Visiting New Zealand's Central Otago region

Rippon vineyard central otago

Rippon was one of the pioneering Central Otago wine producers, but they're located quite a distance from the main regions of Gibbston, Alexandra and the Cromwell basin, up at Wanaka, bordering lake Wanaka in a spectacular setting.

Rippon Vineyard view

The Rippon story is an interesting one. Back in the early 19th century Frederick Sargood married Emma Rippon, daughter of the Chief Cashier of the Bank of England. In 1850 they moved from England to Melbourne, where Sargood established a soft goods business that went on to be a great success. Frederick's son, also named Frederick, joined the family business and also had a political career. He built a large home, called Rippon Lea, in Elstenwick, Melbourne, which is still there.

One of Frederick's sons, Percy, came out to New Zealand, and built a home which he also named Rippon Lea, as well as buying Wanaka station in 1912. It was Percy's grandson, Rolfe Mills, who first brought vines to Wanaka. He'd been serving on submarines during the last war, and on his way back home he visited Portugal, where he saw vineyards planted on schist soils. He realized that he had schist on his own estate, and this planted a seed in his mind.

But on his return, Rolfe was ushered into the family business of warehousing, so it wasn't until 1975 that he got to play with vines. He experimented, and then in 1982 planted the first commercial block. Rippon was born; one of the very first Central Otago wineries. Rolfe planted everything he could get his hands on, and a period of experimentation showed that it was Pinot Noir and Riesling that did best here.

nick jo mills
Nick and Jo Mills, Rippon

Since 2003, Rolfe's son Nick has been in charge. Nick and Jo farm their vines biodynamically, and the vineyard is separated into a number of smaller parcels, all of which perform differently. The property is on a gentle slope that leads down to Lake Wanaka, whose water mass moderates the temperature by acting as a heat sink.

Nick uses some whole bunches in the Pinot Noir ferments, but decisions are made based on the fruit. 'We do some whole bunches, says Nick, but this is all done on the sorting table.' He adds that, 'the sorting table isn't about taking stuff off, but it's for me to taste pips and skins, and figure out what raw material we have. If we can chew the stems through then we'll put them in. I'd put in 100% whole clusters if we could. It's a better ferment.' Nick claims that the stems give the wine better structure, allow the yeasts to move around more easily, and the pressing is better. Overall, Rippon Pinot Noir has 25-40% whole clusters. ‘The vineyard is incredibly parcellated,’ says Nick, ‘with all these small microferments. If we get something really good, then we'll put the whole lot in and do 100% stems, but if grapes come in that I don't like the taste of we'll use no stems.’

nick mills

I first visited in 2010, and then returned again in 2016. This time I had a chance to sit down with Nick and he explained more about the history and philosophy of the farm.

rippon vineyard

He took us to a vantage point just below the function area (new since my last visit; this is a popular place for weddings), and we sat down on the grass, looking out over the lake towards the mountains, with the vineyards in the foreground. This view has now become rather iconic, as it’s used in a lot of the New Zealand Wine Growers’ publicity material.

Nick told us some of the background to Rippon, putting the winery of today in a historical context. ‘New Zealand came out of the Ocean, so everything here flew or swam here,’ he began. ‘All the grazers were birds rather than sheep or cattle.’ The significance? ‘Everything got spiky, with a skeleton on the outside and flesh in the middle. It was a really tough land.’ But what today is the Central Otago wine region exists in a rain shadow, created by the 3000 m peaks at its western boundary, and the early Maori settlers came up here from the east coast.


The west coast is very isolated but the east coast has natural promontories all the way down. Here, it’s much easier to work, hunt and have access to the ocean. The Maori would come here in the summers to get the local greenstone, and camp at Wanaka, a high inland camp. For them this was a place of rest and education, a soft area, and Nick thinks this is important in terms of the heritage and identity of Wanaka today.

Here, as they camped, they taut hunting, fishing, gathering and their oral history. ‘We believe in land form influencing human culture,’ says Nick. And the culture of Wanaka is influenced by it being a inland camp.

rippon wine 

But things changed in the 19th century. In 1836 a warring tribe, Chietta, sent down 100 warriors who laid waste to Wanaka. It never got resettled. When the treaty of Waitangi was signed in 1840 there was a wastelands act, which left land like this open for prospecting. Nathaniel Chalmers, a 23 year old, came over here and established himself. 

