David Whitley (guest writer) hits Central Otago on New Zealand’s South Island and discovers that a dedication to quality is helping the world’s most southerly wine region gain global recognition.
At a latitude of 45 degrees south, you may be forgiven for thinking that all Queenstown is fit for growing is icicles. But the Central Otago region that surrounds the South Island’s resort town is not-so-quietly gaining a reputation as one of the world’s best niche wine regions. The odd individual winery in obscure parts of Chile or Argentina may like to argue the toss, but by all realistic measures, Central Otago is the world’s most southerly wine region. The climate means that if you’re looking for a big, beefy shiraz, you can go to a bottle shop and buy one from somewhere else. That sort of grape just isn’t going to survive in these conditions.
But some grapes can – and combined with expert winemakers and up-to-date technology – they are being turned into some world class wines. The key player here is pinot noir, which accounts for nearly 80% of production. The climate and soils suit it perfectly and world wine experts acknowledge the Central Otago pinots as being amongst the best on the planet.
Since 1999, Philip Green has run Appellation Central, a wine tour company which allows visitors to taste their way around the region’s top wineries. He knows his stuff and has seen increasing numbers of vineyards taking over the hillsides.
“The industry here continues to grow but I expect now having grown tenfold in ten years we may see a pause in the expansion,” says Philip. “There are over 100 vineyards producing their own wines now and over 5000 hectares are under production compared with 50 hectares in 1995.”
He’s also seeing expansion into other grape varieties. “Central Otago specializes in cool climate varieties with Pinot Noir as the only established red variety – but Riesling, Pinot Gris and Chardonnay are increasingly major white varieties. There are very small quantities of some excellent Gewurztraminers as well as some good quality Sauvignon Blancs.”
“Riesling is the white wine that is showing enormous potential in the region. Styles are ranging from crisp, citrusy and honeyed dry wines through to luscious medium and sweeter styles with apricot, nectarine and peach characters – but still with the elegance and acidity found in the classic Mosel wines.”
A classic example of an operation expanding beyond the pinot noir is the scenic Carrick winery. Carrick’s Steve Green says that his production is still 65% pinot noir, and that this was the grape he originally came to the area to plant. “Central Otago is ideal for Pinot Noir,” he explains. “It has a continental climate resulting in dry, settled autumns – the time when a thin skinned variety like Pinot is at its most vulnerable to disease. Crop yields are naturally low as a result of the climate and the relatively poor soils, meaning that we get great flavour concentration and good colour.”
On the branching out, Steve admits it was a gamble: “We were not sure which whites would be successful – we planted 4 varieties – Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris, Chardonnay and Riesling. We have had success with all four, but I guess that it is Riesling that is the most exciting.”
Another key factor in the region’s growth is the proximity to Queenstown – and, more importantly, the tourists that stay there. Heading out wine tasting provides a nice complement to the adrenalin activities the town specialises in, and it’s something that Steve Green has embraced.
“Greg Hay from the Peregrine winery described the difference between the vineyards of Central Otago and other regions by saying that every vineyard was punctuated by an amazing landscape – a river, lake, mountain or gorge,” he says. He’s right too – driving through the Gibbston Valley offers a dramatic, surprisingly stark landscape. It is virtually a desert – the hillsides are golden rather than green, and it’s clear that irrigation is needed to keep the vines alive.
People wanting to see the scenery and taste the wines are likely to need somewhere to eat, something not lost on Steve. “There is a real interest in visitors and for us many of our guests are from overseas,” he says.
“Our proximity to Queenstown and its focus on tourism extends to the cellar door. At Carrick, we try to use the food that we produce – locally sourced regional cuisine to complement the largely food-focused wines.” It works too – we sit down for a leisurely lunch over a platter of meats, olives, dried fruits and cheeses looking out over lake and mountains. It is, I can confirm, an extremely enjoyable way to let life pass you by.
Carrick is one of the bigger operations in the Central Otago region, but there are plenty of others that work on a smaller scale.
Bannockbrae – run by Crawford Brown with a little help from his absurdly affectionate Labrador, Rocky – is a family affair. A former brewer, Crawford talks with the smile and demeanour of someone who is seriously enjoying himself.
“I was no longer brewing – I was a very highly paid office boy doing administration stuff. It was time to get out,” he explains.
“At that time Central Otago was developing a reputation for producing superb Pinot noir, and land was being eagerly sold by sheep farmers to those who were silly enough to want to grow grapes and produce wine. That was us, along with many others. We bought our nine hectares in 1997, and planted in 1998-99. The rest is history.”
His Barrel Selection pinot noir is seriously good, and you can tell that a lot of personal pride goes into it. But there’s no magic formula, he insists. “If you want a great pinot, hire the laziest winemaker you can find – you should never try and do too much with pinot grapes.”
“And this,” he says, pouring another sample, “is pretty much straight out of the barrel.”
According to Crawford, the dry climate makes Central Otago practically disease-free. “We don’t have to use the horrible sprays that so many other districts need to use,” he says.
But winemaking here isn’t without its difficulties. “One major natural enemy is spring and autumn frost, and these must be fought otherwise no wine is produced. We use wind machines to do that; some others use water sprays. The other natural enemy we face is bird damage once the fruit is ripe and full of sugar. Currently the best defence is netting – a big and expensive job.”
So how does he makes his wines profitable, then? “With difficulty,” comes the honest response. “Basically, we concentrate on quality rather than quantity, and quality becomes our major point of difference. This pays off, as there are people who seek actual quality. Of course they are a minority of all wine buyers, but there are sufficient to easily match our relatively small production.”
It’s not a region you come to for cheap plonk. This is partly because pinot noirs always tend to be more expensive, but it’s still a relatively small region and the economies of scale aren’t there. “All wineries here are either small or tiny on a world scale,” says Crawford. “Often a visitor gets to meet either the actual owner/grower or someone who has real knowledge of their business and the area.
“But the key thing is that it is very difficult to find poor, or even average wine in Central Otago. As a general rule of thumb, the best bottles to buy are full ones!”
But which full ones to buy? Well Wine Tastes in central Queenstown is a good place to find out. It’s an odd take on a bar, with plenty of comfy seating to park yourself in and cheese boards brought out on request for those deciding to go for the long haul approach.
The key oddity is that you don’t order wines by the glass from the barman – you prepay for an electronic card, which you then use to get self-serve samples or slightly larger measures from the 80-plus bottles dotted around the room. It claims to be the first place in the southern hemisphere to use the Italian-designed ‘enomatic wine serving system’. The pours are automated, and the cost (which you can see on a screen in front of you) is deducted from the card. The idea is to experiment a bit, but the staff will happily point you in the right direction if you’re looking for particular flavours or styles.
Wines from across New Zealand are featured, but obviously the Central Otago pinots feature heavily. And you know what? The hype about the quality is entirely justified.
Central Otago wine sampling
Appellation Central (+64 3 442 0246) offers a five hour boutique wine tour that visits at least four wineries en route.
Carrick – 247 Cairnmuir Road, Bannockburn; +64 3 445 3480.
Bannock Brae – 212 Cairnmuir Road, Bannockburn; +64 27 221 0695.
Wine Tastes – 14 Beach Street, Queenstown; +64 3 409 2226.
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