Grasshopper Rock, Central Otago
Visiting this Alexandra vineyard which makes some of  Central Otago's best value Pinot Noir wines


Phil Handford is the man behind Grasshopper Rock, a Central Otago vineyard based in the Alexandra subregion. Phil came into wine from a farming background: he was involved in agricultural banking and had established a dairy farm in West Otago (he lives in Hamilton with his family). In 2001 he pulled four other families, also from a farming background, into a group with a view to buying vineyard land in Central Otago.

‘We were in interested in good bits of land,’ he says. ‘When you are in rural banking you realise that good farms always perform – good bits of land are always good. The wine industry in New Zealand was taking off and we thought if you were going to do something in the wine industry you’d have to do it really well, because there will be lots of competition.’

Looking down at Clyde 

‘Our wine knowledge was quite limited,’ he admits, ‘but we had a clear vision. We wanted to do something like this, and do it really well. We made sure we got the right site, and we invested heavily in frost protection and got a full time vineyard manager which meant we could consistently achieve the right quality.’ He was aware that in a climate such as this, there was little margin for error.  

Mike Moffitt (vineyard manager), Pete Bartle (winemaker) and Phil Handford 

‘The process of securing this block of land took us 8 months. We were told it was for sale, and the more homework we did on it the more we realised how good it was,’ recalls Phil. He explains that he had around 30 years’ of temperature data, and also that there was a lot of local knowledge about what the more favoured sites were. ‘Alexandra is an old area, and there is a lot more history here than in Cromwell. This site originally had apricots, which is always a good sign. The local knowledge is that it is a site that is a little bit warmer than the surrounding areas.’

Irrigation/frost fighting sprinkler

The climate here is very dry, but there’s water for irrigation and frost fighting. ‘We were never going to a vineyard where frost fighting relied on blowing wind around with helicopters,’ says Phil. He took over the site in 2002 and planted 2003 - it has 7.8 hectares of vines, all Pinot Noir. ‘We decided to put our frost fighting equipment in right at the start, and we were lucky because there were bad frosts in the spring of 2003,’ The first vintage was 2006. ‘It was a dream for us, because it was an easy vintage. We moved to 2007, which was a vintage from hell,’ recalls Phil The resulting low yields mucked his budgets up. And in 2009 there was a frost at harvest time. ‘On the advice of our winemaker at the time we decided not to fight the frosts,’ says Phil. ‘The day of the frost it was OK harvesting, but the next day all our stems had gone to mush.’ This resulted in a very short vintage because about a third of the barrels were cut. Now he’s not worried about frost fighting at harvest time, even if it means spraying lots of water on the vineyard. ‘With our soils we can put on water and it goes straight through, so we don’t need to worry about the grapes swelling.’


The soils here are stony, silty sands, and they are quite young, without much structure. For 10 years before the vineyard was planted they were irrigated for deer grazing. Grasshopper Rock is planted with a mix of six clones of Pinot Noir. Most of it is 115, 667, 777 Abel and clone 5, plus a little bit of 114, with a mixture of different rootstocks. The wines are made by Pete Bartle at VinPro.


Production is 4000 cases, and at NZ$32 retail this is probably the best value Pinot in the region. In UK the wines are sold by Naked Wines.



Grasshopper Rock Pinot Noir 2006 Central Otago, New Zealand
Big berries and small bunches this year. Attractive berry and spice nose with some autumnal notes. Supple, textured, spicy palate with black cherries and berries, showing nice freshness. Ripe but restrained. 93/100

Grasshopper Rock Pinot Noir 2007 Central Otago, New Zealand
Some warmth on the nose with ripe, floral, liqueur-like cherry fruit. The palate has a savoury, meaty, spicy edge with good structure and lovely fruit purity. Very pretty with good acidity and structure. 94/100

Grasshopper Rock Pinot Noir 2008 Central Otago, New Zealand
Supple, fresh and bright with lovely floral, focused cherry and plum fruit. Very fresh and elegant, made in a lighter style, but showing lovely purity and finesse. 94/100

Grasshopper Rock Pinot Noir 2009 Central Otago, New Zealand
This was the last wine made by Carol Bunn. Nicely focused plum and cherry fruit with good texture and some spiciness. Supple with a fine green herbal hint and lovely spiciness alongside the sleek black cherry fruit Detailed and complex. 94/100

Grasshopper Rock Pinot Noir 2010 Central Otago, New Zealand
Lovely focus here. Good concentration of ripe black cherry fruit and some substance and structure. Nice subtle green notes providing relief for the black cherry fruit. This has tremendous balance: it's pretty but it has structure, and it shows lovely violet floral perfume. 95/100

Grasshopper Rock Pinot Noir 2011 Central Otago, New Zealand
Bright, fresh, pure and focused, with nice balance and bright red cherry fruit. Fresh and bright, and quite drinkable, showing lovely purity. 93/100

Grasshopper Rock Pinot Noir 2012 Central Otago, New Zealand
Very bright and fresh with lovely bright red cherry and raspberry fruit. Juicy and fresh with a bright green herby note and subtle rhubarb characters. Nice violet/cherry perfume also. Good focus and acidity: this may turn out great. 94/100


Central Otago masterclass
Burgundy masterclass
24 fine wines tasted at the Grand Dinner

Gibbston Valley
Chard Farm
Wooing Tree
Folding Hill
Mount Difficulty
Lowburn Ferry
Grasshopper Rock
Doctors Flat


Felton Road
Mount Difficulty
Pisa Range 
Gibbston Valley

See also:

Visiting Central Otago, New Zealand (series)
Visiting Martinborough, New Zealand (series)

Wines tasted 02/14  
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