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New Zealand's Central Otago Wine Region

Updated: Mar 13

When you visit a locale that happens to make excellent wine, make sure you leave room in your suitcase.

When I booked my January trip to New Zealand, it was mostly to realize a dream of hiking among the country's mind boggling natural beauty. But as an auxiliary benefit, for several days of my two-week camper van tour around the south island, I was smack dab in the middle of the southernmost vineyards in the world in one of New Zealand's most wild and exciting wine regions––Central Otago.

Of course, this meant that a handful of days would be exclusively dedicated to tasting wine, and a significant amount of real estate would need to be allocated to bringing an unexpectedly large volume of wine back to California.

Why is Central Otago such a great region for wine?

If you visit Central Otago in the summer, you might mistake it for California wine country. The rolling golden hills, intense sunshine, cool nights, and rows of verdant vines brought me right back to my Sonoma County locale. Before (and still) known as a stone fruit–producing mecca, today land in the region is being gradually converted to more lucrative grape growing.

Indeed, the arid climate, with dramatic diurnal shifts and fertile loamy soils, is a perfect recipe for premium grape growing. Moreover, the latitude of the region––between 45 degrees and 47 degrees south––mirrors some of the greatest wine regions up north (albeit a mirror image!) like Piemonte, Burgundy, or Willamette Valley. The menu at a local Italian restaurant reminds diners of the perfect parallel between Otago and Northern Italy.

But these are deep mountain valleys, not prone to the same degree of summer heat as many of the great wine production regions of the world that allow for excellent ripening of fruit during the growing season. So how do they get ripeness with cooler, mountain summers that only occasionally breach 85 degrees Fahrenheit?

Glacial rivers glow blue with silt and sediment, a characteristic of the wild territory of the Central Otago

The answer is the UV content of the sun's rays––the sun is intense here; you must wear sunscreen from dawn until dusk to avoid being cooked like a Kenny Rogers Chicken. The vines, too, respond to the UVB ways the same way they'd respond to the more intense heat of places like northern California, with development of sugars and robust ripeness. Meanwhile, the nights are cool, and given the mountainous environment, even cooler than some of the famed wine regions that share Otago's (mirrored) latitude, allowing the fruit to rest and develop fantastic phenols and acidity.

What varietals thrive in Central Otago?

You'll find a smattering of white wine varietals in Central Otago that primarily come from either Burgundy or the Austro-German wine regions, like Chardonnay, Riesling, Pinot Gris, or, less common, Sauvignon Blanc. The cooler climate allows for brilliant wines with high acid and a broad spectrum of phenolic content, often teeming with bright aromatics of stone fruits, citrus, and barely-ripe orchard fruit.

Meanwhile, red wine production is almost exclusively limited to Pinot Noir, though scant amounts of Syrah and other varietals also exist. The climate is perfect for Pinot, with tight clusters and small berries paired with high acid, making them wonderful for aging, and a real sense of place depends on the particularities of the sub-region.

The sub-regions of Central Otago

Central Otago encompasses a rather broad swath of sub-regions that can be as far as four hours' drive apart. Most of these areas are mountain valleys surrounded by arid peaks on the east side of the New Zealand Alps, roughly proximate to the resort meccas of Queenstown and Wanaka.

Queenstown's waterfront is spectacular in the summer sun

As is common with newer, up-and-coming wine regions, as a region like Otago becomes better known and the market for its products expands, the characteristics of sub-regions become more important to critics, winemakers, and buyers. For now, though, the distinctions in Central Otago are salient mostly to those who work in the region, or closely with those who do.

Bannockburn is the oldest of the Central Otago subregions, encompassing a remarkably small area about an hour east of the tourist hotspot of Queenstown. Known for higher heat and a magnificent spectrum of wild herbs like thyme, the wines are earthy, herbaceous, and concentrated.

Further west towards Queenstown is Gibbston Valley, the coolest sub-region of Central Otago, where the fruit is picked nearly a month later than most other sub-regions and the wines display higher acid, lighter body, and brighter fruit character.

Bannockburn and Gibbston Valley are where I'd spend my time in Central Otago, but regions like Bendigo, with mountainside fruit facing the sun for serious intensity and tannin, Wanaka, perched high above the valleys surrounding Queenstown on a temperature-moderating lake shore, are also accessible from Queenstown, your likely landing spot on a trip to Otago. Further afield are warmer spots like Alexandra, or the enigmatic Waitaki Valley, sometimes lumped in with Central Otago, which produces some of the most glorious, delicate white wines in the world.

The other thing that blows your mind about this corner of the winemaking world is how few wineries there are in each sub-region––the extreme climate, combined with the nascence of the region, has generated precious few producers, particularly compared to more established regions in New Zealand like Marlborough, and it's rather challenging to find much Central Otago wine distributed to the international market. To the Maestro's mind, however, that makes these wines all the more special.

Wineries I visited during my recent trip

Wine regions with which you're unfamiliar, particularly those with relatively brief histories and few producers, and notoriously challenging to research ahead of time. Many, if not most, sites that recommend wineries for visitors feature the biggest players in the region, or, increasingly, the places that are most 'Gram-able. Finding the little hidden gems requires doing more work, work that can really mostly be accomplished when you arrive and speak to those in the know. Having worked in Napa for some time, for example, I have a list of my favorite wineries about ten places deep I gave to all my guests who asked––almost none of these appears on the lists of the first fifteen results of a "Best Wineries in Napa" Google search.