John Thomson, a surveyor, also arrived and divided this basin into large runs which were then sold off at auction. Wanaka Station was bought by Nick’s great great grandfather in 1912. He was one of the first live-in landowners here, and his daughter was Emma Rippon. At this stage the station was 80 000 hectares, practically all of Wanaka.


Percy, Nick’s great grandfather arrived. He’d previously established a business in Dunedin. When he died the station went under the hammer to pay death duties, and one of Nick’s great grandfathers bought a 350 hectare section. Percy had previously transferred the station’s headquarters to Wanaka, and this was the start of the Wanaka community. Nick’s family is therefore very much tied to this community. It was extremely isolated at the time, and there was no diesel, so the farm was run by horses. It was a self-sustaining farm unit because all the food for the community had to be grown here. ‘This is part of the legacy of the farm,’ Nick says.

Rippon has been organic since its inception, and biodynamic since 2003. ‘We have always seen Rippon as our own farm system,’ Nick says. ‘Rolfe [his father], the third generation, grew up here sitting on the hill, trying to figure out the potential of this land.’ Unusually for his generation, Rolfe (born in 1923), and who was brought up by his single mum and grandparents Percy and Lucy, had experience of wine. At the time, because of prohibition and depression, wine wouldn’t have been a feature on many dining tables, but Rolfe's family had a relationship with the Wilson/Neill family who were bringing booze into the country. Then he was conscripted to the navy during the war, aged 19, and served on submarines in the Atlantic. He came back via Portugal and saw the schist soils in the vineyards, which gave him an idea for what he could do with similar looking soils on his property. But when Rolfe returned home, he found himself ushered into the family business of warehousing and manufacturing. He had three children with his first wife Myra, but in the 1960s she died, his business was absorbed and he left with a golden handshake. He then met Lois, Nick’s mother: he was 46, she was 21. They moved back to Wanaka, built the homestead in the summer of 1974/75, and started experimenting with Vitis vinifera in 1975. Lots of different varieties were tried, because no one had any experience with growing vines down here. The closest established vineyards at the time were Gisborne and Hawkes Bay (the first vines went into the ground on south Island in Nelson in 1973).

rippon biodynamic compost 

But Rolfe and Lois were convinced a vineyard could work here, even though the fact that the government had warned people not to plant vines in Central Otago (it was deemed to cold and marginal) meant they couldn’t get any investment from the bank. So, to start off with, they were goat farmers. At this stage, Wanaka was a service town for high country farms. ‘When I was a kid there were 400 people here,’ says Nick. ‘Now there are 5000.’

Rolfe and Lois sold some land, and went to France for a year, to the Dordogne. They worked in vineyards, and loved it. They came back and planted their first commercial block in 1982, with 30 different varieties. They took cuttings and put them through their own nursery, gradually planting blocks out. Now there are 15 hectares at Rippon, mostly on own roots (hence visitors to the vineyard are asked not to wear shoes that have been in other vineyards before). ‘All the plant material is suited to its site,’ Nick says. ‘It is comfortable in its environment, doesn’t need adjustment, and has been selected for this site.’ There are 8.5 hectares of Pinot Noir, 2.5 hectares of Riesling, 2 of Gewurztraminer, and bits of Gamay, Sauvignon and Osteiner.

rippon nick mills

‘By the mid 1980s other crazy people were doing some stuff,’ says Nick. ‘Five pioneers that were doing their own thing came together with Rolfe as their president, establishing the collective culture here.’ The inclusive culture in the region is indeed one of its strengths.

Now Rippon, under Nick's watch, has become one of the most respected wineries in the region. He's thoughtful and wants to make the very best wines the site can deliver.

‘We’re interested in phenolics and dry matter,’ Nick reveals. ‘So our wines can be a little compressed when they are young.’ The Pinots spend 16-18 months in barrel with no fining or filtering. He says that the 2013s have been so compressed as to be undrinkable in their first year in bottle.

