In the heart of Central Otago Paul Davies is a little enclave that gives wine lovers a taste of heaven.

Tucked away in the heart of Central Otago is a quiet little valley that punches well above its weight. With a deep gorge and craggy cliffs punctuating both ends, its landscape captures attention, and its story inspires imagination. It lays claim to a couple of firsts that other rural communities can only dream of. Originally a mining settlement that turned to sheep farming as the gold ran out, Gibbston changed forever when the first vines were planted in 1981. Despite criticism from locals, journalist Alan Brady was convinced the unique environment would provide a worthy wine and persevered with the world's most southern vineyard. His results were positive and he developed his hobby into a commercial venture in 1987 with the formation of a vineyard with New Zealand's biggest wine cave, Gibbston Valley Wines.

Just down the road a year later, an entirely different industry was born. Legendary thrill-seeker A.J. Hackett chose the Kawerau Gorge's historic suspension bridge to set up the world's first commercial bungy jump. At just 43m it's far from the highest jump in the country, but leaping from a bridge built in 1880 that so many have conquered before makes it truly unique. It's also the only place in Queenstown to do tandem jumps (for any couples willing to take the plunge) and if it's all a bit too much then there's the newly created zip line - a much more pleasant way to enjoy the stunning vista.

Surrounded by snowcapped peaks at an elevation of 500m, Gibbston appears an unlikely location to grow grapes. "People thought it would never work because they took the temperature off the TV," points out Greg Hay, co-owner of one of the area's larger producers, Peregrine Wines. The particular shape of the valley creates a micro-climate, providing summer temperatures often much higher than in nearby Queenstown, where Central Otago's temperature was recorded.

With his brother Rob, Greg helped develop Chard Farm in the late 80s. They saw an opportunity in the latitude of the area being the same as reputable winemaking region Oregon; 45 degrees - but of course, south.

Advertisement
Bungy jumping on the Kawerau Bridge in Central Otago. Photo / Supplied
Bungy jumping on the Kawerau Bridge in Central Otago. Photo / Supplied

On the other side of the highway, Grant Taylor of Valli Vineyards sees similarities with another winemaking district. On a map of Burgundy he points out the vineyards on flat land surrounded by sharp mountains, much the same as Gibbston. Grant was head winemaker at Gibbston Valley wines for 13 years before starting his own venture. He was there when they won the award that put New Zealand pinot on the map - Gibbston Valley's 2000 Reserve Pinot Noir. It took out the Trophy for Champion Pinot Noir at the London International Wine Challenge, the first bottle under $100 to win that wasn't French. Suddenly wine lovers were looking south.

Today, "the Valley of Vines" offers much more than just internationally acclaimed pinot noir. The Gibbston River Trail, a bike and walking path that winds its way across bridges and over old gold-mining sites, won Gibbston the 2011 Community of the Year award.

Tourists can be seen parking their bikes to drop by one of the many vineyards en route for a quick refreshment. Rabbit Ridge Bike Resort offers more than 40km of dedicated bike trails for the more devoted rider.

Lake Hayes in Central Otago. Photo / Getty Images
Lake Hayes in Central Otago. Photo / Getty Images

Plenty of quality accommodation, talk of a new golf course circulating and the planned Gibbston Valley Station offering new wine-making facilities, a museum and a hotel, ensures Gibbston is becoming a tourist destination in its own right. Grant Taylor is certainly excited about the area's prospects. Last year he was involved in another first for a New Zealand winery - shipping French oak barrels from Valli Vineyards back to Europe, where they'll be used to age Scotch whiskey.

Sharing a sample straight from the barrel of his yet-to-mature, but incredibly smooth 2014 pinot noir, he tells us that not only is this his best ever vintage but for Gibbston wines, better is still to come. Perhaps this pioneering valley has a few more firsts in it yet.

ROAD CHECK
The drive: Queenstown to Christchurch

Distance: 483km, mostly along SH8.

Drive time: A snappy 5hr 45min. Long enough to qualify as a serious drive, compact enough for the driver to stay fresh with a couple of rests.

Advertisement

Best place for a walk: Lake Pukaki has the most visitors per year of any DoC site in New Zealand. Join them.

Best place for a photo: You'll get a cracking view up to Aoraki/Mt Cook from Lake Pukaki, but in reality it's hard to get the mountain exposed right in the photo if there are people in the foreground. The Church of the Good Shepherd at Lake Tekapo is a more reliable banker for a great photo. It's also pretty much halfway.

Ideal soundtrack: Kiwi dub outfit Salmonella Dub are the perfect accompaniment as the Canterbury Plains open up ahead of you. With long, flat straights framed by hedges and dubious dairy conversions as far as the eye can see, it's the most boring part of the drive, so you'll want to have the tunes right.

At the Central Otago end of the journey, keep it local by playing a little of country singer Holly Arrowsmith (the name is cute, as she's actually from Arrowtown, by way of Texas).

Iconic car: Fanging it along Kiwi country roads, you can't beat a big Holden.

Stop and smell the roses: In Ashburton, check out Trotts Garden, a stunning privately owned collection of rare and beautiful trees.

Advertisement

Can we get a pie? The Wrinkly Ram, in Omarama, does the basics well. The coffee is pretty good, too. Avoid it if the tourist buses are parked outside.

Something fishy: With the salmon farm nearby, there's a great Japanese restaurant in Tekapo.

Best detour: Turn off just before Twizel and head for Lake Ohau Lodge. If you have a spare day, stay for a night and check out the excellent cycle trail.

Cinematic: The stunning clay cliffs that featured in the Michael Fassbender's Slow West were filmed in the McKenzie Basin.

Take a dip: The hot pools in Tekapo are widely acclaimed and the ones in Omarama are heated by individual fires. Very cool.

Sweet spot: Stop in Geraldine and get some Barker's jams.

Advertisement

Safety warning: It's easy to go heavy on the accelerator along those straights. Don't.