Coal Pit: At the top of their game

May 3, 2019


When trying to describe Coal Pit winery, the phrase ‘small but perfectly formed’ springs to mind. The family owned business covers just 12 hectares of land on the warm north-facing slopes of Gibbston, the highest sub-region in Central Otago. Coal Pit, which takes its name from the historical coal pit site in the nearby mountain ranges, is located at an elevation of 420-460 metres and is one of the few “single” vineyards in Gibbston. In other words, all the grapes are grown, handpicked and crafted into wine on site with impeccable attention to detail throughout the entire process. It’s quality, not quantity that the team strives for. “We are lucky if we produce 2,000 cases per annum, but you can be sure it’s the very best we can make. Our vineyard has a superb micro-climate, so we focus on the optimal use of the site and because we have absolute control over every stage of the wine production it’s all very authentic,” says Kate.

Coal Pit owner Rosie Dunphy, purchased the property in 2001 with just one thing in mind: producing the best possible wine. As part of this vision to improve the viticultural aspect of the business, in 2007 she decided to construct a 30 tonne winery, which allows the team to have complete control from vine to wine. “Having our own winery on the property really is our biggest asset, as it means we can pick a row at a time depending on what is ripe,” Kate explains. The wines are produced using many traditional methods and gravity rather than a pump is used to move the wine around where possible. “We age our Pinot Noir in French oak barrels for a minimum of 12 months and have also started playing around with an oaked Sauvignon Blanc too. We are hoping to introduce some natural or wild ferments for the upcoming vintage,” Kate says.

The vineyard was first established in 1994, originally planted with the idea to produce sparkling wines based on the high altitude. As it turned out, the grapes were good enough to become a premium Pinot Noir that would impress connoisseurs around the world. Many of the original Pinot Noir vines remain, along with a few short rows of Sauvignon Blanc, with the resulting wines showing greater complexity as the vines age. A gradual replanting programme has allowed more site specific clones of Pinot Noir to be planted, and Pinot Noir is now the main variety in the Coal Pit vineyard.

“Pinot Noir is one of the oldest and most genetically unstable grape varieties, meaning it mutates easily and there are many different strains or expressions of the same grape. We use different clones of Pinot Noir that originated in different parts of the world, like Switzerland and France, which are hardy as they are selected from cooler climates. That’s ideal as we have snow on the ground often.”

It takes a lot of trial and error to produce a world-class wine. “First it’s about finding the grapes that suit your site and the planting material you can get your hands on. Then you constantly refine the process over the years, both in the vineyard and winery,” says Kate. “Our award-winning Pinot Noir is 90 percent of what we produce. It is a mix of four different clones – each contributes something different in terms of aroma, flavour or structure and the end result is a truly complex and multidimensional wine.”

For those unfamiliar with the terminology, Kate explains, that ‘clones’ are strains or genetic variants of the same grape variety that grow and ripen slightly differently, which is also critical when it comes to specific climates. “Some clones might have small berries in tight bunches, while other clones have bigger, loose bunches. We are high up and quite cool, with low humidity, so rot in the bunches is not a big problem for us, while in other parts of the country they would need more open bunch architecture to allow wind through for drying.”

Coal Pit vineyard is run in accordance with the proactive environmental management programme, Sustainable Winegrowing New Zealand and is in the process of converting to being 100 percent organic, a shift that Kate says is relatively straightforward as they are mostly already there. The Coal Pit vineyard has lots of schist in the soil, and these rocks will need to be removed by hand before mechanical undervine weeding is possible. A job they are all looking forward to in the quieter months!

It’s hardly surprising that Coal Pit is one of the five small wineries showcased at Queenstown’s stunning boutique accommodation, Kinross Cottages. “It’s well worth a visit,” enthuses Kate. “Not just because they offer amazing tasting of exceptional New Zealand wines, but because it’s just so beautiful and peaceful – set on 40 acres of green surrounds with mountains, vines and ponds and there’s even an outdoor hot tub where you can enjoy a Coal Pit Pinot Noir under the stars.”

For the first time ever, the Coal Pit team are thrilled to be bringing out a reserve wine. “It was an even vintage and a particularly good wine, so we thought we’d have a play around with a reserve and see how it goes. We kept six barrels aside from our main blend from 2018 that we feel were total standouts, so it’s a showcase of what we think Coal Pit is capable of. We might not do it every year; it’s just an opportunity to produce a collector’s item when we’ve had a particularly exciting year.”