'We look at fruit as having two different purposes,' he explains. 'There's the attraction factor of the fruit, but what we are more led by is the seed: the information a vine takes from a place. You can't taste and smell a seed. It is texture, shape and feel. Our task in the vineyard is to issue as much noble dry matter into the grapes. If you get this, then you can extract it.'

rippon wines


Rippon Pinot Noir 2012 Central Otago, New Zealand
Fresh, pure and supple with lovely balance. Silky but expressive with pure cherry and plum fruit. Real finesse here. 96/100

Rippon Pinot Noir 2011 Central Otago, New Zealand
Aromatic, expressive nose with red cherries and fine herbs. Very silky and juicy. Lively and linear with an expressive personality. Nice savoury twist. 94/100

Rippon Pinot Noir 2008 Central Otago, New Zealand
Aromatic and a bit earthy with some depth and elegance to the red cherry fruit, complemented by some herbiness. Very textural. Lovely. 93/100

Rippon Pinot Noir Mature Vines 2013 Central Otago, New Zealand
Very fine and expressive with a lovely savoury edge to the raspberry and red cherry fruit. Nice density here with structure and finesse, showing lovely potential for the future. 95/100

Rippon Emma’s Block Pinot Noir 2013 Central Otago, New Zealand
This is an east facing block closer to the lake. It’s the softest environment at Rippon, with some clays in the soil. ‘Because of the clays you get a sleekness in the phenolics at the back of the palate,’ says Nick Mills. Fine, fresh red cherry fruit nose is very lively with a sappy, green edge and nice floral notes. The palate is fresh and elegant with nice acidity and a hint of green. It’s lovely. 96/100

Rippon Tinkers Field Pinot Noir 2013 Central Otago, New Zealand
Floral and expressive with vivid bright red cherries and raspberries. Supple and pure with a bright expressive palate. So taut and fine with cherry fruit at its core. Good acid and structure. 95/100

Rippon Tinkers Bequest Pinot Noir 2013 Central Otago, New Zealand
This has no adjustments, including no added SO2. Nick harvests CO2 from fermenting Gewurztrainer to keep air away from the bunches then as soon as this starts fermenting he carries out a typical Pinot fermentation. This is from a small parcel in Tinkers Field. Aromatic, floral and slightly savoury, gravelly edge to the red fruits. Tight and fresh with a vivid, grippy palate showing lively raspberry and red cherry fruit. 93/100

Rippon Gamay 2014 Central Otago, New Zealand
Just 12 rows of vines, and 19 cases of wine. For the first time in 2014 a bit of SO2 was added; the Gamay has been made since 2011. Nick runs a line from a Gewurztraminer ferment to do the carbonic maceration, but it isn't a full carbonic. Fine cherry fruit nose with a hint of pepperiness. Focused, detailed palate with fine spices and good grip, as well as some tannic structure. Mineral and superbly drinkable, with a bit of structure: this is grown up Gamay. 93/100

Rippon Gamay 2013 Central Otago, New Zealand
Juicy, vivid and bright with lovely cherries and plums. Nice spiciness with some stony notes and fresh acidity. Supple, with a bright, spicy finish. 92/100

Rippon Riesling 2012 Central Otago, New Zealand
Very fresh and fine with lovely lime, lemon and green apple fruit. Bright with lovely focus and freshness. Pure and lovely. 93/100

Rippon Riesling 2013 Central Otago, New Zealand
Beautifully aromatic and fresh with bright lemon, apple and pear notes. Linear with a lovely mineral core and some grip. 92/100

Rippon Riesling 2009 Central Otago, New Zealand
Honeyed, appley nose. Lovely citrus, nut and apple on the palate. This has developed beautifully: a lovely wine of real interest. 95/100

Rippon Gewurztraminer 2012 Central Otago, New Zealand
Really perfumed with lovely, fine, expressive bright fruit. Textural and pretty and quite rounded with purity and finesse. 94/100

Rippon Gewurztraminer 2014 Central Otago, New Zealand
So aromatic and floral, but not overblown. Fresh, detailed palate is fine with lovely pear, ripe grapes, nuts and rose petal. Very interesting wine. 93/100

Wines tasted 02/16

Older notes

Rippon Pinot Noir 2010 Central Otago, New Zealand
Ripe but elegant with nice fresh, focused cherry fruit. Fine with some mineral notes. Lovely core of fresh fruit. 93/100 (02/13)

