This week I was lucky enough to attend one of the most interesting and inspiring tastings I have ever been to. A "20 Year Vertical of Rippon Pinot Noir" the invite read. On the surface a 20-year vertical of any wine is a great accomplishment, (if the wines have held up anyways) but the thing with Rippon is that the story runs so much deeper than your basic chronology of vintages. This is a story about four generations of passionate farmers, a strong affinity to a place, the toils of a father, son and many others to bring forth the “voice of the farm,” the true expression of a special terroir.
For those of you that don't know the wines of Rippon, it is an estate in Central Otago on the south island of New Zealand. This is an area famed for its Pinot Noir and much of Rippon's success can be attributed to this wonderful, fickle variety. The vineyard occupies a very unique and special site. The majestic Lake Wanaka lies to the east, and to the west are looming snow capped mountains of the Mt. Aspiring National Park. Current viticulturalist / winemaker Nick Mills who hosted the tasting at RN74 in San Francisco, is part of the fourth generation to call this place home.
Whilst the land has been owned by the family for more than 100 years, the first thoughts of vines began when Nick’s Father discovered the intricate and special relationship between Vitis vinifera and schist soils in Portugal sometime after his tours of service World War II.
(Schist is probably the most important feature that gives Rippon its character, texture and detailed nature. In a later video we will hear Nick talk a little more about the complex geology that makes this site so special.)
Nick’s father planted experimental vines on the property in the 1970s, and the first “commercial” plantings were established in 1982. Here you can watch Nick talking about his family’s history linving on the land and the establishment of the vines there.
Wanaka’s climate is also very important to the character of the wines produced. Nick believes the growing season is characterized mostly by “gross climactic events at either end of the season”. Indeed with this kind of elevation and the southerly latitude of Central Otago, frost danger looms both at the beginning and end of the vine’s cycle. Despite this Nick describes the mid growing season as “clear and sanitary”, with very little pest or disease pressure on the vines to prevent them from producing clean fruit of the highest quality.
He describes the site in Wanaka as having more “temperance” than the rest of Central Otago. Temperance from heat and cold accorded to it by the air flow off the Mountains, the thermal mass of the lake and the clouds that make it over the towering ranges to the west before dissipating over the high desert of Central Otago. This temperance produces a long and consistent growing season for the development of depth and flavor.
With high hopes and tangiable anticipation in the air, the first flight of the day was poured consisting of:
1990 Rippon Pinot Noir (Barrel Selection)
1991 Rippon Pinot Noir (Barrel Selection)
1992 Rippon Pinot Noir (Barrel Selection)
1995 Rippon Pinot Noir
1998 Rippon Pinot Noir
2000 Rippon Pinot Noir
The 1990 bottling was the first indication of how great this line up was going to be. Still bright, fresh, pure and with great balance. The wine showed the ripeness of the vintage all these years on with soft sweet fruits, silky and saturated. Notes of leather and hint of coffee emerged with air.
1991 was quite different but equally intriguing. Much less ripe fruit and some more dried herb qualities. Characters of cherry skin and more savory notes of mushroom and moss. The wine had notably higher acidity and a remarkable "grapey" quality that defied the wines age.
1992 was different again. Dense, rich and more concentrated. Dark earthy aromas, sandalwood and spice. A youthful, dynamic mid-palate makes me think that this wine has years ahead of it.
These three wines were all made by the esteemed Rudi Bauer, now of Quartz Reef winery in Bendigo, Central Otago while current winemaker Nick was living life as a transient "Ski Bum".
The 1995 was interesting in that it was much more herbal and less ripe than any that had come before it. I got notes of underbrush, fresh tobacco, even mint, a real green vegetative character. Nick then brought everything into perspective explaining that the volcanic eruption of Mount Ruapehu that year threw ash into the atmosphere starving the south island of vital sunlight luminosity. Quite fascinating I thought.
2000, the last wine of the flight, joined 1990 as my two favorites thus far. It was starting to show the detailed layers of complexity that I know and love about the Rippon wines. The palate was more layered and complex with a real textural elegance and ethereal qualities.
While we enjoyed the wines Nick continued to speak about how he felt these wines, despite tasting great, were “more defined by cultivar than the by place,” more “Pinot Noir than Rippon”.
Here he is talking about the development of the vine age and how he likens their early expressions to a young child’s artwork.
I found the analogy of a crayon drawing very intriguing. Yet another of Nick’s adept illustrations of how he understands wine and the ultimate goal of how to capture the sense of place.
I had heard Nick speak about his wines before at a small staff tasting at K&L and one concept he spoke about that day has always stuck with me. This is the idea that the flesh of the grape is all about attraction and getting the bird / animal to eat it in order to (eventually) propagate the seed within. The color, sweetness and flavor are all simply to get the fruit eaten by something. However a plant’s real focus is to thrive in its environment. To pass on what it has learned about its specific surroundings to its offspring so they too may flourish. The genetic material, everything the plant has learned, the instinct if you will, is contained within the seed. This data of ecological analysis gathered by the plant, is basically terroir encapsulated. Nick believes that allowing the seed to reach full and natural maturity is how wines convey textural and sensual markers that reflect their origin.
