Two recent vertical tastings of Central Otago pinot noir have encouraged me to ponder the virtues of drinking aged wine. A vertical tasting is one that reviews the same wine over several vintages. It is the vinous equivalent of an archaeological dig, revealing the development of a wine style, vintage variation and the ability of a wine to age gracefully … or not.

Grasshopper Rock, a small quality-focused producer in Earnscleugh, Central Otago, sent me samples of its 2010, 2012, 2017 and 2018 vintages for review. I had tasted them all when they were  released but managing director Phil Handford was keen to have me again sample the 2010 in particular, which won the trophy for champion wine at the Air New Zealand Wine Awards in 2012. “It is always interesting to see how these wines which receive the top gong perform over time,” he wrote. 

Earnscleugh is in the world’s most southerly wine region, Alexandra. It tends to be rather cool there and Alexandra pinot noir can be a bit tight and bony when it is young. I was impressed with the 2010, though, writing: “Elegant pinot noir with developed spice, herb/savoury/thyme, dark cherry, leather and nutty oak flavours. Bottle age has promoted a smoother texture and introduced a more savoury dimension. With careful cellaring it should give pleasure for another decade. 95 points.” 

When I had assessed the same wine in 2012, I wrote, “Tasted on three occasions, the wine showed significant improvement over one year. Good depth of colour and concentration. A powerful expression of pinot noir with appealing cherry, spice and floral/violet characters. Firmly structured, with good cellaring potential. I love the complexity and texture of this wine. A great buy at this price ($35). 95 points.”

An identical score suggests that the wine had not gained in quality, but it had certainly changed. That’s not a strong argument in support of cellaring, but it’s not a strong argument against it, either. 

The 2012 Grasshopper Rock Pinot Noir had slipped a point from the rating I gave it in 2014, when I wrote that it was “probably at, or slightly past, its best”. 

The second vertical tasting was a more comprehensive sampling of 10 vintages of Akarua pinot noir from 2009 to 2019, excluding 2010. Akarua’s sensual style contrasts markedly with Grasshopper Rock, which is a cerebral pinot noir.  

The team at Akarua (winemaker Andrew Keenleyside is pictured above) has just celebrated the 20th vintage from its Bannockburn base. The voluptuous style of its pinots obviously appeals to wine show judges. Most vintages have won an impressive collection of gold medals and trophy awards at some very prestigious wine competitions. 

Akarua pinot noir is so drop-dead delicious when it is first released that it is hard to imagine it getting any better with bottle age. 

I had previously tasted seven of the 10 wines in the vertical Akarua tasting. The two oldest – the 2009 and 2011 – each dropped a point from my earlier assessment, three gained an average of two points, and two scored the same. Star of the show was the 2013 vintage, which gained the highest score of 97 points. 

Before both tastings, I would have rated Grasshopper Rock as more age-worthy than Akarua, but I was wrong. 

Cellaring wine is a bit like golf. You can experience half a dozen disappointing wines before striking a bottle that has aged magnificently. No surprises for guessing which bottle you remember and boast about. 

Bob’s Top Picks

Investment Wine

Cloudy Bay 2017 Te Wahi Pinot Noir, Central Otago, $99

Fragrant, attractive aroma of black cherry and red rose petals that continues onto the palate, where it is joined by plum, crushed herbs and grape-stem flavours. Fruit sweetness is nicely balanced by fine, ripe tannins to give a pleasantly dry finish.

Weekend Wines

Top White

Clearview 2019 Beachhead Chardonnay, Hawke’s Bay, $27

Judges named this the top chardonnay and champion wine at the 2020 NZ International Wine Show. It’s deliciously pure and subtly powerful, with citrus, oyster shell, and spicy flavours. An absolute bargain at this price. 

Top Red 

Akarua 2019 Pinot Noir, Central Otago, $49

A very appealing wine with a seductively silken texture. Plum and dark berry tones with a suggestion of floral/violet and thyme characters. A restrained fruit-bomb style that is deliciously accessible but should develop well. 

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