At latitude 45 degrees south, Central Otago is the southernmost commercial wine region in the world. Its vineyards huddle beneath the jagged schist mountains of the Southern Alps, well protected from coastal winds. At around 300 metres above sea level – with many vineyards clinging to the sides of steep river gorges – it’s also New Zealand’s highest winegrowing area.
Hot, dry summers and crisp snowy winters provide a climate similar to other great wine regions around the world including Burgundy, Alsace and the Willamette Valley in Oregon. Relatively low annual rainfall reduces the need for spraying and there is a low incidence of fungal disease.
The hot, dry summer days teamed with cool temperatures at night allow the grapes to ripen slowly and give the wines an intense, pure flavour, while the soil structure, which differs considerably from other grape-growing regions in NZ, is heavy with mineral deposits of mica and schist in a silt loam and provides excellent drainage. All in all, despite the occasional frost, perfect conditions are provided for the creation of high quality Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris and Riesling.
Central Otago’s first wines were produced in the 19th century when miners were lured here by the gleam of gold. The first Mayor of Clyde, Jean Desire Feraud, won awards for his wines in Australia in the 1880s, and the gold miners themselves planted many grapevines. However, despite the region being acknowledged as having suitable wine growing potential, the early wine industry did not survive. It wasn’t until the late 1970s and early 1980s that there was a revival in grapes with the planting of the Rippon Vineyard in Wanaka, Gibbston Valley Wines in Queenstown and Black Ridge in Alexandra.
For the visitor today, Central Otago’s golden tussock hills, dramatic river gorges, wide plains, turquoise lakes, rocky schist tors, and jagged mountain scenery make it a most memorable wine trail destination.
There are four sub-regions within Central Otago to visit: Gibbston Valley, Cromwell/Bannockburn, Wanaka and Alexandra. Wine connoisseurs can look forward to several days of touring the countryside.
The Gibbston Valley offers wines as dramatic as the landscape itself, and there’s an opportunity to sample wine in the candlelit ambience of a deep schist cave-turned-wine-cellar at Gibbston Valley Wines. This vineyard also offers gorgeous vineyard dining, and a menu that reflects the lifestyle of the region through dishes such as vine-smoked venison, saddle of rabbit and poached rump of lamb. Tours are held on the hour and visitors are shown through the vineyard and winery, finishing with a wine tasting in NZ’s largest underground wine cave. Although the vineyard’s focus is on Pinot Noir (its 2000 Reserve Pinot Noir won the 2001 International Wine Challenge in London), newer projects such as the on-site cheesery have also proved popular and complement wine-tasting trays.
The Cromwell/Bannockburn wine trail passes through stunning mountain scenery with vineyards planted on the banks of the dramatic Kawarau River Gorge and sparkling turquoise waters of Lake Dunstan. Vineyards such as Mt Difficulty (one of the region’s high profile labels) and Carrick Vineyard, which offers views splendid views of the rugged mountains of the Carrick Range, provide the opportunity to dine, while others such as Olssens encourage visitors to picnic amongst their vines.
The Wanaka wine trail provides a boutique winery experience at vineyards including Rippon Vineyard on the edge of picturesque Lake Wanaka, as well known for its stunning location and vineyard scenery as it is for its Pinot Noir, the region’s most commonly grown varietal. This intrepid vineyard produced the region’s first sparkling wine and first botrytised Riesling and also produces Sauvignon Blanc, Gewürztraminer, Osteiner, Gamay Rose, Hotere White and a Merlot Syrah blend. The Clyde/Alexander wine trail features some ten wineries, plus a fascinating look into the region’s gold mining heritage. The dry, rocky soil that used to be mined for precious metal now yields a liquid gold harvest at vineyards such as Black Ridge, established by Sue Edwards and Verdun Burgess in 1981 and the most southern vineyard and winery in the world. Black Ridge offers a blended wine, Earnscleugh Rise, which makes popular summer time drinking, but the extreme temperatures experienced in Alexandra provide an ideal climate for growing and ripening classic wine varietals including Gewürztraminer, Riesling, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon.