Small, But Perfectly Formed

Until a few weeks ago when an invitation to a tasting landed in my inbox, I’m sorry to say that I hadn’t actually heard of Folding Hill vineyard in Central Otago. To their immense credit, Kate and her team at Reserve Wines have stocked Folding Hill’s wines ever since the release of its very first vintage, and I for one know better than to question the judgement of Kate’s palate.

Based in Bendigo, at the foot of the Pisa mountain range by the Clutha river, this (not quite) former sheep paddock had four of its hectares planted with a carefully chosen selection of Pinot Noir clones in 2003. The entire ethos of the estate is one of respect and care; low yields, hand picking, traditional and time honoured winemaking practices with the minimum of intervention result in wines that speak openly and honestly of their origins. Grapes are destemmed to avoid any green flavours, the wines are neither fined nor filtered, medium toast French oak barriques are used judiciously (only a third of the wine spends time in new wood) and, in a Kiwi concession to modernity, the wines are bottled under DIAM agglomerated corks as it is felt that Stelvin closures are too impregnable to the oxygen a wine requires to evolve.

Tim Kerruish, vintner and co-owner of Folding Hill, was on hand to present not just a selection of his wines but every wine that he has yet bottled. It is always interesting to hear winemakers talk about their wines and this was especially true of Tim: after only his and his estate’s seventh vintage, it was fascinating to compare the vintage variation and to trace the evolution of the Folding Hill Pinot Noirs in what could well have been an unrepeatable vertical tasting.

The wines we tasted were:

1. Folding Hill, Pinot Noir 2011 (14% ABV, £19.99)

2011 was the first difficult vintage the estate has had to face. An unseasonably wet spell lasted from February until April, and, although the weather dried out two weeks before harvest, the wines lack the opulent, black fruit core of a more typical vintage.

Pale in colour, with a gently floral, violet scented nose. The palate showed pretty red cherry fruit, a reasonable level of tannin and a firm redcurrant acidity that lasted through the finish. Pleasant, but it needed a couple of years to round out. It might have lacked a degree of the usual Otago ripeness, but Tim mentioned that the 2007 had shown a similar angularity at the same age…

2. Folding Hill, Pinot Noir 2012 (14% ABV)

This had only just been bottled and it still carried a sample label. 2012 was a great vintage in Central Otago and this was immediately apparent from the warmer, softer nose of black cherry and bramble fruit dusted with sweet brown spices. The palate also showed darker, riper fruit than the 2011, a hint of new oak, structure from fine grained ripe tannins and the grip of firm acidity held in check by the fruit. Tim noted that this was just beginning to close down, it will probably be a couple of years before it fully reopens. Nice, but still a baby.

3. Folding Hill, Pinot Noir 2010 (14% ABV, £19.99)

There was nothing untoward about the 2010 growing season, aside from a couple of cold weeks in February, and this was the only thing Tim could highlight as being responsible for the firmer than usual tannic streak of this vintage. This was starting to develop characteristic Bendigo rich, dark fruit, almost dark chocolatey notes, and these were balanced by a lovely sappy core keeping things fresh. Long, rich and ripe but elegant and beginning to evolve; the finish showed the grip of very fine tannins that will help it to mature for the next five to six years. Very good.

Folding Hill, The Orchard Block

Folding Hill, The Orchard Block

4. Folding Hill, Orchard Block Pinot Noir 2010 (14% ABV, £28.99)

Made from 1,000kg of the best fruit harvested from a small block of clone UCD 5 vines, planted at the most southerly end of the vineyard. An orchard of English cider apple trees forms the western boundary of the plot and also lends its name to the wine. The quality of the grapes from this plot has always stood out and, in 2009, a parcel was vinified separately in an open top fermenter using indigenous yeasts and matured for 20 months in one third new French oak. The wine was so good that they did it again!

A tighter, less expressive nose than any of the previous wines, infused with the scent of coffee. The palate, too, was more restrained, displaying bramble fruit, a smooth swirl of oak, very fine but chewy tannins and a bright plummy acidity. This was really something of a baby and needed another three to five years to really hit its stride. And yet, in spite of its youth, the complexity, structure and the harmony it displayed resulted in it being my joint favourite wine of the evening. Those two cold weeks really did something special to the grapes.

The 2010 vintage is the current release and has just been shipped. However, 1,000kg of fruit only yields about 75 cases of wine, so get in touch with Reserve Wines quick sharp if you’d like to buy some!

Folding Hill, Pinot Noir 2009

Folding Hill, Pinot Noir 2009

5. Folding Hill, Pinot Noir 2009 (14.5% ABV)

A consistently warm vintage, with no spikes in the temperature. Indeed, so consistent was the temperature that it didn’t feel especially hot at any point and, for a short time, the team worried about the grapes ripening fully. It was only when looking back over the weather data that they saw how great the conditions had actually been.

Again, surprisingly inexpressive on the nose, displaying just a hint of floral notes; first violets then roses. By gently swirling it around my glass, I managed to tease some sweet dark fruit aromas from it. Dry, with a softly tannic, ripe, dark fruit core, a lick of oak and a mouth-watering streak of fresh acidity. Powerful and full-bodied, the extra alcohol of the vintage did not pass entirely unnoticed. For many people 2009 produced archetypal Central Otago Pinot Noir, in fact the team feared this was a bit too fruit driven in its youth, but it was really starting to settle down nicely - albeit in a rather exuberant fashion.

6. Folding Hill, Orchard Block Pinot Noir 2009 (14% ABV)

The first vintage of this cuvée and far from a bad place to start. Enticing aromas of brambles and black cherry clafoutis on the nose; the ripeness of the vintage, plus an extra year in bottle, offered a softer, more approachable wine than its younger sibling. Rich and supple, with a beautiful balance of softly integrated oak, dark fruit, ripe tannins and refreshing acidity. Compared to the 2010, its dense, almost meaty, core of fruit and its less angular, less austere construction made it a real crowd pleaser, although with plenty of time in hand. Unsurprisingly, it has completely sold out!

7. Folding Hill, Pinot Noir 2008 (14% ABV)

There was nothing untoward about the 2008 growing season other than the berries being a touch larger than usual. I don’t know what effect, if any, this had upon the wine, but it was a fact that had stuck in Tim’s mind so I thought it worth sharing. A delicate russet tinge to the colour and a hint of sandalwood under the bright cherry fruit on the nose indicated a degree of maturity. Silky smooth and slightly less tannic than the previous examples, with a fresh, red fruit acidity holding things in check. Delightfully perky, fruity and accessible, you couldn’t help but enjoy this vintage. At its peak now, although it might yet develop some woodland or truffle characteristics. Not entirely typical, but a very lovely wine.

8. Folding Hill, Pinot Noir 2007 (13.5% ABV)

The very first wine produced by the estate and only about 150 cases were made. It displayed lovely mature Pinot Noir characteristics of spiced black cherry fruit and a gentle sous bois earthiness on the nose, all of which continued through to the palate. Medium bodied, with savoury, cedar notes poking through the mid-palate fruit. A little drier than the younger vintages, elegant and almost Burgundian in character. An absolute charmer: my joint favourite wine of the evening. Even Tim was surprised by how well this wine showed, having not tasted it since May. It had apparently never tasted better and I had no trouble in believing this. You could probably keep this for another year or two, but why would you? If the 2011 is also destined to reach such heights over the next three or four years, it could well be one of the best value £20 bottles of Pinot Noir around.

A big thank you to Tim and to all at Reserve Wines for a memorable tasting and for the most comprehensive introduction possible to a small winery with a big future.