CENTRAL OTAGO WINE
“The vineyards of Central Otago are the highest and the furthest from the sea in New Zealand and the southernmost in the world.” It’s a claim we made with pride when
a few of us planted grapevines here in the early 1980s. And it still holds good. The difference is that back then the “southernmost” tag highlighted our isolation from the rest of the wine world. Now, such as been the success of Central Otago Pinot Noir, the
world comes to us.
As things have turned out, that perceived isolation has been one of our great strengths. It forced us to learn to work together, sharing ideas, equipment and knowledge as we began to unlock the secret of growing grapes in this stunningly beautiful landscape. We were dreamers, motivated and excited by possibilities, we weren’t frightened of the unknown…. and everybody thought we were mad.
Which meant that before we ever produced a bottle of wine our reputation was spreading! Fortunately one of the first varieties we planted was as stubborn and individualistic as we were. Pinot Noir loved it here. It grew easily and ripened consistently in our conditions. And as everybody knows, Pinot is very picky about where it grows. So by good fortune rather than any great foresight or wisdom on our part, we had stumbled on what is now recognised as one of the great places in the world to grow this variety.
Central Otago is defined by it’s climate, blue skies, harsh frosts, hot summer sun, spectacular spring blossom and vivid autumn colours. By it’s geology - high snowy mountains, shining lakes, deep mysterious river gorges that have yielded fortunes in gold, hauntingly empty table lands studded with dramatic schist rock sculptures and sleepy villages clinging to the memory of their goldmining pasts.
It’s about the summer smells of wild thyme and roses and winters with roaring log fires, skiing and skating on natural ice. And for me Central is also about its people, rugged as the landscape and independent with an understated strength of character, and a twinkle in their eyes. Like the goldminers who came here 150 years ago, they’re still responding to the challenge of this raw land.
As winemakers, we’re the newcomers. We’re here because Central Otago appeals to our senses. And when you add Pinot Noir to that mix you have a potent recipe that leads quickly to obsession - and some would say a total loss of all reason and sanity.
As well as Pinot Noir you’ll also find some good Pinot Gris here and small quantities of good Chardonnay, Gewursztraminer, Pinot Blanc and Sauvignon Blanc. The pioneer spirit hasn’t died either and a few are experimenting with varieties from either end of Europe including Gruner Veltliner and Temparnillo, with interesting results. But 70% of everything we produce is Pinot; it’s what gets us out of bed in the morning and wakes us in the middle of the night thinking about what we could have done better in the vineyard or the winery.
When the first commercial wines of this era were released in 1987 there were only four tiny producers and less than 10 hectares of vines. Today there are over 100 companies producing Central Otago wine and the planted area is approaching 2000 hectares. We are New Zealand’s third largest winegrowing region and our wines are exported to over 40 countries around the world.
Running parallel to the development of winegrowing here has been the growth of tourism. Queenstown, which is within an hour’s drive of all of the major vineyards, is New Zealand’s most important tourism centre. With an international airport and regular flights to major Australian cities, the resort recorded a record 2.75 million guest nights last year, 1.8 million of them international visitors.
As the wine and visitor industries have grown, so has wine tourism. The spectacular landscape and
relatively easy access to wineries has seen the development of many fine cellar door facilities and restaurants in the Gibbston, Bannockburn, Cromwell and Wanaka sub-regions. A number of wine tour operations are based in Queenstown and can introduce visitors to our stories and some of the faces and personalities behind the wines. And I hope, give then a glimpse of the passion we have for this region and for Pinot Noir.
So where to for Central Otago winegrowing in the future? First and foremost we must keep doing what we are doing but doing it better, building year by year on our experience of our conditions and terroir. We have achieved an international reputation not because of the cleverness of our marketing but because of the quality of our wines. Pinot Noir consumers are a discerning bunch and can be as passionate and demanding as those of who grow and make the wine.
Vine age is increasingly becoming a factor in wine quality. Some of the oldest Pinot Noir vines are those I planted in 1982-84 and they are still producing a single vineyard wine. A high percentage of the regional vineyard is reaching the magic 1520 years and the future will show wines that are more about the soil, minerality and delicacy than fruit and youthful eagerness.
The sub regions are coming into their own and wines are beginning
to be listed in restaurants as ‘Bannockburn,’ ‘Gibbston,’ ‘Wanaka,’ etc. And it won’t stop there. Some of us believe the purest expression of Pinot Noir is captured in wines that convey the essence of a specific site and season. The Burgundians know that. So it may not be long before comsumers are choosing their Central Otago wines based on their knowledge and enjoyment of the uniqueness of aromas, flavours and textural characters in wines from specific small parcels of land.
It’s happening now. Just look at the lengthening list of single vineyard wines already being produced.
We’ve come a long way but we’re not there yet and I hope we’re not complacent. We’ve learned a lot about our soils, our climate … our terroir. But 30 years is a mere heartbeat in the history of grapegrowing and winemaking and we know we’ll go on learning for generations to come.