Organic wineries add sustainability to the attractions of touring the diverse Central Otago wine region, writes Mark Sariban
With vineyards scattered across six sub-regions, each with their particular climatic conditions, there are plenty of distinctive – and award-winning – wines to sample when you explore Central Otago. But it's not just the variety of wines that makes the region unusual: it's also way ahead of other wine-growing areas in the country in adopting organic and biodynamic practices.
Roughly a quarter of vineyards in Central Otago's Gibbston Valley, Cromwell, Bendigo, Bannockburn, Alexandra and Wanaka sub-regions are organic (via BioGro certification), biodynamic or are in the process of converting from conventional practices – compared to a national average of around 5 per cent.
So why have Central Otago wine-makers taken to organic practices so enthusiastically? "It's a region that lends itself to organics," says Fraser McLachlan, director of Peregrine Wines in the Gibbston Valley. "We're a very dry climate, which lowers our disease risk. Here we get a lot of sunlight. You can operate organically in Marlborough and Hawke's Bay, where there's more humidity and it's wetter, but it's a wee bit more challenging."
So this is the place to come to if you want to indulge your passion for excellent pinot noir and white varietals at selected cellar doors, knowing the wine is free of pesticides and herbicides and the land on which the grapes were grown will stay healthy for generations to come.
Peregrine is your first stop if you're starting out from Queenstown. Driving down State Highway 6, you can't miss the striking steel "wing" protecting the cellar door complex from the elements. What you won't see, however, are any signs broadcasting the fact Peregrine has been certified organic across its entire range since 2017.
"We don't put "organic" on the front of the label on our wine bottles," says McLachlan. "If you flip it around you'll see a BioGro logo, and we might mention organics in the spiel on the label, but it's not really our lead marketing message. It's not a gimmick to us: it's just how we like to operate.
"If people find out by talking to us that's great, and if they're into it that's great, but we don't need to shout it from the rooftops because we have other layers to our brand, and it's just a personal choice for us."
You can try Peregrine's sublime pinot noirs, rieslings and rosé at the slick cellar door operation from Monday to Saturday; book ahead online for winery tours Wednesday to Saturday.
From Peregrine it's a two-minute drive down the road to Mount Edward. This organic winery, which was founded in 1997, focuses on white varietals, including pinot gris, pinot blanc and grüner veltliner, and is known for its single-vineyard releases. Mount Edward also produces a vermouth based on riesling and chenin grapes – good to know if you're a fan of a good negroni. The cellar door is only open by appointment – call ahead on (03) 442 6113.
Heading from Gibbston Valley to Bannockburn, you can see how the sub-regions differ so wildly. Where Gibbston is high and cool, a 30-minute drive through Kawarau Gorge brings you to the former gold-mining town of Bannockburn and surprisingly desert-like conditions. Turn off the highway at Pearson Rd, and the land changes in a flash to dry and dusty as you follow Kawarau River to Bannockburn wine country.
Summers here are much hotter than Gibbston, and the dry conditions make for ideal grape-growing weather. Felton Road winery, which has been producing internationally recognised organic and biodynamic fine wines since 2002, sits at the foot of the gorge at one of the warmest sites in the region. Sample Felton Road's robust pinot noir at its cellar door, open by appointment on weekdays – call (03) 445 0885.
The next stop on the trail is Carrick, sited on a bend of the Kawarau River. This well-regarded winery was certified organic in 2011. Carrick's winemaker Rosie Menzies says they started the long process of converting to organic production in 2008 "because we're surrounded by water, because the owners [Barbara and Steve Green] were living on the property, because to create life in the soils it's better to farm organically. The soils here are really poor, so building organic matter is really important to help support the vines."
As with Peregrine's labelling, the fact that Carrick is fully organic has not been highlighted on its bottles. "It's something that we are in the process of changing, because we want to make it easier for customers," says Menzies. "Back in the day, the term organic seemed to have an image of lesser quality. That's certainly changed now and people recognise organic-certified goods as not only great quality but understand that farmers are employing organic practices to ensure their land is looked after."
Carrick is open for tastings by appointment – call (03) 445 3480. The cellar door space doubles as a restaurant serving a winter lunch menu from Friday to Sunday, so if you time your visit, you can pair delicious fare such as the Provenance lamb for two with one of Carrick's signature pinot noirs for a memorable meal overlooking the river.
After that lunch at Carrick, head back over the river to the town of Cromwell and the tasting room of Rudi Bauer's Quartz Reef winery. Bauer, who grew up in Austria, is one of the pioneers of organic and biodynamic winemaking in New Zealand. Bauer co-founded Quartz Reef in 1996, planting in Bendigo, at the other end of Lake Dunstan from Cromwell.
While Quartz Reef is best known as a sparkling wine specialist – the only one in the region that is biodynamic – the pinot noirs are also exceptional. Bauer says healthy soil and healthy plants are the keys to the quality here. "Pinot noir is a variety that really likes to reflect where it's grown," says Bauer. "It's really site-specific and site-expressive. I believe that you get a much more distinctive example of pinot noir in the glass because of your commitment to the land." Quartz Reef's cellar door is open between noon and 4pm Monday to Friday – call (03) 445 3084.
After checking that your designated driver isn't getting too miffed at missing out on some pretty special wines, you can also visit a couple of organic wineries outside Cromwell. Aurum Wines' cellar door is housed in the estate's original weatherboard cottage at Lowburn and is open from 11am to 4pm daily – call (03) 445 3620. (Aurum also conducts virtual wine tastings; see website for details.)
A few kilometres past Aurum at Lowburn, Domaine-Thomson, which has vineyards in Pisa as well as in France's Cote-d'Or, produces pinot noirs that skew to the Burgundy style. The cellar door is open 11am to 5pm daily – call (03) 445 4912.
And 40 minutes up the road past Domaine-Thomson, Rippon occupies a spectacular spot on the shores of Lake Wanaka. Here, fourth-generation winemaker Nick Mills has his pick of some of the region's oldest plantings, which are now tended using biodynamic principles. Sample Rippon's mature vine pinot noirs from 1pm to 5pm Wednesdays to Sundays.
Of course, no round-up of organic wineries in Central Otago would be complete without mentioning Sam Neill's Two Paddocks in Alexandra. Unfortunately, Two Paddocks is not open to the public – you have to be member of its wine club to visit.
As you might have gathered, there's a lot of territory to cover on the Central Otago organic wine trail. If you're not keen on driving yourself, wine specialists Appellation Wine Tours can create a bespoke itinerary covering these wineries.
For more New Zealand travel ideas and inspiration, go to newzealand.com
Appellation Wine Tours operates out of Queenstown and Wanaka, with standard group tours that cover three of Central Otago's sub-regions in a day, but will run a customised tour for two or more guests if you wanted to concentrate on the wineries mentioned here. appellationwinetours.nz