Introduction to Central Otago

Central Otago Feature Week

Central Otago is New Zealand’s most glamorous wine region. It’s the playground of the rich and famous who flock there to enjoy spectacular scenery, winter skiing and delicious pinot noir. Some of them even choose to become wine producers.

While grape-growing in the rest of the country mostly hugs the drier eastern coast and favours free-draining, rocky, dried-up river beds, Central Otago couldn’t be more different with temperature extremes served up by a continental climate. It can even boast its status of being the world’s most southerly wine region.

The region makes a diverse range of wine styles thanks to widespread subregions each operating in very different climate, soil and aspect.

Want to know what all the fuss is about? Visit Mt Difficulty’s Bannockburn winery and head for their Winery Restaurant. Order a glass of chilled Mt Difficulty Bannockburn Target Riesling and sip the wine as you gaze across vineyards to the distant mountains. Still not convinced? Try a glass of 2017 Mt Difficulty Ghost Town Bendigo Pinot Noir. A few sips later you might just be designing a winery on the back of a paper napkin. Many Central Otago wineries have been conceived in a similar manner.

In terms of vineyard area, Central Otago ranks third with 2,024 hectares (ha), a long way behind Hawke’s Bay (4,643 ha) and Marlborough (28,360 ha). The region makes a diverse range of wine styles thanks to widespread subregions each operating in very different climate, soil and aspect. At the cooler end of the scale is Gibbston, Wānaka and Alexandra, with Bendigo one of the warmest sites (depending on altitude and aspect) and Bannockburn and the Cromwell Basin somewhere in between.

In Central Otago, 80% of the vineyard area is devoted to pinot noir, which continues to enjoy steady growth (4.4% in the four years to 2020). Pinot gris is second with a little over 8% of the total vineyard area and a growth rate of around 1% followed by chardonnay with a 4% share and an encouraging growth rate of 18%. Riesling, sauvignon blanc and gewürztraminer follow in that order.

Central Otago pinot noir has earned considerable respect globally, although it has a reputation for being very accessible leading some critics to question its ability to improve with bottle age. I have some sympathy for that view. In vertical tastings of Central Otago pinot noir going back 10 or 20 years, the wines often don’t show any sign of fading but neither do they appear to make great gains in terms of quality.

Many producers are experimenting with higher percentages of whole bunches in the fermentation to add extra structure and complexity. Increasing vine age can also contribute to intensity and longevity while warmer growing conditions may also influence wine style.

Central Otago pinot noir is little more than 20 years of age. It has come a long way in a short time but the future may be even more exciting.

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