Central Otago

At forty-five degrees latitude, the locals claim Central Otago to be the world’s southernmost wine region. It’s a rugged, largely dry landscape with small vineyards dotted around four sub-regions: the Kawarau Gorge/Gibbston Valley immediately to the east of Queenstown; the Cromwell basin further to the east and trending north easterly; Clyde/Alexandria forty kilometres south east of Cromwell; and Wanaka 70-odd kilometres, as the crow flies, north north east of Queenstown.

As the flight from Christchurch slips into Queenstown, seemingly within arms length of the Horn Range and Remarkables on the left and the Criffel and Crown Ranges on the right, the Gibbston Valley vineyards, stretching along the Kawarau Gorge near A.J. Hackett’s famous bungie bridge, opposite Chard Farm’s famously perilous driveway, bring home what tough country this is.

But then pinot noir, the regional specialty, does its best in tough, marginal country. The variety’s home, France’s Burgundy region, lies even further north than Central Otago does south.

Central Otago’s winemaking journey began in 1864, a by-product of a gold rush. Frenchman John Desire Feraud planted grapes then made wine in the region for about twenty years. The industry faded with his departure before reviving a century later, the first modern commercial wines being made around 1987.

Pinot noir quickly became Central Otago’s major grape variety. By the late nineties pinotphiles from around the world saw flashes of brilliance in its wines, making leading producers, like Felton Road, if not household names, at least names to be reckoned with in regards to this one magic, elusive variety.

While Central Otago’s grape output is small in relation to New Zealand’s total wine industry its pinot noir production is significant and growing. Its strength (and its vulnerability) is its need (and ability, so far) to fetch a premium price. Its future seems utterly reliant on the world developing a taste for very good, but expensive pinot noir or, at least, in shifting significant numbers of consumers away from France’s Burgundy. But if enthusiasm and quality have anything to do with success, then Central Otago has a bright future.

In 2002 the region accounted for 3.9 per cent of New Zealand’s area under vine but for just 1.3 per cent of tonnes harvested. Pinot noir production, though, represented 7.3 per cent of the Kiwi total. By 2006 Otago held six per cent of the country’s plantings, crushed about one fortieth of its grapes and by my estimate about a sixth of its pinot.

Central Otago harvested about 1,500 tonnes of wine grapes in each of 2001 and 2002, around 2,300 tonnes in 2003. This had grown to 4,600 in 2006 (equivalent to about 345 thousand dozen bottles) the latest figures available in the ‘2007 Australian and New Zealand Wine Industry Directory’.

While the local stats that I’ve seen don’t reveal tonnages by variety, the area under vine of each variety in 2002 as 351 hectares of pinot noir, 61 of chardonnay, 50 of pinot gris, 32 of riesling and 17 of sauvignon blanc. At the time these totals were expected to grow to 686, 66, 72, 47 and 21 by 2005.

The white pinot gris’ third ranking, and growing, simply confirms the perception – and performance – of the pinot family’s suitability to the climate.

Trying and buying the best Central Otago wines in Australia is difficult but not impossible. The most desirable, like Felton Road, are rationed and usually sell out very quickly. But in recent years we’ve seen wonderful wines like Mt Difficulty (Felton Road’s next door neighbour) and Carrick, only a kilometre or two down the road, appearing in our wine stores.

But because production is small these tend to be a moving feast – so best to keep an eye on winery websites, put your name on mailing lists and check the wine shelves in fine wine outlets.

If you’re planning a trip to Queenstown for skiing or other adventures, it’s an easy and pleasant driver to the wineries. The nearest are just twenty-five k’s out of town, the furthest about 120. However, Eichardt’s and Bar Bardeaux in Queenstown both offer a wide range of local wines by the glass. And ‘The Bunker’, an excellent but completely unsignposted restaurant has as an extensive local wine list.

And at 40 Shotover street, Johan Small-Smith operates a terrific little bottle shop, Wine Deli. Johan carries as many of the local wines as he can lay hands on, and a good deal more from around the world. And with a largely international clientele Wine Deli offers a global delivery service – see www.winedeli.com for details.

But if Queenstown and Central Otago seem out of reach, don’t worry, we’ll be lining up a range of wines for this column and later in the year to see where the value lies.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2008