Central Otago, due to its climate and inland location on the South Island, is different from the rest of New Zealand's wine areas. It's the most southerly wine region in the world, vineyards located beneath dramatic mountains on difficult, rocky soils. The wine is uniformly excellent, the climate and soils producing intense, concentrated wines that are only going to get better as the region matures.
One thing Central Otago does share with the rest of New Zealand's wine regions is that it's still very young, producers striving to learn what works and what doesn't. It's only thirty years old, and it's going to be fascinating to see how Central Otago develops. Its future will clearly be dominated by Pinot Noir, but other varieties, particularly white grapes, will help further understanding of this beautiful region.
New Zealand is surrounded by sea, 2,000km from Australia's east coast. The climate is maritime, rain hitting the islands from the ocean throughout the year. The one exception to this maritime climate is Central Otago, which, sheltered from the ocean by mountain ranges, is cool continental. In the summer, the days are hot, reaching as high as 40˚C, and the nights are cool, dropping below 10˚C, so there is intense ripening during the day slowed by the cool nights. Heat summation is similar to northern Chablis, yet Central Otago successfully ripens Pinot Noir. This is due to the intense UV rays coming from the sun, which intensifies ripening - the sun really does have a burning heat to it.
There are different climates within Central Otago, which has led to the informal classification of several sub-regions. Altitude is key, where both days and nights are cooler than lower down on the valley floor. The centre of Central Otago is a large valley surrounded by towering mountains, even topped with snow in the summer; this is the Cromwell Basin, which gradually rises at the southern end to the highest quality sub-region, Bannockburn. Here, the sun hits the north-facing slopes while wind rushes down from the mountains and through the valley to provide ventilation. Current plans to formally classify Central Otago have Bannockburn as the one stand-alone sub-region with its own geographical indication. Further north, Bendigo is warmer and the wines are ripe and rich, while to the east Gibbston Valley is higher up and produces thinner, more acidic wines. Many producers blend from the different sub-regions to make balanced wines that express the region as a whole, but the one area that stands out on its own is Bannockburn.
The first commercial wine released in Central Otago was by Gibbston Valley Winery in 1987. There were vines planted in the 1860s, when the region was subject to a huge gold rush, remnants of which are scattered throughout Central Otago, not least in Bannockburn where barren hillsides stand next to recently planted vineyards. Once the gold rush faded, Central Otago became a quiet region populated by shepherds and orchard farmers. Cherries are still a big industry, but the region has been transformed in the last thirty years by wine. There are now well over a hundred producers and, despite the youth of the industry, quality is consistently high. As vines get older, that quality is only going to increase.
However, like the rest of New Zealand, the rush to make wine from the 1980s onwards led to compromises. New Zealand has a strict quarantine policy, which means that any plant matter must spend three years under quarantine before being allowed into the country. The downside to the strict import conditions is that the rapid expansion of the industry in the last twenty years meant that there weren't enough rootstocks available to graft vines on to and new plantings couldn't keep up. Instead, growers simply planted ungrafted vines. Phylloxera as a result is slowly spreading, which means necessary replanting of those young vines. Although it's under control, this is something that may slow the development of New Zealand wine as a whole, Central Otago included.
75% of plantings in Central Otago are of Pinot Noir, the only black grape variety that will reliably ripen there. The hot days get the grapes ripe, while the cool nights preserve acidity and allow the aromatics to slowly develop. The wines vary from sub-region to sub-region, but there is a deep, rich intensity to them, and a deep colour which comes from the skins building up resistance to the UV rays. In a short time, these have come to be known as some of the finest Pinot Noirs in the world. They're certainly very good, but I feel at the moment that we're tasting potential rather than the definite finished result. As the vines age and producers understand site selection better, the wines will continue to improve: producers will worry less about ripe fruit aromas and concentrate more on making Pinot Noir which are compelling expressions of place. That's Central Otago: the youth of its vines as well as its producers leads to rich, fruity wines that will become more complex and intense as the region ages.
The search across New Zealand has been to find a back-up to Sauvignon Blanc, in case worldwide interest in those wines finally comes to a halt. Many producers have focused on Pinot Gris, an aromatic grape that's closely related to Pinot Noir and not planted that widely across the world. Styles have varied in New Zealand, from dry and insipid to rich and bloated, which hasn't helped spread the wines' popularity. Producers have finally settled on a consistent, recognisable style: off-dry (the slight sweetness offsets the tannins of the grape), aromatic, but not too rich. In Central Otago, the grape accounts for 15% of plantings, and is held up as the region's white equivalent to Pinot Noir. The wines are good, food-friendly, with a refreshing acidity not always found with Pinot Gris. But I do feel that Central Otago producers made a mistake when they chose Pinot Gris rather than Chardonnay as the white equivalent to Pinot Noir. Now, many are having to consider whether to replant to Chardonnay or to stick to Pinot Gris.
recommended producers: Misha's Vineyard
Central Otago has, with a collective purpose among producers, focused on aromatic white grapes to promote the region. Pinot Gris is the accessible wine, while Riesling is grown for quality and small production. Just 3% of plantings are of Riesling, a variety that's always fashionable among wine geeks like me but difficult to sell. Two producers, Felton Road and Misha's Vineyard, convincingly persuaded me that Central Otago has, in its schist soils and cool continental climate, much in common with Mosel in Germany. Like Mosel, the best wines have some sweetness to them to counterbalance the naturally high acidity that comes with the cool climate. Despite being so food friendly, such wines are not universally fashionable so many producers make dry Rieslings whose acidity I found just too tart - Central Otago's climate really is that cool.
recommended producers: Felton Road, Misha's Vineyard
The elephant in the room is Chardonnay. I am loathe to suggest that yet another region concentrate on producing Chardonnay, but this, besides Pinot Noir, is what Central Otago is best at. The wines have a refreshing, crisp acidity, which allows malolactic fermentation, and a steely, stony texture. They taste exactly how the best Chardonnays should. Yet, only 3% of plantings are to Chardonnay. This is because when many of the current plantings were made twenty years ago, Chardonnay was an unfashionable grape and Pinot Gris was planted instead as an alternative. Now, producers have to decide whether to replant to Chardonnay or to stick to the aromatic varieties they already have. Central Otago is a young region: mistakes are likely to be made before figuring out what works best.
recommended producers: Felton Road, Peregrine