Central Otago, near the bottom of New Zealand's South Island, vies for the title of world's most southerly wine region. Vineyards cling to the sides of mountains and high above river gorges in this dramatic landscape. Pinot Noir has proven itself in this challenging terroir, and takes up nearly three-quarters of the region's vineyard area. The typical Central Otago Pinot Noir is intense and deeply coloured, with flavours of doris plum, sweet spice and bramble.
Two Paddocks, owned by actor Sam Neill, had thought the Last Chance vineyard was the world's most southerly (at 45°15'). But several major Patagonian projects are underway at around 45 to 46°, and Argentina can currently claim the honour for Alejandro Bulgheroni's new vineyard at Sarmiento (45°60').
The viticultural zone covers the mountainous area around the tourist resort town of Queenstown on the eastern side of the Southern Alps. The exact boundaries and sub-regional divisions are not official, but a geographic indication is in the pipeline. Wineries are scattered around several distinct sub-regions: Gibbston, Alexandra, Wanaka and the Cromwell Basin, itself home to Bendigo, Bannockburn and Lowburn. Lakes Dunstan, Wakatipu and Wanaka all contribute to the terroir as well, along with the Kawarau and Clutha Rivers.
Gold brought the first settlers to the region in the 1860s, and most of the towns in this part of Otago have a rich gold-mining history. The first vines were planted during this time by a French migrant but, unlike in the Sierra Foothills region of California where the European settlers provided a steady demand for wines, the tough, transient Otago miners had no interest in drinking wine, preferring beer and spirits. It wasn't until the 1970s that the modern wine industry made its way to Central Otago, although many thought the region's viticultural pioneers were crazy.
One of the most distinctive features of Central Otago as a wine region is its marginal continental climate, with extreme seasonal and diurnal temperature variations. This shortens and intensifies the growing season and poses a frost risk for an extended period of the year. For this reason, many Otago vineyards occupy hillside sites, angled towards the sun, and reduce the risk of frost damage by keeping cold, dense air on the move. Some producers employ frost protection on flatter sites, typically wind machines, frost pots and water sprinklers. Some have even been known to fly helicopters back and forth over their vineyards to prevent frost from settling.
In contrast to the frost-threatened days of spring, summer days in Central Otago are dry and hot. The region's continentality brings it higher daily average temperatures than those found anywhere else in New Zealand. Hot days are balanced out by cool nights, which moderate the ripening process and help to create the brightness and intensity for which the region's wines are known.
The landscape of Central Otago has been carved over time by glaciers, and the soils in the area are mostly made up of mica schist and greywacke. Clay and loam soils are common, as is windblown loess. Due to the dry climate in Otago, these dry soils are high in mineral content and low in organic matter, conditions that are highly conducive to premium viticulture. Vines planted on these soils cannot afford to waste energy on luxurious greenery, and instead focus their resources on producing small, highly concentrated berries. This results in wines with intensity of flavour and a good tannic structure.
Along with Pinot Noir, Central Otago makes some highly regarded examples of Chardonnay, Riesling and Pinot Gris, as well as some sparkling wines made in a méthode traditionnelle style.