Maturing vineyards, a new walking tour and cycle trails around the wineries and cellar doors, restaurants and cafes make the Central Otago region irresistible for New World wine lovers.
A short drive from Queenstown, one of New Zealand’s better known holiday destinations, the Central Otago wine region is maturing in fine style. Its wines are trophy winners, the number of tasting rooms is on the up, and there has never been more to do around the vines.
Nestled up against the Southern Alps, Central Otago is the world’s highest and southernmost wine region. Hot days, cold nights and low rainfall create conditions much like Burgundy, famous for the pinot noir that New Zealand winemakers are now taking to the next level.
The area’s winegrowing potential was originally sniffed out by Frenchman John Desire Feraud, back in the 1860’s goldrush. But it took until the 1980s for the industry to finally take flight, when self-confessed dreamer Alan Brady took a punt on the notoriously fickle pinot noir grape.
Skeptics told Brady his Gibbston Valley terraces would be ‘too cold, too high and too far south,’ but he planted his vines regardless. By the early ‘90s his pinot noir was winning medals; by 2001 it was judged the world’s best.
Since then, the region’s awards and accolades have kept on coming, as have new vineyards which now number around 230. Pinot noir accounts for around 75 percent of plantings, followed by finely textured chardonnay, sauvignon blanc and luscious aromatics like riesling and pinot gris.
What makes Central Otago even more remarkable is that many of its wineries are family-owned and full of colourful characters, following philosophies of low cropping and handcrafting, while pushing the geographical boundaries of grape growing right to the edge.
But this is a wine region that takes everything to extremes, not least of all in the epic mountain landscapes that make ‘Central’ one of the world’s most scenic places for a wine trail.
From Queenstown, the classic tour starts 20 minutes’ drive away where Alan Brady’s original Gibbston Valley winery can be found alongside other greats such as Peregrine and Valli.
The shimmering schist and tumbling whitewater of the Kawarau Gorge forms a dramatic gateway to the Cromwell Basin where other sub-regions lie – Bannockburn, Lowburn, Pisa, Bendigo and Wanaka. To the south are two more pockets, Alexandra and Clyde.
Their variation in aspect, soil and microclimate results in distinct and intense expressions of terroir. A Bannockburn pinot noir tastes quite different from that of Gibbston, whether it expresses sweet spice, ripe cherries or plum. To get the full picture, one must try as many as humanly possible, of course.
The wine tourist is spoilt for choice with more than 80 cellar doors open to visitors. A relaxed tour – looping through Wanaka and over the breathtaking Crown Range Road – will take at least two days, but much longer if you’re inclined to long lunches in fabulous vineyard restaurants. Sound like you? Put Amisfield, Mt Difficulty and Carrick on your itinerary.
Guided tours are a great way to go, as are wine trails by bike through Gibbston Valley where a bungy jump can be knocked off the bucket list at the world’s first jump site. Any excuse for a glass of bubbles!
Self-drive visitors will have no trouble meandering around thanks to the excellent Central Otago Wine Trail map, along with a steady flow of tips from helpful tasting room staff and others in the know.
A new addition to the scene is the 4 Barrels walking trail that starts at Misha’s Vineyard Tasting Room in Cromwell and takes in another three wineries on a vista-filled 3–4 hour, 8km loop.
Not far away, the historic Bannockburn Sluicings walkway illuminates the area’s gold mining history and offers panoramic views over the vine-lined Cromwell Basin. It’s the perfect prelude to a tour around this sub-region’s tasting rooms or a visit to the characterful Bannockburn Hotel. Their wine list will knock your socks off.
Central Otago’s gold rushes left a collection of charming heritage buildings that cluster together in towns like Arrowtown, Cromwell and Clyde. Many now serve as atmospheric lodgings adding even more local flavour into the mix.
What’s more, Central Otago promises truly terrific wine touring all year-round. From the bud-burst of spring to fruitful summers, into golden autumns and crisp winters – and from a pinot rosé or bubbles to a late harvest riesling or even a mug of mulled wine.