Introduction to the Waitaki Valley

Waitaki Valley Feature Week

New Zealand’s spectacularly beautiful Waitaki Valley is a long, braided river system that runs from the Southern Alps to the sea at Oamaru.

Although the Waitaki Valley has a distinctly cool climate, its warm summers and long, dry autumns extend the growing season.

This youthful wine region was first planted with grapevines in 2001 when adventurous wine producers were attracted to its complex limestone/greywacke/schist soils and its hot, dry summers, cold winters and long, dry autumns. I recall making my first visit to the region when I joined a promotional tour with other members of the wine industry. There was an air of excitement as we inspected newly planted vines in limestone-rich soils. One of our hosts predicted that when the recent purchase of 2,000 hectares of prime vineyard land was fully planted it would make the Waitaki Valley the third or fourth largest grapegrowing area in New Zealand. Today the Waitaki Valley is New Zealand’s 9th largest wine region.

Although the Waitaki Valley has a distinctly cool climate, its warm summers and long, dry autumns extend the growing season. Frost at either end of the growing season is an ever-present risk.

Pinot noir is most planted grape variety with 40% of the region’s vineyard area. This variety produces taut, high-energy wines with herb, floral and mineral flavours.

Pinot gris, another potential star, caused a sensation when Craggy Range produced an experimental wine which was the best example I had tasted in New Zealand up to that time. A local wine producer, Ostler, demonstrated that it could not only make classy pinot gris, but that it could do it consistently.

Riesling was another variety that seemed well-suited to Waitaki Valley’s climate and soils, even if wine sales were sluggish.

Chardonnay was inconsistent but Forrest Estate made a number of astoundingly good examples that would put Premier Cru Chablis to shame.

The Waitaki Valley is fuelled by potential.

Local Māori call the river Te Waitaki – the tears of their ancestor Aoraki. The region has been home to a number of winemakers who failed to make a go of it. Perhaps it could also refer to “the tears of the frustrated winemaker”?


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