CENTRAL OTAGO, Pinot’s Wild Country

Like Bonnie and Clyde, Sonny and Cher, or Simon and Garfunkel: You can’t mention Central Otago and not think of Pinot Noir.

But what makes it such a good place to Pinot?

Well, the place itself is pretty much perfect. Right at the bottom of New Zealand, Central Otago is the world’s southernmost wine region (and its country’s highest). This grape is finicky, hard to grow, and it HATES heat, so it needs cooler climates, but it does best when planted in warm pockets of those cool places. Central Otago is cool – cold even – with temperatures dipping as low as -10 degrees in winter. And in summer, it gets hot during the day (the mercury often hits 40 degrees) but it’s still cool at night. So, grapes ripen during the day, then they refresh over night. Ripen, refresh. Ripen, refresh. It’s this variation between those warm days and cool nights that give the wines a darker, fuller flavoured feel, and that help make Central Otago Pinot so unique. Although, as with any region, there are always exceptions to the rule.

If you need more proof, just look to France. At 45 degrees south of the equator, Central Otago shares similar climactic conditions to Burgundy and the Rhone Valley – two of the most famous French wine regions. So while there’s a bit of Riesling kicking around, some Pinot Gris and Gewürztraminer, bit of Chardonnay and some Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir is estimated to account for 70% of all grapes grown in the Central Otago region. That’s a lot of Pinot.

But growing grapes and making Pinot Noir is just one way to do Central Otago. There are mountains to ski, rivers to fish, and trails to hike. Burn Cottage thinks you should give bungee jumping a go; Charteris recommends frozen chicken curling on Lake Diamond in winter (yes, it’s a thing); and Rockburn reckons a pork pie from Cromwell’s The Fridge butchery and delicatessen is the way to do it.

With the help of our favourite wineries, we’ve put together a Central Otago itinerary for you. Start at Wet Jacket Wines and follow the path till you finish up at Rippon, stopping off to check out each winery’s recommendations along the way (if you choose!).

We’ve even collaborated on a rocking Pinot Playlist for your journey. We asked each winery to pick a song to listen to on your way to them, and one to listen to when you’re driving away. The result is a fascinating insight into both the people and the wine styles themselves.

So go forth and explore. Get to know the wineries along they way and get listen to their take on the region and how they live it.

After all, this is where they Pinot.

GETTING TO KNOW THE REGION

We do love this region and spent some time in-between events getting more familiar with not only the place, but the people within. The below is just a snap shot of the amazing wineries you can visit (we have many more on our list!).

We’ve also grouped them in (kinda) sub-regional zones to better help you navigate your way out of Queenstown in the hope of making you more familiar. This is more about where they are as you’d visit as many have vineyards throughout the region.

But in short, get out there and choose your own adventure!

GIBBSTON

Gibbston Valley

Welcome to Gibbston Valley – the wine theme-park of your grown-up dreams! Not only has it got New Zealand’s largest wine cave, it’s giving us a tasting room, a café, restaurant and cheesery, an annual series of summer concerts and a luxury lodge and spa (coming December 2019). Sheesh, it’s a Pinot Palooza all on its own! Established in 1983 by Alan Brady, Gibbston Valley was the first Otago winery to release a commercial vintage and it has been going gangbusters ever since.

Wet Jacket

Named after an arm in Fiordland’s Dusky Sound (which itself was named by a soggy Captain Cook in 1773), Wet Jacket is the current venture of Greg Hay, one of the pioneers of the Central Otago wine industry. After establishing Chard Farm and Peregrine Wines, Greg decided to set up a more modest space where he could keep the brand small and personal, and focus on the storytelling. Each year, he produces around 3000 cases of wine (including pinot gris, rosé and chardonnay) from four Cromwell Basin vineyard sites, under the stewardship of his good friend, winemaker Pete Bartle of VinPro.

Mount Edward

Employing a variety of wine making techniques, from the use of natural yeasts, full solids, whole bunch fermentation to extended barrel maturation, charismatic duo Forsyth and Riederer eschew unnecessary aids and additives, and keep the sulphur to a bare minimum. The result? Pinots that are proudly Otago, full of textural elegance, precision and clarity. Our only tip: call before you go. The “less is more” philosophy extends to the cellar door, which is often closed on weekends.

CROMWELL / PISA / LOWBURN

Wooing Tree

Wooing Tree is a family-owned, single vineyard nestled in a beautiful glacial mountain valley next to Lake Dunstan in the heart of Central Otago. While the vineyard may have released its first vintage in 2005 (a big year for Central Otago pinot!), the Wooing Tree itself has been a landmark for over 100 years; the illustrious pine tree, famous as a local lovers’ rendezvous, is now the star of the winery’s vibrant cellar door.

Domaine-Thomson

David Hall-Jones named his Central Otago winery after his great-great grandfather John Thomson, the Surveyor General of New Zealand and a keen landscape painter – who would have loved the view from this winery. Domaine Thomson boasts a 360-degree vista of the Cromwell Basin and Lake Dunstan, framed by the surrounding mountain ranges. David’s 14-hectare biodynamic vineyard has been planted as four distinct blocks – the North Block, the Terraces, the South Block and the Moon Block – each with its own unique set of personality traits.

Burn Cottage

With its scenic vineyards set in the foothills of the Pisa Range, Burn Cottage has been aptly described as both a verdant, “Bambi-like scene” and a “slice of heaven.” Established in 2002 by Maurice Sauvage, Burn Cottage stood apart from the pack from the start.  Working with the guru of terroir, Ted Lemon (of Littorai in Sonoma), Maurice developed the first and only vineyard in the region that has been biodynamic from day one. With 10 different pinot clones planted across various vineyards, winemaker Claire Mulholland artfully conjures unique character traits from each block with minimal intervention, fermenting fruit from each one separately to create a consistently impeccable range of pinots.

