaking ability and the best way to have a taste of New Zealand from abroad.

“We really are looking for wines with a stronger sense of place, that have a character that talks about the region where it’s grown,” Walter says, tasting the 2013 vintage. “In New Zealand, there’s no point trying to make a really fine wine here and having it taste like a Russian River pinot noir or a Burgundy. We’re trying to make a wine that just articulates the character of the land.”