Here he is at the tasting explaining his thoughts on this:
As we moved into the next flight (2001 - 2008) the theme turned to the "adolesent" period of the vineyard and perhaps more importantly to the era when Nick returned home to take the helm as winemaker. Nick’s many years of experience making wine in Burgundy and beyond allowed him to return to the family estate better equipped to seek the true expression of Rippon. Whilst working at many esteemed Domaines in Burgundy, including Domaine de la Romanée-Conti (yes that’s DRC for short), Nick learnt what he describes as a “humility and deference to the land.” On his return the vineyard that had been farmed organically since the beginning, was converted immediately to Biodynamic farming. Nick believes that “vines must be in complete symbiosis with the land or they cannot produce a true vin de terroir.” In his own words the journey from here on out was about one thing only, his quest to “deliver the land.”
Dry farming is another decision that Nick is adamant about. He describes how not watering the vines forces them to search the soil for their own sustenance. Micro root hairs penetrate the compacted schist searching for water. That water is often found in the form of algae and other micro-biological formations within the soil and rock all adding, he believes, to the complexity, depth and detailed nature of the resulting wines.
Nick’s first vintage back at Rippon 2003, produced a magnificent wine. One that I have tasted on numerous occasions and have always been impressed with. The ‘03 has the compact layers and precision that Nick talks about being the real textural markers that define the site. The wine has an incredible brightness and vibrancy.
The 2004 was the first wine to go from conventional cork to DIAM cork closures (which remain his closure of choice till this day). This technology combined with biodynamics and the vines gathering maturity has resulted in a quite remarkable consistency of quality throughout the wines from this point forward. Nick again modestly equates this to the symbiosis of the vines with the land and the climactic temperance that the site allows, however, I feel I must add that the guidance of his steady hand at the helm probably helps too. He concludes that schist is really the linear thread that gives precision and consistency to the wines.
Here is nick talking about the complex soil composition of the Rippon estate that is a combination of pure schist, moraines (glacial deposits) and schist laced with lateral clay lenses:
After six years back growing grapes and making the wines, Nick decided that he finally had the “courage” to bottle some single block wines to illustrate some of the unique geographic units within the larger farm. These single block wines in comparison to the “whole farm voice of “Rippon”” made up the final flight of the tasting.
2009 Rippon “Rippon” Mature Vine Pinot Noir
2009 Rippon “Emma’s Block” Mature Vine Pinot Noir
2009 Rippon “Tinkers Field” Mature Vine Pinot Noir
2010 Rippon “Rippon” Mature Vine Pinot Noir
2010 Rippon “Emma’s Block” Mature Vine Pinot Noir
2010 Rippon “Tinkers Field” Mature Vine Pinot Noir
Here is Nick talking about his decision to make these very limited production (100 case) single block wines.
The Emma’s block wines are from a parcel of vines directly on the lakeshore. The schist here is laced with clay deposited over many thousands of years as the lake setted. The wines have a remarkable supple character and silky texture. The palate is not as dense and layered as the “Rippon” bottling, yet it has more exuberance and a malleable texture and softness that makes it instantly gratifying. The Tinkers Field bottling by comparison comes from a pure schist parcel and really illustrates the detailed, compacted and indeed quite structural element of the estate. The flavors are not as obvious as Emma’s and yet the wine unfolds in an intriguing fashion with each sip revealing a new element. The Tinker's Field wines to me were quite grippy and spicy showing a lot of pent-up energy and power and I imagine are the component that gives "Rippon" its longevity.
Only at this late stage of the tasting did any details of cellar methodology emerge. To sum up: "it’s not a sorting table, it’s a tasting table; anything you don’t want in the wine stays in the vineyard!" In the cellar nothing is added or taken away, all wild yeast and enzymes. The wines spend two winters in barrel, the first in 25% new French oak, the second winter, after one racking and blending, is spent in entirely neutral wood for "slow repose and natural clarification". The wines are completely un-sulphured for the first year. His policy on whole cluster stem inclusion (quite the buzz concept right now) is that if its digestible it can stay in, if the stems aren’t right they stay out. This is about digestible material giving something to the wine, not making a stylistic statement. All in all you can see here that the expertise and skill is in the lack of manipulation and the absence of formulaic winemaking.
All that remained to do now was drink a little Rippon Riesling (2011 and 1991 side by side) and enjoy the charcuterie. (Riesling by the way is another thing that Rippon does exceptionally well but that’s another story!)
All day the wines spoke for themselves and illustrated what a special place Rippon is. Nick’s self confessed humility and deference to the land has gifted us some pretty special wines that I urge you all to experience at some point.
We have current vintages of 2008 Rippon “Rippon” Mature Vines Pinot Noir and a library release of 2003 Rippon Pinot Noir available on the shelves and online, as well and the Riesling and Gewürztraminer. Some of the older vintages featured in this tasting are available as library releases. The 2009 single block wines (Emma’s Block and Tinker’s Field) are also available in very limited quantities. Please do not hesitate to contact me directly via email if you are interested in any of the Rippon wines.
- Ryan Woodhouse, NZ / Aussie Specialist
Terra Ignota is Latin for "Unknown Land". It was the name for the South Pacific region during intial mapping and exploration of Australia and New Zealand. As we are going to be exploring new and exciting wines from this region, we think this is a fitting title for our blog series on wines from this part of the world. Stay tuned for more!