Central Otago, New Zealand, Part 2

So last week I started part 1 on the history and terrior of Central Otago, realising quickly that there is simply too much to cover in one week, so today I’ll be finishing off by talking about the variety that put this region on the map, as well as a quick summary of what makes wines from this area unique, and finally a peek into what the future of Central Otago may look like!

As I mentioned last week, the first few wineries that established vines in Central Otago were considered mad, however after a few years of tough work, realised they were onto something, especially when it came to that most fickle of grape varieties, Pinot Noir…


Just shy of 70% of the wine that comes out of Central Otago is Pinot Noir. Now if we take a step back for a second, that’s a lot- there really aren’t too many places on earth that can say that. Burgundy obviously grows a lot of Pinot, but across the globe, this fickle variety has proved a tough prospect to cultivate. Pinot is very hit and miss, and you can find examples of it in many of the wine regions of the world where a winemaker will try his hand at Pinot production, with varied (mostly bad) results. Central Otago is one of the tiny corners of the world in which the Pinot Noir vine grows comfortably, and if you read last week’s piece, there are many factors that have had to come together to make this possible. In short, Pinot Noir is incredibly sensitive to terrior, and Otago has the exact kind of terrior Pinot loves.

But what makes Pinot Noir from this region unique to Pinot from anywhere else? Well, it has to do with milk. No, really- stay with me now! As you may probably already be aware, the Kiwis are big on cattle farming; there are currently 30 million sheep and 10.5 million cows residing in New Zealand- of those 10.5, almost 7 million are dairy cattle. Milk, like wine, is very sensitive to bacterial spoilage, and must be handled with only the cleanest equipment. Much of this mindset has crept into the winemaking of Otago producers. Stainless steel is widely used here and any ageing in oak is rarely for long periods like that in California, Washington or Oregon, giving more fruit pure wines. In addition to this idea that cleanliness is next to Godliness, Central Otago is, as alluded to last week, a very young region. The benefit of this is that modern winemaking technology has always been a part of the region. The result of these two aspects is that the wines of Central Otago are often described as ‘pristine’; their colour is never cloudy, and there is rarely any animal or barnyard characters like those found in some Burgundies.


Now we all know it takes more than good terrior and the right grape variety matched to the right site to make a region globally famous. It takes people to lead the charge, to shout of the quality of the wines from their region from the rooftops. The first established vineyards such as Gibbston Valley, Mt Difficulty and Chard Farm are well known for their high-quality wine production, and the institution of wineries such as Felton Road, Quartz Reef and Dry Gully have only furthered the case for just how good this region is for making wine. Many of these producers are pushing for an ‘Appellation-style’ classification system within Central Otago.


Already there are wines with the sub-regional names Cromwell Basin, Bendigo, Bannockburn, Gibbston, Alexandra and Wanaka on the label. Gibbston is located east of central Queenstown along Kawarau Gorge and is the highest sub-region with north-facing hillside wineries. This was where the first few wineries settled in the 1970s and 80s and makes Pinot Noir with noticeably brisk acid and firm, chalky tannins. The Cromwell Basin, Bannockbun and Bendigo together account for a majority of wine production in Central Otago, and are found on the slightly lower and flatter land just out of Queenstown. Wines here are more approachable and drink earlier. Alexandra is the most southerly sub-region, and is where the Frenchman John Feraud first planted vines successfully in 1864. Its aromatic wines are a result of its dry and extreme climate. Finally there is Wanaka, the smallest of all the sub-regions. It is seen as the frontier of winemaking in the region and is trying some very different things.

Located in close proximity, but with distinctive mountainous terrain, climate, aspect and altitude, each of these sub-regions occupies a unique niche, producing distinctive styles of wine. Long may this continue- the more the merrier!

Mark Faber
Wine Sales Manager