Book extract: The Vineyards of Central Otago

The Vineyards of Central Otago tells the enchanting tale of the people who risked it all to capture the pinot dream

Central Otago has enjoyed three gold rushes: in the nineteenth century, gold was discovered in its wild rivers; in the twentieth century, its spectacular scenery was discovered by the tourism industry; and in the twenty-first century, Central Otago Pinot Noir was discovered by the world.

Muscat harvest, Brennan Wines

The land

Covering 10,000 square kilometres, Central Otago is the southernmost wine region in the world and the highest and most inland region in New Zealand. Lying at latitude 45 degrees south, most of its vineyards are between 200 and 400 metres above sea level.

As a winegrowing region, Central Otago naturally divides into six sub-regions: Gibbston Valley, Alexandra and Wanaka; and, in the Cromwell Basin, Bannockburn, Lowburn–Pisa and Bendigo.

While all differ in terms of their climate and rainfall, their geography and soil types, the Cromwell Basin sub-regions are the most consistently warm and account now for over 75 per cent of vineyards in Central Otago.

Bannockburn, Mt Difficulty

Central Otago is a region of rugged landscapes, stark beauty and climatic extremes. The winters bring snow and freezing temperatures, while the summers are hot and dry, regularly reaching 30 degrees Celsius.

The diurnal shifts in temperature are also marked, especially during the growing season, with often as much as a 20-degree difference between day and night. This semi-continental climate, combined with the region’s schist-based soils, has proved to be ideal for growing Pinot Noir. Cool-climate white wines, such as Pinot Gris, Riesling and Chardonnay, like it here too.

Formed by glaciers over millions of years, the free-draining soils are mostly low in organic matter, and with a low annual rainfall of between 350 and 660 millimetres the grape vines are forced to struggle—but out of this struggle comes the glory of high-quality grapes and wines of exceptional purity, intensity and vibrancy.

The wines

Wine writers tasting at Grasshopper Rock

Pinot Noir accounts for 78 per cent of production in Central Otago and is the wine that has earned the region its global reputation for excellence. In the early days, when the pioneers had planted up to 30 different varieties to see what would do well, Pinot Noir had soon put its hand up and said, ‘I like it here.’

It was not too long before Central Otago’s Pinots started to win gold medals, and the region was on its way to becoming a Pinot-centric region.

Notoriously fickle and difficult to grow, Pinot Noir does not thrive everywhere. It needs a relatively cool climate to avoid ripening too quickly, before it has had time to develop flavour.

Growing conditions in Central Otago can be challenging and yields low, and if anything can go wrong, it will. But the fruit quality and flavour intensity in Central Otago grapes is exceptionally high.

Crates of Maude Wines pinot grapes

The secret seems to lie in a combination of factors: intense summer heat, long warm autumns with cool nights, low rainfall, and free-draining soils which are low in organic matter but rich in minerals, including calcium.

Added to these environmental factors has been a bunch of talented and committed viticulturists and winemakers, well supported by investors with deep pockets, who together have believed in Central Otago’s potential to produce some of the best wines in the world.

Wine tourism

Wine Cave, Gibbston Valley

Well over two million international visitors a year come to Queenstown, and although they do not all want to do a wine tour, the tourism and wine industries have always made happy bedfellows.

What better way to spend a day off from skiing or mountain-biking than by visiting a few local wineries to sample their best wine and food?

In fact, why not combine the two—in the Gibbston Valley, cycling through the vineyards is always an option. But if that seems too active, tourists can opt for a helicopter wine tour and get flown from one vineyard to the next.

In reality, most overseas visitors to Central Otago opt for a half-day guided wine tour in a vehicle. Such a tour is likely to include wine-tasting at up to four wineries and a vineyard lunch.

Whatever the season, Central Otago never disappoints, and with plenty of vineyards and winery restaurants to choose from, local and overseas visitors alike are spoilt for choice in what, according to Decanter magazine, ‘may just be the most visually spectacular wine region in the world’.

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