Gibbston Valley is one of Central Otago’s founding wineries and is acknowledged globally as a top producer of Pinot Noir. It has the largest wine cave and busiest cellar door in the country, and its chief winemaker is Hastings Boys’ High School old boy Christopher Keys.
Christopher has been at Gibbston Valley since 2006, having moved to the south from Hawke’s Bay where he made wine at Brookfields Vineyards and Sileni Estates.
Christopher’s love of the grape was born in the Dunedin wine shop where he worked while studying English and Russian at Otago University. In 1997, he completed a postgraduate diploma in Oenology at Lincoln and returned home to Hawke’s Bay to work at Brookfields Vineyards under the tutelage of Peter Robertson.
“I moved back to Hawke’s Bay in 1998, the vintage of the century. It was a great vintage to cut my teeth on and an honour to work for Peter. Brookfields is a small, quality- focused winery and I worked in all aspects of the business – the cellar door, vineyard, winery, laboratory and the bottling line. It was a comprehensive wine education. Brookfieldshasagreatwinetastingtradition on Thursdays where all come to share wines – all egos are smashed – that taught me a lot about wine and life.”
In 2002, Christopher moved to Sileni Estates in an assistant winemaker role, to have a “totally different Hawke’s Bay wine experience” and to make some of his beloved Pinot Noir.
“Pinot Noir is what love is. It’s complex and dimensional, such a compelling variety and so reflective of where it’s grown. And like love, it teaches you, lifts you but can also
seriously slam you. It can be the best and the worst of winemaking and life. Sileni had some interesting vineyard sites and it was a great opportunity for me to be amongst talent like winemakers Grant Edmonds and Nigel Davies and to be able to make some good Pinot.”
Four years later, Christopher headed south to take up the chief winemaker role at Gibbston Valley. Being in Central Otago, the mecca for New Zealand Pinot Noir, has given him a chance to reflect on the industry and his time in Hawke’s Bay.
“Back in the late 1990s, Te Awa and Trinity Hill were the new players – it was a really vibrant time and there were many start-up wine companies. The region has made huge strides and is producing some world-class wines but to me it has always been a bit disparate. It’s both a strength and a weakness that Hawke’s Bay has so many wine varieties, but each winery was trying to establish themselves and competing with each other.
“What I have really enjoyed in Central Otago is the collaboration. We are promoting the Central Otago brand as well as Gibbston Valley in everything we do. Pinot Noir is the vehicle to do this.”
Christopher says that Central Otago is proof that a collaborative marketing effort and limiting yourselves to playing one game – in this case, high-quality Pinot Noir – is the model for success in the wine business.
“I find it interesting how we all sit in the wine world. The fact that the world knows Central Otago Pinot Noir comes from an understanding of our land combined with cohesive, inventive promotion of our area and wines. I feel that Hawke’s Bay is still so diverse in its wines and message that some of that collective gain is lost at the expense of individual winery success. Syrah is an exceptional variety and, of course, Chardonnay. And some of Hawke’s Bay produces some incredible Bordeaux styles. None of that leads to one variety being linked to the area, which is, in the complex wine world, sometimes an advantage.”
Every two years, the Keys family meets in Hawke’s Bay and wine tasting is on the itinerary. While it might seem like a busman’s holiday to some, Christopher says they love trekking around wineries but finding most closed on one of the most lucrative days of the year perplexed him.
“I couldn’t believe that on Boxing Day only two winery cellar doors we came across were open in Hawke’s Bay – Elephant Hill and Craggy Range. On one of the busiest days of the year, Hawke’s Bay was closed.”
Central Otago is reliant on international and domestic visitors equally and Gibbston Valley sells 85 percent of its wine through the cellar door and local sales.
“Getting the experience right for a diverse visitor group is sometimes challenging, but we offer a range of tastings to suit and also provide Mandarin translators. As a winemaker, I’m sometimes involved and I can be useful for certain types of customers.
“I love telling the story of Central Otago and of our wine.”