An Impressive Debut; High Garden Pinot Noir 2020

How do you have a successful first release from a producer no one’s ever heard of? In short; leveraging reputations. And that doesn’t just mean the reputations of people.  Celebrity wines aside (there are barely any of these worth drinking), I’m referring to the reputation of a region, a winemaker, an owner and of the experts that inevitably get curious about a new wine and its impressive debut.  

High Garden Pinot Noir 2020 is the first release of this wine and is already stirring up some serious interest. When I heard there was a master of wine who lived in Sydney, has just completed his 27th vintage in the Hunter Valley and had some Central Otago Pinot Noir I’d be interested in, I’ll admit I was sceptical. I’m from Central Otago and I personally think that whilst there are some phenomenal wines coming out of the region, there are also a lot of standard wines seeking to cash in on the regions reputation. 

 As I found out more details about the High Garden story however, I was intrigued. This wine was from the Gibbston Valley sub region. This is the coolest region of Central Otago and is not for the faint of heart. Put a finicky grape like Pinot Noir in a valley that can succumb to frost more seasons than not and you have a very expensive disaster on your hands. The vintages where the myriad of variables fall into place however, result in some of the best Pinot Noirs in the world. 

 “At their best Gibbston Pinots are the most complete Pinot Noirs in Central Otago, delivering a dense midpalate and great length as well as admirable austerity thanks to Gibbston’s coolness.”  Matt Kramer in the Wine Spectator. 

I wonder if it is this chase for the rare perfect vintage of Gibbston Valley that has people falling over themselves to get their hands on these bottles or evidently, to buy vineyards there. Anyone who was lucky enough to have a taste of Valli Gibbston Valley Pinot Noir 2010 will understand what can be achieved in this tiny, unforgiving wine region. Sunshine and frost protection are top of the list for winegrowers in Gibbston Valley. Contrast to the general reputation of Central Otago Pinot Noir’s being ‘bold’, ‘big’ and ‘fruit-bombs’, Gibbston Valley fruit is very rarely included in such wines. Nor are winemakers emphasising these freshman characteristics any more. 

The Gibbston Valley is a narrow, steeply walled valley that has the ferocious Kawarau river gorge marking the north border of this region. Vineyards closer to the edge of the gorge are on the lowest slopes and are subject to mist as well as losing sunlight earlier than those on the opposite side of the valley. This is where High Garden comes in. The highest elevation vineyard in Gibbston Valley at 430-490m enjoys one of the warmest spots in the valley and longer sunshine hours during the critical ripening season. Harvest here can begin well into May (Hunter Valley in Australia often harvests in January) and the rest of Central Otago has often completed harvest in April whilst the Gibbston Valley holds on for a couple extra weeks of sunlight. What this means is, in those vintages where things have gone right, Gibbston Valley has a longer ripening season. This is one of the key factors that lead to the ‘silky’ tannins and ‘ethereal’ perfume that often mark a Pinot Noir from Gibbston Valley. Thus the reputation of this valley and the location of the High Garden vineyard had my curiosity piqued.  

Robin Tedder became a Master of Wine in 1997. A Scottsman who has been based in Sydney, making wine in the Hunter Valley for 27 vintages, has been visiting Central Otago for years. After the 2019 wildfires and rounding out yet another harvest of Shiraz and Semillon in the Hunter Valleys sub tropical summer, Tedder began to look at perhaps the most contrasting region possible; Gibbston Valley.

Tedder, like many wine professionals, understands what it means to worship Burgundy and Pinot Noir. Knowing that there are only a handful of vineyards in the world that can birth Pinot Noir to its full potential, buying a vineyard for the sole purpose of growing Pinot Noir was a risky choice. Visiting Central Otago each year for holidays allowed him to meet some of the local wine crowd, notably the formidable duo behind Valli; Grant Taylor and Jen Parr. Their individual reputations precede them; Taylor made the Pinot that won ‘worlds best pinot noir’ a consecutive three years running and remains one of the pioneers of Central Otago wine industry. Parr is now head winemaker at Valli, taking out the NZ Winemaker of The Year in 2020 as well as being behind many of the regions best wines for the last decade. Meeting these two was the 'in' that Tedder was waiting for and was told about a vineyard up for grabs that was ideal. Tedder put in the offer in January 2020, the first harvest went underway a couple months later and Jen Parr made the wine. As you can see, this is now a culmination of reputations that had me excited to try the wine and it did not disappoint. 

The wine has all the hallmarks of the best Gibbston Valley Pinots; subtle, savoury, silky, hauntingly delicate red berried perfume and a consistent hint of fresh rose petal. I was sold, but I was one person and my enthusiastic ‘that’s a yes from me’ was not the vote Tedder needed to launch this wine. The time came to call in the Master of Wine cavalry and send out samples to get reviewed by Tedder’s fellow Masters.  

Reviews are a contentious topic in the wine world, the reputation of the reviewer remains the most important factor. You want well known, respectable names to give honest (and hopefully favourable) feedback on your wine, which is exactly what High Garden Pinot Noir 2020 received. 

“It is a supremely elegant pinot noir with bright cherry, red berry flavours underpinned by subtle fresh herb characters. Only 2,364 bottles produced in the inaugural vintage.“ (Screwcap) Score: 95 ★★★★★ Bob Campbel MW

“Pretty delicate in texture with a certain amount of sweetness, as is the Central Otago wont, but it's certainly restrained and has an appetising dry finish and a refreshing mineral streak through it. There's a certain pungency too. Good lift on the finish.” Jancis Robinson MW 

“It’s easy to see why the sub-region of Gibbston is well suited to Pinot Noir with this youthful and vibrant expression. Aromas of wild forest berries, savoury dried herb, rugged hillsides of schist and mineral, tense youthful mouthfeel and complex flavours of site and wine maker’s handling of ripe fruit and minimal intervention. Raspberry and cherry, spices of fruit and barrel, no mistaking the core of minerality, form chalky tannins and acid-line. A wine with power and presence, layers of fruit, oak and savoury mineral qualities. Needs time to settle into its ageing and harmonising cycle, but will reward those who can wait with best drinking from 2023 through 2029+.94 Points, Excellent-Cameron Douglas MS 

The wine market is one of the most satiated in the world, the chances of an inaugural vintage doing well are slim however 2020 was a kind first stage for High Garden. It was created by a Master of Wine with enough passion for Gibbston Valley Pinot Noir to outweigh the significant risk. A formidable winemaker agreed to shepherd the vineyard fruit into the bottle and the final wine made its way into the hands of some very respected voices in the industry. An impressive debut from High Garden, certainly reminding wine lovers to chase after those sensational Gibbston Pinots. 

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