Visiting New Zealand's Central Otago region
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.
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 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.’
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.
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.
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
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
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).
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.
‘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
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
Rippon Riesling 2003 Very precise and limey with great power and complexity. Almost
structured, with youthful primary fruit. Youthful and citrussy.
J Block 2009 Jeunesse
Juicy, focused and bright with nice precision, purity and fruit.
Very fine aromatics here and nice precision. Good acidity. Serious,
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.