Rippon: The Genesis
Nick's great grandfather bought the land in Central Otago back in 1912-- about a century ago! They named it "Rippon," after the grandmother of his great-grandfather. Her maiden name was Emma Rippon, and she lived in Australia. Her son, Fred, went on to become Victoria's first senator, and he also built the estate Rippon Lea in Melbourne, named in honor of his mother. Fred's son Percy (Nick's great grandfather), moved to Central Otago and named his homestead Rippon after the family estate in Melbourne.
Winemaking in Central Otago got a start back in 1864 when French national Jean Desire Feraud planted vines and entered what he called "Burgundy" wine into some competitions. A few years later, viticulturalist Romeo Bragato travelled the islands to make recommendations to European governments about the possible success of wine production in New Zealand. He noted phylloxera sightings, but he also stated that "there are few of the places visited by me which are unsuitable to the vine" (Bragato 1895:8-10). Bragato's view of the future inspired local farmers to form the Central Otago Vine and Fruitgrowers' Association. At an early meeting, the association discussed planting more orchards to compete with the imported fruit from Tasmania, and producing unfermented wine (grape must) to supply the Prohibitionists with something to drink. (Interestingly, the market for unfermented wine-- aka grape juice-- has a growing place in our contemporary market; some great ones to look for are Millton, Navarro and Oakencroft). But despite the early enthusiasm by this organization which quickly gathered 100+ members, commercial winemaking didn't really get a firm start until the 1970s.
In 1975, Nick's father, Rolfe (born in 1923 and raised during New Zealand's Prohibition), began experimenting and planted many different varieties of Vitis vinifera rootstock. He was one of the first people to plant vinifera vines to Central Otago, and the Rippon vineyards are all on their own roots (then and now). Using vinifera rootstock is risky business, but if you wanted to make the argument that you get better must when the grape material doesn't have to travel through a graft, you could certainly use Rippon wines as evidence.
Over time the grapes varieties that found themselves most suited to the site were selected and Rippon works currently with these 6 varieties:
The vineyards have all grown by massal selection, and they are farmed using biodynamic principles. For Nick, after seeing the healthiness of biodynamic vineyards and the happiness of the families who work this way in Burgundy, it was a no-brainer to farm this way in Central Otago. He also had James Millton up in Gisborne who could answer questions.
"On schist, the wines become intellectual." - Nick Mills
Schist is the most important feature of Rippon. Nick's father was stationed in the Atlantic on a submarine during WWII and noticed the schist soils in the Douro during a stop in Oporto. He saw many similarities between the Douro and his farm in Central Otago and first got the impetus to plant grapes there.
Schist is formed when molten substances (often clay and mud) chemically transform under heat and pressure, then cool very quickly, forming thin flaky, sheets of mica that layer with other minerals to form a type of rock that will flake apart in slabs. If the molten clay cools fast enough, you will even find quartz crystals sparkling throughout the schist.
How did schist get in Central Otago? The Southern Alps were formed during the last 10 million years as tectonic plates Australia and Pacific began to over lap one another. During this violent and fairly recent geologic formation, greywacke (New Zealand's sandstone bedrock) was transformed into schist.
Central Otago is in a unique climactic position. The 'Roaring 40s' airstream winds around the planet and comes into contact with New Zealand's west coast. 5-10 meters of rain fall here annually, and it is one of the wettest places in the world. The Southern Alps-- a mountain range that runs down the west side of New Zealand's South Island-- blocks these rains from coming inland, and on the east side of the mountain range there is not much rainfall at all.
Nick describes Central Otago as having "a simulated Continental climate in New Zealand," but describes Rippon, which is situated underneath of the main divide, as having a more temperate microclimate which is regulated by a large, neighboring freshwater lake-- Lake Wanaka. This is a blessing to Nick because "it makes the wine more lifted. I can focus on texture rather than fruit density."
A nearby cascade waterfall keeps the air flowing over the vines, so they have less worry about rot.
Some early pioneers were making wine here in the 1800s, but modern winemaking is pretty recent.
Nick identifies three distinct waves of modern investment in Central Otago wine.
1st Wave: Pioneer Wineries
2nd Wave: "they got things rolling really fast, good on them."
3rd Wave: in 2000, Central Otago moves into the third wave.
Subregions in Central Otago
I ask every winemaker I meet from the area about the subregions of Central Otago, and I get a different answer from almost every one. Nick says that while there are clear climactic differences between the subregions, it is just too soon to see an accurate picture of each subregion's soil structure in Central Otago. We must wait until the vines get older, and the winegrowers' understanding of the land must continue to develop.
Central Otago's wine subregions are based loosely on several settlement areas in the region:
If these settlement areas are the building blocks for a clearer picture of subregions, this places Rippon in the Lake Wanaka subregion.
Throughout Central Otago, Grand Cru level sites will prove themselves in due time; but thanks to Rippon's long track record, the terroir here has come into focus and Nick can certainly speak in great detail about the soils and micro-terroirs of his own property. There are two standout vineyards: Tinker's Field and Emma's Block.
Tinker's Field is named after Nick's father, who passed away in 2000. Rolfe's childhood nickname was "Tink," and as a child he looked out upon this field and dreamed of its future potential.
Emma's Block is named after Nick's great-great-great grandmother, who was the last in the family to carry the Rippon name.
Tinker's field is pure schist. Nick sees schist as power. "Power is in compression, and I have to be careful here, because there is no science that can translate minerality into wine. There is no science.... yet. And yet, you can taste the soils by the texture of the wine."
Emma's Block has a special blue clay veins that run through the schist and give a completely different texture to the wine.
