By Sue Lewis

The team at Akarua winery creates award-winning sparkling wines in Bannockburn, ‘the jewel in the crown of Central Otago’.

In 1996 businessman and ex-mayor of Dunedin Sir Clifford Skeggs planted Akarua’s first vines on a 48-hectare plot of land in Bannockburn. This historic gold-mining township is on the banks of the Kawarau River, near Cromwell, Central Otago. The winery has since gone from strength to strength, and is now under the leadership of Sir Clifford’s son, David Skeggs. 

From two to 212,000 vines

Akarua, means ‘two vines’ in Māori. Twenty years after its first plantings, Akarua now has three vineyards spread over 80 hectares producing grapes for a variety of still and sparkling wines. Akarua is the largest family-owned vineyard and winery in Central Otago. Up to nine tonnes of grapes per hectare are produced each season and made into sparkling wines, using the ‘méthode traditionnelle’ process of the Champagne region of France. 

Vineyard manager Mark Naismith and winemaker Andrew Keenleyside focus on producing the highest quality grapes. The intensity of flavours is a vital component in the wines they create at Akarua.

The demands of an alpine environment

At up to 400 metres above sea level, Central Otago is home to the highest vineyards in New Zealand. This alpine environment can be challenging, but it is a stunning place to work. “There isn’t a day that you don’t stop and see something beautiful; a different colour in the hills, the clouds and the landscape,” says Naismith. 

Monitoring of the weather and the vines is non-stop. In 2015, the Akarua team had to battle high El Niño winds and 18 frost events with helicopters and frost fans. This occurred every three or four days within an intense two-month period. 

It is entirely appropriate, therefore, that the alpine mountain daisy appears on the label of every bottle of Akarua wine. This image reflects the beauty that is possible in even the harshest of climates. Not unlike the hard-won wines this land produces. 

Branching out into sparkling wines

Central Otago is the southernmost grape-growing region in the world and is, of course, famous for its pinot noir. But the similarities in climate between Central Otago and the Champagne region of northeast France were observed by highly respected winemaker and wine consultant Dr Tony Jordan. In 2012, Akarua launched its first sparkling wine. These wines have since become some of New Zealand’s most highly regarded – and awarded. 

Pressing the grapes

Pinot noir and chardonnay grapes from different sites across Akarua’s Cairnmuir Road vineyard are used in the production of their sparkling wine. For example, the Akarua Vintage Brut 2010 is a blend of 54 per cent pinot noir and 46 per cent chardonnay. The vines harvested for that vintage would have been up to 15 years old.

Each unique batch of grapes is hand-picked and stored separately from the moment of harvest. They are then whole-bunch pressed to extract their juice. 

The magic begins

As soon as the grapes are pressed, the process of fermentation begins. This is the release of sugars from the body of the fruit that mix and react with the natural yeast living on the skin of the grape. 

A small amount of juice from each batch of pressed grapes is isolated and put into an oak barrel. Different qualities and characteristics develop during barrel fermentation. In the course of fermentation, sugar turns into alcohol. When the alcohol level reaches about 11 per cent, all of the natural yeast dies. Grapes for méthode traditionnelle are purposely picked when their sugar content is lower than those used for still wines. The first reason for this is to obtain a lower alcohol level in the wine made from the initial fermentation. Secondly, it is to obtain a higher total acidity, which gives the wine its crispness and longevity.

Once this first alcoholic fermentation is complete, a second stage of malolactic fermentation begins. This is when the malic acid (think of very tart-tasting apples) is converted into lactic acid (think of a much softer taste, like milk). The point at which the winemaker stops this conversion is known as the ‘sweet spot’. This delicate balance, where hints of pinot noir and chardonnay start to shine through, is down to the taste buds and experience of Keenleyside. 

Blending the finest wines

Jordan and Keenleyside work intensely over three to four days blending combinations of all the base wines, along with those from the barrels. When the team has created the perfect blend, bottling (known as tirage) begins. 

Sugar and yeast are added to each individual bottle. During a second alcoholic fermentation, the bubbles we know and love are created. Any remaining sediment, known as the yeast lees, is left in the bottle for the wine to develop even more character. 

This process takes a minimum of three years, after which the yeast lees are pushed up into the neck of the bottle and frozen with liquid nitrogen, creating a plug. The natural pressure from the bubbles under this plug forces the frozen yeast out of the bottle with an almighty pop. The bottle is then topped up with a liqueur mix of the same wine and a little sugar. Finally, in goes the cork and it’s ready to go! 

The winemaker’s tip

Keenleyside recommends enjoying the Akarua Vintage Brut 2010 lightly chilled with doughy, home-made ciabatta and the woody freshness of smoked salmon. But Akarua bubbles are crafted to be the perfect accompaniment to any apéritif, he says.