Rippon Tinker’s Field Pinot Noir 2010 Central Otago, New Zealand
Lovely perfume: fine, refined and expressive with cherries and plums. The palate is fine with ripe fruit, good depth and plenty of elegance. 95/100 (02/13)

Rippon Pinot Noir 2007
Beautifully elegant with nice savoury, spicy notes and good structure underneath bright, fresh dark cherry and berry fruit. Nice freshness, combining sweetness and savouriness at the same style. Quite an elegant style. 93/100 09/10

Rippon Pinot Noir 2008
Fresh, bright, elegant cherry fruit nose with some minerality and gently sappy character. The palate is smooth and elegant with bright berry fruit and fresh cherry notes with some spicy structure. Very fine mineral notes here. Light style but still lots of flavour. 94/100 09/10

Rippon Pinot Noir 2008
Sweet, herby warm cherry fruit nose. The palate is broad and supple with nice freshness and fruit purity backed up by some structure. Nice presence here. 92/100 02/10

Rippon Pinot Noir 2006
Wonderfully pure focused cherry fruit nose with lovely structure on the palate. Nice savouriness with good spiciness and lovely presence. Sweet and ripe but also nicely structured. 92/100 02/10

Rippon Pinot Noir 2003
Nick's first vintage. Lovely spicy wildness to the nose: complex, with mineral and iodine notes. Elegant, focused, spicy palate with lovely complexity. Brilliant stuff with lots of non-fruit complexity. Brilliant effort. 95/100

Rippon Emma's Block Pinot Noir 2008
Planted in 1991, this is a block down on the lake front. The Rippon Vineyards consist largely of schisty gravels with clay leves running through the blocks, and there's some clay in this block, along with the fine schist gravels. Fresh, pure, elegant cherry fruit nose in a light red fruit style, as well as subtle herby notes. Very fine and elegant with some sweetness. The palate is super-smooth and elegant with lovely precise red cherry fruit and some strawberry notes. Very fine and pure. 95/100 09/10

Rippon Emma's Block Pinot Noir 2008
Very focused fresh spicy, Burgundian nose with dark cherries and hints of earth. The palate has some sweetness, a bit of structure and it's beautifully expressive and complex. 95/100 02/10

Rippon Tinker's Field Pinot Noir 2008
Planted in 1982 and 1989 on own roots. Not irrigated, and managed biodynamically since 2003. Coarse schist gravels. Lively nose of red and dark cherry fruit with some spiciness. Quite fine. The palate is powerful with fresh, spicy, herby cherry fruit. A rich, spicy Pinot but it still has some elegance. 94/100 09/10

Rippon Tinker's Field Pinot Noir 2008
Beautifully perfumed and aromatic with subtly sappy cherry fruit. The palate is elegant and pure with open fruit backed up by good structure. Serious effort. 94/100 02/10

Rippon Pinot Noir 1990
This was made by Rudi Bauer. Very elegant, smooth with some evolution. Fresh with good minerality. Beautifully elegant and a bit sappy with real vibrancy. It’s alive. Fantastic. 94/100 02/10

Rippon Riesling 2007
Very nicely aromatic with bold flavours of lime, lemon, apple and honey. Concentrated and limey on the palate with nice intensity. 91/100 02/10

Rippon Riesling 2003
Very precise and limey with great power and complexity. Almost structured, with youthful primary fruit. Youthful and citrussy. 02/10

Cask samples:

J Block 2009 Jeunesse
Juicy, focused and bright with nice precision, purity and fruit.

P Block
Very fine aromatics here and nice precision. Good acidity. Serious, fine.

Tinker's Field 2009
More intense and vivid with a precise, mineral nose. Lovely structure and depth. Taut, spicy, structured – splendid.

Tinker's Field 2009 (new oak, different bit, different clone)
Sweeter with dark cherry and spice, as well as a bit of chocolate. The palate is fruity and focused with good depth. Nice stuff.

Hill Block 2009
In time this may become another single-block wine. It's a gravelly, exposed site. Very pretty aromatics with pure red fruits. Lovely fresh red fruits on the palate. Expressive and pretty.

UK agent: Lea & Sandeman

See also: Photos of Rippon

A short film from my visit:



Central Otago masterclass
Burgundy masterclass
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