September 20th, 2013, Nomad Hotel
I think that the quality of the Rippon wines is obvious to those tasters who follow their olfaction, make their own decisions, and don't just promote wines based on trends and bandwagons. And yet, if you consider the auction market and the gray market to be gauges of what wines are considered to be valuable in the world, high end New Zealand wines have not yet made it to this area of wine awareness-- most likely because commercial wine production in the region is so young. Only a few people with great palates lucky enough to have tasted widely and vastly and gutsy enough to follow what their own palate tells them seem to be in on this secret. On September 20th, 2013, a group of these movers and shakers in the wine world gathered in the afternoon at the top of The Nomad hotel in NYC to taste through a vertical of Rippon's history. Only one such tasting of its kind has ever been done before, and it happened in San Francisco in 2012.
For me, this was an epic day and I had been looking forward to it for months. I woke up with the excitement of any other sommelier who might have been on their way to a DRC vertical tasting.
Rolfe planted his first experimental vineyards in the mid-70s. In 1980, Nick's parents took their family to France and they worked in vineyards for two years. When they returned to Rippon in 1982, Rolfe & his wife Lois began planting what is now Tinker's Field. Soon after, several early wineries in the region got together and founded the Central Otago Winegrowers Association.
Rudi Bauer, the first experienced winemaker to land in Central Otago, headed to Rippon in 1989 and was the viticulturalist/winemaker from 1990-1992. Rudi now makes wine at Quartz Reef, but when Rudi first arrived at Rippon he did many interesting things. He established a special shape of bottle that might help mark Central Otago as a unique region (you can see this in the two bottles on the right side of this photo). These bottles are stunning and unique. Unfortunately they did not fit in fridges and for practical reasons have gone the way of the bocksbeutel. But Rudi's early thinking about regional identity was far ahead of its time, and I'm sure he inspired many early winemakers to think about the impact that their early decisions would have on lasting vineyard and winemaking techniques and on marketing their wines to the world for years to come.
Rudi mentored many people on wine techniques. He's a unique guy who combines humor with philosophy to get his message across.
At this vertical tasting, Rudi was present for the presentation of these first wines. What a treat to taste them with their winemaker!
a cool vintage
very complex aromas: green herbs, mushrooms, meat, pork sausage, sweet spices, cashews; tannins were rich
Rippon 1991 pinot noir
an even cooler vintage than 1990
green and savory, tarter and lighter than the 1990
Rippon 1992 pinot noir
an even cooler vintage than 1991
rich and dense, meaty and spicy, dense texture, wild and rich tannins
During this time period, Nick was focusing on his skiing career, and after a severe knee injury dashed his hopes of being in the Olympics he enrolled at the CFPPA be Beaune to study winegrowing. Nick returned after his father's death to help his mother and siblings run the winery.
Rippon 1995 pinot noir
almost minty-- this reminded me of '90s Eyrie.
Rippon 1998 pinot noir
a darker personality with lots of tertiary aromas and the first hints of oxodation; but going back it smelled like flowers.
Rippon 2000 pinot noir
sweet spices and cloves
Nick did realize what he inherited, and he fully took the reigns and has charged ahead, full steam. It's a true family winery, with his siblings and his wife also helping at every turn.
2006 was the first year the winery was "Parkerized." The US took notice in this vintage, but it wasn't a classic vintage because it was their warmest year.
a neutral vintage-- not too hot, not too cold
fresh mushrooms, ripe plums
Rippon 2004 pinot noir
tight nose, tart acid, bright and rich. dancing
Rippon 2005 pinot noir
extremely low yields this vintage
earthy and mushroomy. This wine was a tearjerker for me. I couldn't explain it, but it really stood out as very special.
Rippon 2006 pinot noir
a very warm year
dark cherries, rich and dense, spicy with some oak tannins
Rippon 2007 pinot noir
savory with lip-smacking tannings
Rippon "Rippon" Mature Vine 2008 pinot noir
the smell reminded me of broken green twigs. black mint and peppermint-- crazy spicy with a minty aftertaste.
In this flight, we got to taste two years, side-by-side, of each of the three bottlings. 2010 is in the back and 2009 is shown in the front row. From left to right the glasses are Rippon, Emma's, and Tinker's.
You can see the vintage difference in the color alone-- 2010 is much more extracted in the back row, while the 2009s have a paler, more garnet hue.
savory, capsicum, tart cherry
Rippon "Emma's Block" 2009 pinot noir
dark and meaty-- a shadow
Rippon "Tinker's Field" 2009 pinot noir
dense kirsch, schist texture
Rippon "Rippon" Mature Vine 2010 pinot noir
earth and meat
Rippon "Emma's Block" 2010 pinot noir
ripe plum skin, sleek density
Rippon "Tinker's Field" 2010 pinot noir
a true mouthful-- this is intense, rocky, crazy, and wild!
And the Rippon whites are gorgeous too.
Nick surprised us with a bottle of Rudi's 1991 Rippon riesling at the very end, and it was off the charts. It reminded me of old Zilliken!
To hear Nick tell his own story in person, check out Episode 118 on Levi Dalton's I'll Drink to That podcast.
Bragato, Romeo. (1895) Report on the Prospects of Viticulture in New Zealand. Department of Agriculture. 8-10.
Cooper, Michael. (2002) The Wine Atlas of New Zealand. Auckland: Hodder Moa Beckett.
Mills, Nick. (2012) Lecture at Public restaurant.
Mills, Nick. (2013) Lecture at The Musket Room restaurant.
Mills, Nick. (2013) Lecture at a vertical tasting held at The Nomad.