There’s other news in the Coal Pit winery too. “We are also refining our style and have a new winemaker on board, Anika Willner, who brings renewed energy and a fresh set of eyes to our well-established team. She has great global perspective – having done vintages all over the world – and now lives in the heart of the Coal Pit vineyard, just a stone’s throw from the winery. She is driving our conversion to organics and is perfectly positioned to oversee this process. Olly Masters (formerly of Atarangi fame) is working alongside Anika as a winery consultant and has vast experience with Pinot Noir in New Zealand. They both share Rosie’s original goal to produce only the most elegant and sophisticated wines, so we are really thrilled to have them as part of the team.”

Anika and Olly aren’t the only new additions to the team; Coal Pit is one family business that looks set to stay that way. Rosie’s four children have now grown up and take an active interest in the business side of things. “The youngest Hugo, oversees the website and branding, while the eldest, Georgia, has taken over the company’s social media. She’s based in London so that helps to expand our presence over there. Robbie has always been interested in the production side and studied Oenology in Burgundy, so he is often helping out during vintage,” says Kate.

The Coal Pit bottles showcase a striking label, which is actually an abstract painting by a close friend of the family, Chris Heaphy, of Ngai Tahu Maori. Kate outlines the inspiration behind the image, “The inky black lines depict the black coal seams that were once a part of the Central Otago landscape. The red represents the predominant pinot noir plantings in the vineyard and the white is the small amount of sauvignon blanc that we produce. It’s a really beautiful artwork that hangs proudly in our tasting room,” explains Kate. The new Reserve bottles of both Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc have an exciting label also designed by Chris, with direction from Rosie and Hugo.

As a boutique winery, Coal Pit does not have a public tasting room, so it’s important for Kate to get the brand in front of distributors and tradespeople. Hence she has found Craft’d (formerly Boutique Wine Festival) to be a valuable experience. “Last year’s festival was great,” says Kate, “The calibre of the trade was fabulous and there were a lot of sommeliers and restaurant owners there, which helps us to get our brand in front of the right people. What’s more, the consumers were fantastic too, not only with their existing wine knowledge, but their keen interest to learn more. This event really helps to demystify wine by offering something for every level of wine consumer.”

Craft’d also provides Kate the opportunity to network with other wineries and keep on top of what other brands are doing around the country, which she finds valuable when considering collaborative tastings with other wineries. “The vertical tastings and masterclasses are a really enjoyable way to see some back vintages you would otherwise not be exposed to.”

And this year at Craft’d, she’s really thrilled that people will have the opportunity to buy plates of food to experience how it matches with the wine. “That’s so important because ultimately that’s how we prefer to drink wine. It’s a wonderful event, with great company, fantastic food and exquisite wine in a vibrant, jovial atmosphere.”

5 Questions with Kate Hunter

What is your drink of choice and what food do love you pair it with?

Pinot Noir – homemade duck liver paté, fat Central Otago walnuts and our Coal Pit Pinot Noir jelly conserve – a sublime combo!

What has been your most exciting moment so far in your work?

Ha, great timing it’s just been!… when our first ever Pinot Noir Reserve went into bottle. A wine we have been working on and waiting for the perfect vintage. 2018 delivered and the wine is 100 percent worthy with a fabulous label to boot.

What does a typical day look like for you?

No two days are ever the same, but I am mainly out and about in the trade now that we do all our own distribution and have a focus with on-premise listings. We are a small team so everyone jumps in to help where they can.

When you’re not drinking Coal Pit wine, you like to sip on…?

Homemade kombucha – fermentation all the way!

What’s the best thing about Otago?

I live in Auckland so I really enjoy being able to get down their often – the breathtaking landscape and fresh air are a tonic from city life.

Kate Hunter joined Coal Pit in 2015 as their Sales and Marketing Manager. She is a former winemaker for Te Mata Estate, and has worked in marketing for Cable Bay (Waiheke Island) Two Gates (Hawke’s Bay) and in London, on the public relations for the London International Wine Fair and various wineries based in Australia, Chile, Spain, South Africa and Portugal. Kate holds a Master of Applied Science in Oenology from Lincoln University and lives in Auckland with her husband and three small children.

Gather your friends, grab tickets and book into Coal Pit’s Vertical Tasting today!