Valli

Grant Taylor of Valli Wines is known to locals as the Valli Lama. Enough said. The godfather of Otago pinot noir started crafting wines in the region back in 1993, when there were only 20 hectares of vines planted. Over the past few decades Grant has made wines for a number of iconic Otago wineries, and won countless awards. Now his focus is on his own vineyard, Valli. Named in memory of Grant’s great-great grandfather, Giuseppe Valli, who immigrated to New Zealand from an Italian winemaking background, Valli was founded with the aim of creating true representations of Otago’s sub-regions. Grant has established four pinot vineyards, in Bannockburn, Gibbston, Bendigo, Waitaki, each producing wines of true distinction thanks to the skill of winemaker Jen Parr, who joined Valli in 2015 (and just won NZ Winemaker of the Year in Gourmet Traveler WINE!)

BANNOCKBURN

Felton Road

The secret to creating some of the New World’s most celebrated pinot noir? It could have something to do with growing your grapes on warm, north-facing slopes of glacial soils in Bannockburn, or a commitment to Demeter-certified biodynamic farming that stretches across two decades. It could also have something to do with having legendary winemaker Blair Walter produce wine from the same vineyards for over 20 years. But maybe it’s all about being humble. According to owner Nigel Greening, by definition, “all [winemaking] interventions are a human distortion in the process,” a philosophy that informs Blair Walter’s minimal intervention approach.

Mt Difficulty

Matt Dicey, a fourth-generation vigneron, has been making pinot in the Bannockburn area since 1992, from some of the oldest vines in the region. Matt works mostly with fruit sourced from vineyards at Mount Difficulty, which have a unique microclimate for the region: seeing hot summers and long cool autumns, conditions which bring the best out of the pinot noir grapes. And let it be said, the conditions at Mt Difficulty also bring out the best in us. The cellar door is great place to spend a hot summer afternoon, set high above the winery on a rocky outcrop looking across the thyme landscapes of the Cromwell Basin to Lake Dunstan

Carrick

Nestled in the heart of Central Otago, Carrick Wines began life as a small hobby vineyard on Cairnmuir Road in Bannockburn in 1993. Then-owners Steve and Barbara Robertson-Green planted the first vines themselves, but it wasn’t until 2000 that things started to get serious. Now officially certified biodynamic and organic, Carrick champions biodiversity and produces wines with minimal intervention to ensure that the personality of the fruit – and those tending to it – shines through. In the past couple of years, the winery has had a wee shakeup of personnel and after some strong years under the able stewardship of winemaker Francis Hutt is now helmed by talented Kiwi winemaker Rosie Menzies, who has crafted wines across New Zealand as well as in Europe and North America. With an eye for sustainability and a knack for creating subtle refinements, we’re expecting some big things from Rosie.

ALEXANDRA

Two Paddocks

Two Paddocks claims it has been in the business of cheering people up since 1993, and we can certainly testify to that: their delicious pinots have cheered us up on many an occasion! The only Central Otago winery with a footprint in all three of the region’s great valleys (Gibbston, the Alexandra Basin and the Cromwell Basin), Two Paddocks consistently produces pinots that are big on structure and firm tannins. Winemaker Dean Shaw loves a whole-bunch ferment, which results in complex bouquets with stemmy, forest-like notes. Dean’s philosophy focuses on getting to know the grapes so that they can express themselves freely with just a little helping hand. Dean gets a helping hand from owner Sam Neill (yes, that Sam Neill), whose great-grandfather founded wine and spirits importer Neill & Co. in 1861, which gives him bonus cred in the wine game. This is a celebrity winery we can celebrate, big time.

WANAKA

Rippon

Rippon is considered one of the world’s great pinot noir producers. Situated on a jaw-droppingly beautiful site opposite Ruby Rock on Lake Wanaka, Rippon’s small patch of earth has been farmed by the Mills family for over a century. In 1975, Rolfe Mills, the third generation of his family on the farm, started to plant experimental rows of vines. Rolfe and his wife Lois planted their first block in 1982 in two main zones of differing soil types, and released their first commercial vintage in 1989. The vineyard continues to be run by the Mills family. Nick Mills (son of Rolfe and Lois), now farms the site according to biodynamic principles, producing wines that are nothing short of gobsmacking. These wines are a treat – it feels like Nick’s deep connection to the land is translated directly into Rippon’s superlative wines. We’re talking iconic Otago here, so don’t miss the opportunity to try at least one of Rippon’s incredible pinots.

Maude

In 2005, legendary wine making couple Dan and Sarah Kate (SK) Dineen stepped away from their high-profile roles in the Hunter Valley to begin a quest to make the perfect pinot noir. Determined to source grapes where they naturally grow best, they joined forces with SK’s parents (the owners of Mount Maude vineyard in the Maungawera Valley, just outside Wanaka), to create wines from the top wine-growing regions in New Zealand. Bonus: they got to set up their custom-built winery in paradise – literally (Wanaka was the location for Paradise in the movie A Wrinkle in Time). The couple are dedicated to hands-on minimal intervention wine making (SK is no stranger to a plunging stick) and produce award-winning pinots of beautiful complexity, ripe fruit and supple tannins. We’re big fans of their regional blend pinot (Maude Pinot Noir, which is a great example of all that’s great about Central pinot. Hot tip: we’re also massive fans of the Maude riesling and chardonnay.