Tarras Vineyards Pinot Noir Central Otago
 
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Tarras Vineyards C.S. Lewis and the 45th Parallel

It was over breakfast a year ago that Gary Carlston told us the story. He was just 8 years old when his Dad's dinner guest planted the seed that would lead Carlston to Central Otago and one of the most daring Pinot Noir plantings in the world. That night, Gary told us, there would be no talk of baseball. No Walter Cronkite on the black and white TV in the corner. The guest, a novelist who had been invited to share fried chicken and mashed potatoes, spoke only of fantasy. He was an old friend of Gary's dad. The writer's name was C.S. Lewis.

Gary was mesmerized, soaking in the words of the author who would make dreamers of so many with stories of witches and wardrobes. Wide-eyed, too scared to utter a word, young Carlston listened intently as Lewis gave him the assignment.

"Gary, I want you to read a book." The writer said. "I think you'll like it. It's written by a man named Tolkien."

C.S. Lewis may have been the 20th century's master of fantasy. He no doubt believed his assignment would have a significant effect on the young mind of a child. But even Lewis's fertile mind could never have imagined where his off-the-cuff reading assignment would take Gary Carlston.

It would be a blind Pinot Noir tasting in the city that triggered the change in itinerary. The NYC lineup was stacked with Burgundies, but importer Rod Haden had snuck in two ringers. Rod's entries wouldn't take top honors. Nor did they play second fiddle. The 2009 and 2008 Tarras Pinot Noirs were bright ruby in color, crushed raspberry ripe and cold climate chiseled, each right at home in the top pedigree Cote de Beaune lineup.

The 2008 would be the 'colder' of the two wines, showing off juicy wild cherry aromas and flavors, punctuated with superb cool climate vibrancy. The 2009 was deeper in color, featuring more raspberry liqueur, black cherry, still bracketed by Old World cut. When the bottles were disrobed, the two Central Otago Pinot Noirs had baffled some of the top sommeliers in town -- most of whom had guessed Volnay or Savigny.

A few months after the tasting, we blew off a fancy-free weekend in Nelson and paid the airfare to Central Otago, if only to eyeball the roots of Haden's surprise Pinot Noirs. What we discovered was one part winegrowing obsession, another part imagination gone wild -- and the final episode in a dream that began with C.S. Lewis's assignment 50 years before.


Dark Riders in Central Otago
Gary Carlston's "Tarras" was an eerie oasis, an almost unsettling mix of high desert and roaring coastal wind. It was easy to see how the ex-IT entrepreneur had fallen in love with the magic of the spot -- if tougher to comprehend how he thought he could make ends meet nursing Burgundy out of the 45th Parallel.

Designed and planted by Kiwi icon Robert Dicey, the rows at "Tarras" were tightly spaced. Each plant was pitted against Nature in an annual game of Survival of the Fittest, eking out a few clusters of tiny berries no larger than the tip of your little finger. The afternoon high that day flirted with 95 degrees, explaining the dark, richness of our Manhattan tasting entries. But that night, nearly asleep on our feet, we crawled into bed under two wool blankets. The temperature would drop 50 degrees overnight, this time making perfect sense of the fine acid structure.

Both of us awoke in strange moods, somehow feeling as if we'd shared an otherworldly dream. As much as we tried to shake the reverie, we couldn't help but feel like we'd come to the 45th Parallel and seen "Tarras" before. Was the ghost of C.S. Lewis lurking in the forest?

Over bacon and eggs, Gary Carlston listened to our seemingly hallucinogenic visions, filled with Déjà vu. Then the guy who couldn't help but roll the dice on the most improbable Pinot Noir planting in the southern hemisphere chuckled. "It's the movie. You saw the movie." Carlston said.

The movie?

"The Fellowship of the Ring. Remember when the elfin princess carries Frodo on her horse to escape the Dark Riders? That was just over there!" Carlston pointed. Then he told us the story of C.S. Lewis, his assignment, and the childhood fantasy he'd recreated at Tarras.

When we received the call from Rod Haden last week, we were hardly surprised. Gary Carlston had created a magical vineyard on the 45th Parallel. His Pinot Noirs are the cream of Central Otago. But one look at the cost of the planting, and farming, and it wouldn't take a Wharton grad to figure out that Tarras couldn't pencil out.

First, Haden explained that Carlston had sold the property a couple months ago. Then our friend asked us if we'd 'clean up' the remaining stateside inventory. We then did what any good friend would do for another…we took it all.



Tasting Notes

2009 Tarras Vineyards Pinot Noir Central Otago
"Bright ruby color. Still a touch closed, but opening quickly to juicy aromas of red raspberry and sweet herbs, high-toned and vibrant. Rich, yet elegant on the attack, featuring dark core of raspberry liqueur mixed with black cherry. Excellent low pH persistence, speaking volumes to those cold summer nights. Drink now for its still primary fruit richness or age until 2015."
-- WineAccess Travel Log

2008 Tarras Vineyards Pinot Noir Central Otago
"The 2008 Pinot Noir has a slightly meaty bouquet with soft red-berried fruit and a touch of cold steel. The palate is medium-bodied with tart red cherries, redcurrant and boysenberry that builds nicely towards a broad, supple strawberry finish. With a prudent 10% new oak, the fruit shines through here. Drink now-2013."
89 points -- Robert Parker's The Wine Advocate

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