Central Otago Wine Region

Central Otago Wine Region

is a sheltered inland area with a continental microclimate characterised by hot, dry summers, short, cool autumns and crisp, cold winters.

Central Otago is in the process of applying for a geographic indication for wines grown in the area. This will be in conjunction with the New Zealand Winegrowers Association, which is preparing to submit a national geographic indication for New Zealand wines [Manins, Rosie. (21 June 2007). Label Protection Sought. "The Otago Daily Times", p.15)]

History of the wine region

Significant European occupation in this region started with the Central Otago Gold Rush in the 1860s, but a French immigrant gold miner, Jean Desire Feraud, soon started planting vines and embarking upon small-scale commercial wine production — even winning medals in Australian wine competitions. Late in the nineteenth century, the New Zealand government hired a winemaker to survey the country (see Romeo Bragato). He singled out Central Otago as a region of utmost potential. While this early experimentation showed the wine-growing potential of the region, the wine industry did not survive for long on a commercial basis (see New Zealand Wine). Once the gold rush abated, the Central Otago economy turned to sheep farming and fruit production, and — once the world began to discover the stark natural beauty of its mountains and lakes — to skiing and tourism.

Starting in the 1950s, and up through the end of the 1970s, small scale trial plantings of vines began again both by private individuals and under the auspices of the New Zealand Department of Agriculture. By 1980 sufficient experience and confidence had been gained for small scale commercial plantings to be made.

Vineyard planting and production remained modest until the middle of the 1990s when the industry began to expand rapidly. In 1996 there were just 11 wineries in the Central Otago region, according to [http://www.nzwine.com New Zealand Winegrowers] , accounting for just 4.6% of the national total. By 2004 this had risen to 75 wineries and 16.2%. Over the same period, the area planted with vines rose from 92 hectares (1.4% of the national total) to 1,062 hectares (5.1%). Reflecting this rapid expansion, the long lead-time for planting to come into production, and the focus in Central Otago on quality wines rather than bulk wines, actual wine production accounted for only 0.5% (376 tonnes) of the New Zealand total in 1996, increasing to 0.9% (1,439 tonnes) in 2004.

Climate and soil

At around the 300 meter elevation level, Central Otago's vineyards are protected by high mountains (up to 2,000 meters) from New Zealand's characteristic maritime climate. They thus enjoy the only true continental climate zone in the country, with the large daily and seasonal temperature extremes typical of such geographies. Rainfall averages around 375-600mm here: summer is hot and relatively dry, and often accompanied by the Nor'wester foehn wind; autumn is short, cool and sunny; and winter is cold, with substantial falls of snow. Heavy frosts are common throughout winter and, indeed, frost can occur at any time between March and November. In the earlier days of experimental planting in the region, many skeptics warned that the conditions would preclude successful commercial wine growing: in fact, these very climatic extremes are what can, given careful husbandry techniques, produce exceptional wines of great distinction and intensity. One of Central Otago's warmest wine growing areas can be found just north of the Lowburn Inlet area.

The climatic contrast between Central Otago and the more humid, warmer wine regions of the North Island can be illustrated by the difference in the timing of the grape harvest. In the more northerly vineyards, picking generally takes place in late February or early March, while in Central Otago the harvest begins in mid to late April — a difference of some six to seven weeks.

The structure of the soil also differs considerably from other wine growing regions of the country, with heavy deposits of rough-edged mica and other metamorphic schists in silt loams. This soil drains easily, and given that most vineyards are positioned on hillside slopes, artificial irrigation is generally essential.


Pinot noir is the leading grape variety in Central Otago, and is estimated to account for some 70% of plantings. The Pinot Noir is notoriously fickle and difficult to grow. Central Otago, however, with its combination of climate, "terroir" and determined winemaking appears to have the capacity to produce a world-class Pinot Noir that is increasingly sought-after. The grape there is producing elegant wines with great ageing potential that some experts believe will ultimately equal the best in the world.

The other 30% of production comes from Chardonnay, Sauvignon blanc, Riesling, Pinot gris, and Gewürztraminer. The latter three in particular, amenable to Central Otago's climatic conditions and soil type, are showing great promise, and may develop a reputation to match the Pinot Noirs. Limited production of sparkling wine, made in the traditional style from Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes, has been of good quality, and has received some accolades at wine tastings around the world.

The wine industry today

As of 2005, the wine industry in Central Otago is still at an early stage of development, and will likely continue in a strong growth phase through at least 2020, and possibly beyond.

So far, it has avoided participating in the low-price, bulk wine market where competition is intense and margins are low. The [http://www.cowa.org.nz Central Otago Winegrowers Association] believes that "for the industry to succeed and grow, a strategy aimed at keeping quality standards at the highest possible level, and aiming at the top end of the market, is the only sustainable course of action for the industry to follow."

The challenges faced by the industry in Central Otago include an unpredictable climate, a relatively low yield, and poor economies of scale — leading to high production costs. On the other hand, these are factors which also contribute to the quality of the wine (particularly the Pinot Noir), and to the boutique winery image of the region.

International recognition is an essential element in the region's future success since — given the small domestic wine market and the relatively high prices of its output — a large proportion of its production is exported. Such recognition is increasingly being achieved.

Wine critic Jane Macquitty of "The Times" (of London) wrote in late 2003, "At last Burgundy has a serious New World rival. It used to be gospel that pinot noir could not be grown successfully beyond the Côte-d'Or… But now I have discovered a little-known and mostly unsung young region that I think will knock the rest of the pinot noir gang for six — Central Otago." And a leading British wine writer, Jancis Robinson MW, named Central Otago as one of the top five New World wine producing regions in early 2005. In a Decanter magazine interview she listed Central Otago together with Napa Valley (California), Margaret River (Western Australia), Stellenbosch (South Africa) and Willamette (Oregon) as her five favourite New World regions.

Synergies with tourism are also important to the wine industry, and the region is well-located to benefit from this with Queenstown, New Zealand's best-known year-round tourist destination, on its doorstep. 'Wine route' attractions are developing rapidly, with winery visits, tastings, gourmet restaurants and winery home-stays being increasingly promoted by the in-bound tour operators.

Given its geographical restrictions, Central Otago will never become a vast wine growing region, but if it can build upon its growing reputation for wines (particularly Pinot Noir) of exceptional elegance and longevity, it appears well-poised to carve itself an important and profitable niche in the world market.


External links

* [http://www.nzwine.com New Zealand Winegrowers]
* [http://www.cowa.org.nz Central Otago Winegrowers Association]
* [http://www.otagowine.com Central Otago Wine Cellar] (although a commercial site, this also has excellent information about the region and its industry)

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