The Central Otago wine region is located on the southern 45th parallel in the South Island of New Zealand - making it the world’s southernmost winemaking area. It is also the country’s highest wine region with vineyards planted between 200 - 400 metres above sea level, with the vines planted amongst some of the world’s most spectacular alpine scenery, rising to over 3700m.
Grape vines were first planted in 1864 by Frenchman Jean Feraud, however, stone-fruit (cherries and apricot) orchards prevailed until renewed interest in the 1950s but it was the significant commitment by 1970s pioneers - which set the scene for the late 80’s early 90’s for the founding of the famed wineries and wines that we know today.
Central Otago has the only continental climate zone in the country, with the large daily and seasonal temperature extremes typical of such geography. Summer is hot and relatively dry, and often accompanied by Nor-west winds; autumn is short, cool and sunny; and winter is cold, with substantial snow-fall. Heavy frosts are common throughout winter and indeed, frost can occur at any time between March and November, even later on occasion.
The climatic contrast between Central Otago and the more humid, warmer wine regions of the North Island can be illustrated by the difference in the timing of the grape harvest. In the more northerly vineyards, picking can take place in late February or early March, while in Central Otago the harvest begins in mid to late April - a difference of some six to seven weeks. The region has high sunshine and short, hot summers provide an eloquent, if brutal, landscape for grape vines: site selection is everything; dry autumns and overall low humidity are significant assets, helping to achieve both purity and complexity.
The structure of the soil also differs considerably from other wine growing regions, with heavy deposits of rough-edged mica and other metamorphic schist’s in silt loams. This soil drains easily, and given that most vineyards are positioned on hillside slopes, drip irrigation is generally essential.
Central Otago is comprised of four distinctive sub-regions separated by mountains and deep gorges. The Cromwell basin accounts for approximately 70% of the region’s vineyards and includes Bannockburn in the south, Lowburn, Wanaka Road and Bendigo to the north. Approximately 20% of the vines are planted around Gibbston where most are sited on steep north-facing fans and terraces above the dramatic Kawarau Gorge. In the southwest of the region is Clyde and Alexandra, with vines located among rugged schist outcrops in a dry basin, with the remainder of the vines located around Wanaka.
As of 2013 Central Otago had some 1909 hectares of vines planted in the region: Pinot Noir 1,356ha, Aromatics 311ha, Chardonnay 45ha, Sauvignon Blanc 43ha, other vineyards produce, Pinot Gris, Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Rosé and Methods style wines. In 2013 Central Otago had 124 registered wineries (out of a national total of 698) and in the same year, accounted for 2.4% of the New Zealand wine production in tonnes.
Although young in vine age and small in area, Central Otago is a rapidly developing wine growing region, with an international reputation for crafting exciting Pinot Noir. Production of sparkling wine, traditionally made from Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes, is small to date, but the high quality achieved has seen the wines well received internationally. The extreme climate has rewarded careful site selection with wines of great intensity and finesse and there is increasing focus on sub-regional expressions to come - so keep a close eye on this region.