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Lowburn Ferry Skeleton Creek Pinot Noir 2004

Ten years ago it seemed to me as though New Zealand was destined to always be a white wine country. Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough could be found on the shelf of every supermarket and off-licence, alongside the odd bottle of Chardonnay; it was essentially a brand, and a well recognised one at that. Every barbecue I attended saw people clutching bottles of Montana or some similar label (this remains true of many barbecues I have attended this summer). The fashion-conscious scrabbled after over-priced bottles of Cloudy Bay. It seemed New Zealand had reached its pinnacle with its grassy, gooseberry-infused expression of Sauvignon Blanc.

Lowburn Ferry logoBut then, not that many years ago, rumours circulated of a new wine from New Zealand, a wine of considerable quality, and shockingly it was red. Pinot Noir, in fact. Those who experienced the wines reported very high quality in many, but perhaps we shouldn't have been so surprised. New Zealand doesn't offer the sun-baked (and irrigated) plains found in Australia, but then surely we recognise from the Old World that such conditions are hardly necessary to make great wine. I looked back recently at some older books to see what wine writers were saying about New Zealand twenty years ago, and was surprised to see some very accurate forecasts.

George Rainbird, onetime Chairman of the International Wine and Food Society, visited New Zealand in 1974, and writing in An Illustrated Guide to Wine (1983) commented that "Pinot Noir has started to develop as a straight varietal showing considerable promise...". Only a few years later, the indomitable Oz Clarke wrote in The Wine Book (1988) that "...Pinot Noir will work, and once or twice has already been sensational...". So it would seem New Zealand Pinot Noir is not really such a new phenomenon. What has happened in the last few years is the wider availability of commercial amounts of wine, and so the word has at last spread. Judging on what I have tasted over the last year or two - only a handful of bottles, admittedly - it is a real shame it has taken such a long time to lift off.

Lowburn Ferry bottlesOf three Antipodean Pinot Noirs tasted just last week, from a selection of very good wines from Jim Ledwith, the crème de la crème (just) was the Lowburn Ferry Skeleton Creek Pinot Noir (Central Otago) 2004. Lowburn Ferry is a tiny operation named after a cross-river ferry which was a vital link between the nearby town of Cromwell and the goldmines that were active in the 19th Century. The ferry was discontinued following the construction of a bridge in 1938, but its memory lives on, not least in the wines from this nearby family-run 3 ha vineyard, planted exclusively to Pinot Noir. The 2004 is actually made from purchased Bannockburn fruit, as a result of a difficult vintage, the young vines (indicating what a young wine region this is) in the Lowburn Ferry vineyard not coping well. But this shouldn't discourage the potential purchaser; the quality is, as Oz Clarke might describe it, sensational. The wine has a dark hue on inspection, with slightly earthy, oxblood tones. A glorious nose, dark and smoky, with complex chocolate, paprika and meaty characteristics which distinguishes it from the host of wines which show purely fruit character.

The palate is packed with interest, with a quite full, rich, velvety yet slightly plump and welcoming texture underpinned by a seam of fine tannins and good acidity. A lovely intertwining of grippy structure and finesse here, carrying some gorgeous fruit and subtle notes of crème brulee. This is wonderful. Drink now, but will cellar nicely for a few years. Better hurry though; there were just 100 cases produced in this vintage. Bottled under Stelvin screwcap. Factor in the price - £12.95 from Hellion Wines, who have sold out of the 2003 at £15.95 - and it seems even more of a no-brainer. 18.5+/20 (24/7/06)

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