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Prophet's Rock, Central Otago

by Tom Cannavan, 04/09

It was really nice to have a chance to catch up with Paul Pujol again recently, when he visited Scotland with his UK agency, Berkmann Wines.

Paul is the winemaker at the small, high quality Prophet's Rock estate in Central Otago on New Zealand's South Island. I last met him when I visited the vineyard on a roasting hot day in 2007 when the mercurey bubbled around 40 celsius, and we spent more time drinking cold beer than walking the vineyard. As Paul said, "And there was me trying to convince you that Otago's a cool-climate region!"

In fact Paul is a winemaker with a fascinating CV. His previous post had been at Lemelson in Oregon's Willamette Valley, and before that with the famous house of Kuentz Bas in Alsace. He has the perfect credentials for making the small group of aromatic varietal wines in Prophet Rock's portfolio: Riesling, Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir.
  

Planted in 1999, Prophet's Rock's two vineyards are in Bendigo and in Pisa Flats, and only estate fruit is used in their wines. Despite the heatwave on my visit, the area is relatively cool. As Paul says, "There are great diurnal swings - even when it's 30 celsius during day, it still falls to single digits at night."

Paul's Riesling comes mostly from Pisa Flats where the soils are deep and alluvial, stony and sandy, and have a notably high mineral content. The wine is intense, concentrated, but elegant stuff. "The whites reflect my time spent in Alsace," he says, the grapes receiving a very long, gentle pressing and 100% wild yeast fermentation. Half of the Riesling is made and aged in old oak barriques, spending six months on the lees trying to build texture. But during this time Paul says he "leaves well alone," before bottling and ageing for another six months before release. Paul says the 2007 is "the best Riesling I've made so far," even though it followed a "terrible start to the vintage with snow during flowering, but that produced small, naturally concentrated bunches and the season then was long and perfect."


   I've been lucky enough to taste all vintages of Prophet's Rock Pinot Noir back to their first, the 2003, and see them as improving vintage after vintage, presumably as the vines age. The beautiful, steeply sloping Bendigo vineyard is the source of most of the Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris, where quartz-rich top soil lies over bands of chalk, clay and limestone. Paul crops the fruit for his Pinot Noir at just 35hl/ha, then he ferments with natural yeast and hand plunges through a long ferment that tapers off over several months.

The Pinot has 15 months in French oak, with no racking and natural malolactic fermentation. "The first time the wine is moved is when it's bottled," says Paul. He is one of very few Otago producers who have the luxury of keeping their wines in barrel through the subsequent vintage most need to bottle earlier so they can re-use the barrels and cellar space for the new vintage. Paul recommends decanting his young Pinots, and despite its obvious potential, says the current 2006 is too young.

The wines are not cheap - in common with all Central Otago wines - but as Paul explains "Otago is always going to produce a premium product - the climate and cropping levels are always going to make it an expensive, low-volume production area." But whilst some wines from the region could be accused of rather ambitious pricing, Prophet's Rock is delivering an honest, very thoughtfully-crafted portfolio of wines that deserve attention.

the wines

UK stockists of the Pinot Gris (at around £16) and the Pinot Noir (at around £20) include The Wine Society and AG Wnes, but see all stockists of Prophet's Rock on wine-searcher.com.

Prophet's Rock Riesling 2006
Paul makes only 300 cases of this wine which are sold on the domestic and Australian markets, with tiny amounts sold into New York and Quebec. Lovely nose - just wax and touches of petrolly minerality, and a core of glossy, fat lemon fruit. The palate has terrific weight and density, with shimmering acidity and glowing fruit quality. 91/100.

Prophet's Rock Pinot Gris 2007
Fermented with wild yeasts and in older barrels, this is nicely aromatic, with gentle floral notes and a lovely suggestion of peachy ripeness and weight. Tiny smoky qualities, with masses of fruit ripeness. The palate is full and weighty and there's an initially very sweet attack, with luscious texture and orange fruit around a core of dazzling acidity that pushes through beautifully. 91/100.

Prophet's Rock Pinot Noir 2006
Beautifully aromatic. Lovely Sandalwood, herbal and cedar nuances, with some lifted violet aromas. Very attractive and beguiling, smoky and moreish. Quite tight on the palate still, with little bloody and truffly notes, but all tightly-wound inside cherry fruit with tight, fine tannins that are nevertheless grippy. Very long and intense, but well-balanced and will benefit from a few years in bottle. 92/100

See also four wines from my visit to Prophet's Rock in 2007.