I made only one reservation before I arrived in Queenstown, at Felton Road, considered by many to be the gold standard in Central Otago wine. This is also the Central Otago winery you're most likely to see on shelves in the US––they distribute something like 80 percent of what they produce internationally.

The Pinots are spectacular. Focused both on broader-produced cuvées of vineyard fruit across Bannockburn to single vineyard, and even single block, expressions, they showcase the wonderful variation that even a tiny area like Bannockburn can offer in Pinot Noir.

Their Chardonnays, too, are magical, teeming with acidity and intense stone fruit aromas that translate brilliantly on the palate. And a small crop of Riesling also finds its way into their catalog, usually off-dry and singing with Mosel-style petrol and bright green orchard fruit.

From Felton Road I made my way just a few kilometers down the always alarming left side of the road to Mt. Difficulty, which is one of the larger producers in Bannockburn, named after one of the adjacent peaks and formed from a collaboration between four smaller producers. Mt. Difficulty offers both a "cellar door" (NZ's phrase for "tasting room") and a restaurant. Feeling peckish, the restaurant tickled my fancy, and I was thrilled to be sat with a fantastic view over Bannockburn while munching on an order of some of the best salmon you can get in the world––king salmon from one of many surrounding NZ mountain lakes.

For wine, I went for a flight of pinots, which tend to pair well with salmon (the "ribeye of the sea" as a sommelier friend of mine once said). A smattering of Bannockburn cuvées and vintage single-vineyard expressions, I found a few of them quite compelling and a few a bit generic. Still, the view and the best of them made for a fantastic experience.

On my second route through Queenstown I decided to hit up a couple more spots. Right off the main highway into town, and situated rather delightfully amongst the buildings floating on the Queenstown marina, one of the most celebrated small producers in Otago, Wet Jacket, hosts tastings. With a view up to towering Double Cone (which you might recognize from Lord of the Rings) and a generous progression of local wine, it was one of my favorite tasting experiences in recent memory.

The story of Wet Jacket comes from 18th Century sailors exploring the southwest coast of New Zealand moored in a sound in some of the most remote territory in the country, an area where the owner, Greg Hay, now spends much of his time and considers his (and the winery's) spiritual home. Coming back from a reconnaissance trip in the rain, Captain James Cook remarked on his sailors' wet jackets, one of which can be seen gracing the walls of the tasting room.

Mr. Hay thought it was a perfect name for a winery, especially given his love of the place and the way the area represents wild, unspoiled New Zealand (though none of the wines is grown there!).

The white wines see the most variety, with plentiful expressions of aromatic white varietals like Riesling, Gewurz, and Pinot Gris (a bottle of which I am enjoying as I type this!). Their subsidiary label, Putangi, which donates a portion of every bottle sale to NZ conservation organizations, provides even more variety to their catalog.

They make a single expression of Pinot every year––a cuvée of Central Otago vineyards with a profound intensity and earthiness. Their Putangi pinot is more bright and accessible, but I appreciated the brooding complexity of the Wet Jacket pinot, of which I managed to score a library vintage bottle. The bottle I'm most excited for, however, is their Syrah, one of two plantings in all of Central Otago, which I wasn't able to taste but currently inhabits a spot in my cellar, and which another winery host later told me is "the best red wine in New Zealand."

The folks at Wet Jacket informed me that the best way to experience micro, boutique producers of Central Otago wines is to visit the veritable complex at Kinross, a winery, cellar door, wine shop, restaurant, and even hotel run by some well-to-do Kiwi investors in Gibbston Valley. Apparently the proprietors are seriously committed to providing a platform for smaller producers and so have folded a handful of them into a broader portfolio of wines poured at their restaurant and cellar door and sold at their shop. Surprised, I made my way over without an appointment to see if they could accommodate, first stopping to have a lunch of glorious locally-sourced summer ingredients on their bistro's patio.

Kinross' tasting room was remarkably empty for a weekend afternoon and I was able to get a seat at a one-on-one tasting with a fabulous French host, Clio, who generously talked with me for several hours about wine in New Zealand and led me through their wonderful portfolio. My favorite producer was doubtless Valli, who makes single-region expressions of pinot highlighting each of the Otago sub-regions and a slew of Waitaki white wines. Runners up included Coal Pit, a tiny family producer of magnificent Pinot and Sauv Blanc, and Hawkshead, the brain child of a German migrant wishing to express her homeland varietals in her new country.

Finally, at restaurants in the area like The Bunker, Aosta, and The Stoaker Room, I got to sample even more of the wine magic of Central Otago, with robust local wine lists (and fantastic food!).

New Zealand venison is among the best in the world

It's wonderful to travel somewhere just to tour wine country, but perhaps even more fun is adding some wine country to a broader trip through a region you've never visited. The bonus for New Zealand is you get to burn off some calories from all that surplus wine and food on one or more of the country's magnificent hikes! Check out some Central Otago wines if you find them on the shelves of your local wine shop, and perhaps impress the shopkeep with the knowledge you gleaned from this little writeup.

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