“Fancy a red, anyone?” is a common offer in the deep south. And the red they are talking about is one of the deeply flavoursome pinot noir wines that the area is known for. Sitting snugly at 45 degrees south Central Otago has the southern-most vineyards in the world, and at 200 – 400 metres elevation they are also the highest in New Zealand.
Growing on what looks like good country for goats, with gnarly stone soils and a wickedly dry climate, the vines respond well, producing vintages of world-class quality. Pinot noir is the star variety but chardonnay, pinot gris and riesling also feature highly. Sauvignon blanc and gewurtztraminer are grown to a lesser degree. A small quantity of sparkling wine is also produced. Vines were first planted in the area following the gold rush of the 1860s but it was over 100 years later before the region enjoyed commercial success.
One of the stand-out wineries is Amisfield, which overlooks Lake Hayes near Arrowtown. Their impressive winery and restaurant complex is a great place to start your discovery of Central Otago wines, especially in autumn and winter when a roaring open fire fills the centre of the large dining hall. It’s one of the larger wineries in the area and all their wine is of single vineyard origin. Another favourite, which overlooks Lake Wanaka and the mountains beyond, is the Rippon Vineyard. Every second year in early February the winery hosts one of New Zealand’s most popular contemporary music festivals with local dub, reggae, rock, jazz and dance music.
The majority of Otago’s wineries are around Bannockburn, Cromwell, Alexandra and Wanaka. These areas are well spread and the best way to see them is by Hertz Queenstown Airport Car Rental. You’ll enjoy the freedom of being able to stop and enjoy the scenery along the way, bungee jump off a bridge or take time for a leisurely lunch in a shade-dappled vineyard garden.
Or try something a little more structured by following one, or several, of the local wine trails. Pick up a copy of the Central Otago Wine Trail brochure from information centres or your accommodation. You can also download parts of the trail from their website.