The Central Otago Wine Region
Ringed by mountains interlaced with lakes and deep river gorges Central Otago is one of New Zealand’s most spectacular settings for vineyards. This unique terroir is also world renowned for producing premium quality wines.
For many it was wine made in the Gibbston Valley that put Central Otago wines on the map. Alan Brady planted some of the first grape vines in the region in the Gibbston Valley in 1981 and 1982. (Earlier plantings had been made by Ann Pinkney near Arrowtown five years earlier). The first commercial vintage of Gibbston Valley Wine was bottled in 1987, and since then the winery has consistently produced award-winning wines including several vintages of Reserve Pinot Noir which have taken international medals and trophies. Gibbston Valley Winery, with its associated restaurant and retail shop, is one of New Zealand’s most visited wineries, being located close to Queenstown.
Rob and Greg Hay planted vines at Chard Farm a few years later, and wines produced there have also been consistently well received.
More recently Greg Hay moved into his own ventures, establishing Peregrine Winery and Wentworth Estate; the vineyards spreading along the Gibbston Flats (as well as in other parts of the region). Other vineyards on the flats include Waitiri Creek, Nevis Bluff, and tucked away around the back road, Sam Neill’s Two Paddocks, Valli Vineyards, Mount Edward (Alan Brady’s new venture), Sleeping Dogs. Closer to Queenstown, around Lake Hayes, are located the Amisfield Winery, and Taramea Wines near Arrowtown.
The Gibbston Valley subregion tends to be cooler and wetter than other subregions in Central Otago, vines ripen later and harvest dates can be a month later at Gibbston than at Bannockburn. Slow ripening of the vines can enhance the build-up of colour and flavour, but for insurance against a poor vintage, some of the vineyards in the subregion are selecting other sites in the Cromwell Basin or around Alexandra to provide some of the grapes for blending with their fruit.
The parts of the land where grapes are grown lie mainly within the semi-arid inland basins of the region and typically experience hot summers, cold winters and long dry autumns. These inland basins are part of a succession of mountains and valley floors, of old river terraces, scarps and fans. Seven terrace levels with associated scarps and fans can be seen increasing in age from the lowest on the flood plain to the highest at the foot of the mountains. Those qualities of landscape, soil, climate and aspect combine to form a unique Central topoclimate. Its horticulture potential has been proved over the last century and now a new generation of viticulture activity is extending this.
Central Otago has a distinctive semi-continental climate, found nowhere else in New Zealand. It is one of the hottest, coldest and driest regions in New Zealand. The highest recorded maximum temperature is 38.7 degrees Celsius and the lowest –21.6 degrees, however winter minima seldom exceed –10 degrees. Frost is possible on any day of the year with late November being a critical time. The diurnal temperature range is 11 to 15 degrees in most of the wine growing valleys of the Clutha and Kawarau rivers.
Alexandra has recorded the lowest annual and twelve consecutive month rainfalls of 211mm and 167 mm respectively in New Zealand. Rainfall is spread fairly evenly during the year with a winter minimum and a summer maximum. High evapotranspiration largely negates this and severe soil moisture deficits develop during the October to April growing season. Humidity is low being about 65% in the morning falling to 30% in the afternoon.
Wind in the valley floors is strongly influenced by the surrounding mountains and tends to be northeast or southwest. Winters are calm and spring and early summer are windy. The most damaging is the Fohn wind which although infrequent can be very strong and destructive. The other damaging but infrequent wind is a downhill or katabatic wind which can develop in spring when skies are clear and mountains have a heavy snow cover. This is usually very cold and impossible to moderate by frost fighting methods.
SoilsCentral Otago soils are moderately old (often windblown loess) formed over successive ice ages as the glaciers ground schist rocks to a fine flour. Layers of loess at various depths are interspersed with river gravels with the addition of sandier soils formed by water erosion. Soils are therefore free draining even when heavy in texture. The low rainfall keeps leaching effects low so there is a good level of minerality present but low levels of organic matter. The result is a soil low in vigour but high in mineral richness with the ability to use irrigation to keep vines at the desired degree of controlled stress so as to provide optimum fruit quality. All of these attributes have combined to result in Central Otago standing on the world stage as a unique winegrowing terroir, from which premium quality boutique wines are made.
Gibbston is a narrow valley enclosed by mountains where about 250 hectares of vines are planted on sloping, north facing land on the south bank of the Kawarau River. Gibbston is the coolest and highest of the sub-regions with vineyards between 320 and 420 metres altitude.
Wanaka, the smallest of the sub-regions has vineyards planted between the shores of Lake Wanaka and the town of Luggate to the east. At 290 to 320 metres above sea level the vineyards have a similar but slightly warmer climate than those at Gibbston.
The Cromwell Basin
The Cromwell Basin contains the largest concentration of vines in an area bounded by the Kawarau River, Lake Dunstan and the Pisa mountain range. It is a warm, early ripening district dominated by semi arid, flat to undulating high terraces and moraines and gently sloping fans.
Bannockburn on the southern banks of the Kawarau near Cromwell is a very warm, dry district where grapes ripen early on sandy, silty loam soils. The altitude here ranges from 220 to 370 metres in an area known by miners as “the Heart of the Desert”.
Bendigo, lying east of the Clutha river and Lake Dunstan has both intermediate (220 metres) and higher terraces (330 to 350) planted in grapes. This warm area has semi arid, variable depth, free draining soils at the lower levels with shallower soils higher up.
The Alexandra Basin
Framed by the Clutha and Manuherikia rivers regularly records New Zealand’s hottest summer temperatures. Spectacular schist outcrops dominate the arid landscape and a wide diurnal shift moderates the high temperatures.