Ben Leen's Central Otago
Besides Marlborough, no other New Zealand region is better known for great wine than Central Otago. The remarkable region, with its snow-capped mountains, deep blue lakes, and unique continental climate (these vineyards are some of furthest from the sea for NZ), is capable of producing world class pinot noir alongside swathes of aromatic whites.
If you haven’t been to Queenstown, it needs to be on your vino bucket list, and general Instagram travel list. Despite its relatively short history of wine, it’s almost impossible to not find an Otago pinot at the local bottle shop. Bold, powerful wines, with ripe fruit, elegantly balanced tannin and acidity, and good cellar potential – much plusher than your average pinot. From Gibbston Valley to Pisa, Bannockburn to Wanaka, there’s been a recent focus on subregional variation. Winemakers are doubling down on Central and creating truly terroir-driven, expressive pinot unlike anything else in the world.
Ben Leen is one of the new guard of Otago winemakers. Having graduated not so long ago from Lincoln University, he’s worked the last four years at Amisfield Winery and has just launched his own label, Alpine Wine Company. And he’s not content with the missionary position.
"It's been a bit of a whirlwind," says Ben. "I’ve always wanted my own label doing something that isn’t quite the same as the crowded Central market. Working here at Amisfield opened my eyes to minimal intervention, so my brother and I bought a tonne of fruit in 2018. Amisfield were really supportive and helped get everyone together. Lucy (my wife), my brother and his wife, and myself – we’re all in it together."
Ben’s taken inspiration from helping Amisfield transition to organic viticulture and their minimal intervention techniques. His philosophy includes no fining or filtration, minimal sulphur, and indigenous yeasts.
"Lo-fi, minimal and natural. It’s exciting," says Ben.
"Winemaking is conservative in Central Otago. So instead of following the classic formula, we jumped into making our wine fun, accessible, and approachable."
This is self-evident in the wines, called things like Head in the Clouds Pinot Noir and Sparks Will Fly Pinot Pet Nat.
"There’s a big opportunity for chillable reds," says Ben. “There’s no new oak, and they only spend three months in barrel. Young, fresh. Lightness combined with layers of complexity. They’re wines made to be drunk over summer.
“My favourite variety’s gotta be gamay. Lucy and I were in Beaujolais picking grapes, and it was my first real experience with wine. There was a small crowd of us picking, and sharing great wines. I think I’ll always have a soft spot for gamay, and pinot. Pinot noir for its truest and purest expression of a red grape. Riesling would be my white pick.”
Unsurprising then, that Ben really wants a riesling in his lineup of wines, too. But as is his way, he's not going to make it the way you might expect.
"Maybe a pet nat with some skin contact," says Ben. "Something a bit different; something that’ll get people to try riesling. I have lots of wild ideas for the long term. Exploring wine styles, making it all a bit more fun. Moving organic is also a big focus, maybe even an urban cellar door at some stage."
The 'business' of wine has been the toughest part for Ben – compliance, sales, marketing – but also challenging and rewarding. He’d recommend any aspiring young winemakers just get in there and give it a crack, especially if they're looking to do something different like natural wines.
"Start small: buy a tonne of grapes. You’ll be able to sell it, so there isn’t any harm in giving it a go. It’s a rewarding career if you don’t mind getting your hands dirty. It isn’t all about drinking wine. It’s dynamic and exciting. It’s hard work. If you’ve ever been stuck in an office and had an interest in making some wine, just give it a go.”
Things are on the up for Ben too, with the 2019 vintage looking good for Central Otago.
"2018 was warm, almost hot," says Ben. "The wines from that vintage were bolder and riper. In comparison 2019 has been quite a bit cooler. Cooler seasons make deeper, more brooding and mysterious wines. Pinot from Central Otago expresses the season so well and true to form.
Follow Alpine Wine Company's journey on Instagram, and if you do manage to get over to NZ or you're lucky enough to live there, ask Ben where to find his wines. You’ll have to be quick, they're are selling like hotcakes.