Discovering Central Otago

If you’ve ever flown into Queenstown you’ll know how the descent looks like a Bond movie – the plane weaving through these almost-vertical shards of mountain, the wing tips looking like they might clip the edges. Its mesmerising. The airport is on the valley floor, and when you exit at the base of said mountains, you might be forgiven for feeling very small indeed.

The scale of the mountains in Central Otago defy belief. Its like the Swiss Alps, except Otago is actually a desert – there’s limited vegetation – so the landscape looks sharp. It all looks a bit hungry actually.

‘My other car is a helicopter’ – At Mt. Difficulty -Central Otago

I visited recently with my Dad – a pinot noir lover from way back. We spent a few days driving around tasting wine and eating food. Hard times !

Which brings me to the wine. Oh, the wine! Its well documented that many of the great wines of the world are grown on hungry soils. The lack of nutrients or water requires that the vines work overtime to produce fruit – the result being a certain concentration which seems almost unnatural, as if it has been secretly cooked it down a little.

The Central Otago region comprises of four sub regions separated by big mountains and deep gorges: Gibbston Valley, Bannockburn, Cromwell Basin and the Alexandra subregion. It’s all contained within a few hundred kilometres but it can be slow going through the dramatic valleys and mountain sides; thankfully no one seems to be in a hurry. Driving through these landscapes is captivating.

Its mostly pinot noir (70% of plantings), chardonnay, riesling & pinot gris – with a smattering of others. The grapes tend to be planted on the valley floor or the accessible slopes; the soils vary widely from sand, to loam to schist. Technically it’s cool – with big temperature swings from day to night – this promotes slow ripening which can help grapes accumulate flavour & sugar without losing too much acidity.

Not to generalise too much but the pinot noir style typical of Central Otago is concentrated, deep in colour, with lots of rich red fruit flavours. In the world of pinot noir, they’re on the bigger end of things. The cheaper wines (under $30) tend to be more on the simple/juicy end of things, while the premiums ($60 +) tend to show strong oak profiles – and are overall more muscular, age worthy and savoury. The use of whole berries and/or stems varies by producer and season. The white wines are excellent too – particularly the riesling.

In short, Central Otago absolutely excels at wine tourism, the people are friendly, the facilities are impressive and the wines are exceptional. There are over 30 producers here with big cellar door operations, many with restaurants – and a further 25 or so open by appointment. Expect to pay for tastings – between $10 to $20 – which to me represents great value. For a little region, there is plenty happening, it was a memorable few days.

We visited 11 places but here’s five not to miss:

Chard Farm – famous for it’s gravity defying driveway (Dad said it even gave him the heebie-jeebies) Chard Farm is a relatively big producer with quite a range. The middle tier wines to me represented the best in terms of value – but almost everything was outstanding – including the hospitality shown to us by the lovely Pauline.

Kinross – a new-ish set up who, without their own wine brand instead showcases a handful of others. We tasted five premium wines for $20. They have accommodation and coffee here too – it’s a great option for accessing those wine brands who don’t have their own tasting rooms.

Rippon – (pictured below) Needs little introduction, often being described as the worlds most beautiful vineyard. Its actually not in Central Otago, but Wanaka – a few hours north of Queenstown. Trust me, it’s worth the drive. The wines are transcendental, the view is magnificent and the people are welcoming & knowledgeable.

The view from Rippon Estate in on Lake Wanaka

Carrick – At the top on Bannockburn sits Carrick, overlooking a small gorge. They’re quite famous for their sculpture garden, but the outdoor terrace and excellent lunch are not far behind. Great wines too.

Mt. DifficultyThe cellar door is effectively built into the mountain side, treating diners and tasters alike with a phenomenal view across Bannockburn. The wines are excellent, especially considering that they make more wine than any other producer in the region.

Got more time? Try Two Paddocks, Felton Road, Amisfield, Mount Edward or Domain Road.

If you’ve got a story or tip for people visiting Central Otago please leave a comment!