The Central Otago region is becoming famous throughout the world for its stylish Pinot noir. This variety now accounts for 85% of plantings and Central Otago wineries hold many National and International awards for it. Central Otago Pinot noirs have complex flavours of cherries, mushrooms, herbs, autumn berries and spice.
As you visit the wineries of the Cromwell District look out for the various specialities of each one and taste a wide variety of makes and styles.
The first wine-grapes were planted in Central Otago in 1864. Despite the district's potential as a wine growing area being recognised by French and Australian viticulturists from the1860's onwards, wine-grapes were not commercially grown again in Central Otago for more than a century. Modern day wine growing began with a trial wine-grape vineyard that was planted at the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (DSIR) Orchard near Alexandra in 1972 and shortly followed in 1975 with experimental plantings at Rippon Vineyard, Lake Wanaka. The first commercial release of a Pinot noir from Central Otago was the 1987 vintage from pioneer Alan Brady at Gibbston Valley winery.
The Central Otago region is comprised of four quite distinct sub-regions that are separated by rugged river valleys and mountains ranging from 1400 to 2000 metres. The region is centred around the Cromwell basin (which includes Bannockburn in the south, Lowburn/Wanaka Road and Bendigo to the north) and contains 70% of the region's vineyards. The Gibbston area is located to the west on the north facing slopes above the dramatic Kawarau River gorge and accounts for a further 20%. Alexandra (7%) to the south-east is a somewhat similar basin to Cromwell and Wanaka (3%) to the north where vineyards tend to be located on gentle slopes on the shores of spectacular Lake Wanaka.
An ideal climate
Central Otago lies in the rain shadow of the Southern Alps and its climate can be described as semi continental, being characterised by hot, dry summers and cold, dry winters. The vineyards are planted at altitudes between 200 and 300 metres above sea level and are also the furthest inland one can be in New Zealand. Humidity is very low lessening the risk of fungal infections. Rainfall is also very low at 300 to 500 mm per annum and on average falls equally throughout the year. Such is the rain shadow effect from the Southern Alps that only 80km west is Fiordland National Park and Milford Sound which records the second highest annual rainfall on the planet of 10,000 mm. All vineyards so far have required irrigation for vine establishment, however some vineyards may become less reliant on irrigation as vine age increases.
Summers can be very hot with temperatures often in the low to mid 30's. As day length decreases closer to harvest so do the temperatures allowing for a slow finish to the ripening and a long 'hang time'. By this stage night time temperatures are usually rather cool. Harvest can begin as early as late March and can extend well into May. High sugar levels or potential alcohols are usually easily achieved and the challenge appears to be managing the vineyard to obtain flavour and tannin maturity with other components in balance. Heavy frosts are common during winter and can occur at any time between March and November. As a result most vineyards are situated on moderate to steep, north facing slopes. Frost protection (either wind machines or overhead sprinklers or misting systems) is necessary on flatter sites to help protect against late spring and autumn frosts.
Soils in Central Otago have a low natural fertility, a factor less important than climate when judging land suitability for vineyards, because fertility can be relatively easily adjusted with fertilisers. In fact many viticulturalists welcome the low fertility as it inhibits vigour, and places additional stress on the vines, resulting in smaller berries and more concentrated fruit flavours. Soils tend to be fine sandy loams above gravel and therefore quite porous. The low water holding capacity of the soils, combined with the long dry summers, provides a challenge to viticulturalists to provide sufficient water to maintain the vines without over irrigation. Most vineyards monitor soil moisture on a regular basis to maintain the vines slightly above stress level. Soils are generally alkaline with pH in the range 5.9 to 9.0.