If you’re heading to Central Otago, there’s a good chance consuming some pinot noir (and probably other varietals too) may be on your list of things to do. There is a reason this part of Aotearoa has won accolades all over the world for its exceptional wine. The perfect combination of cool climate, glacially-derived soils and some very clever growers and makers, makes this a world-class wine region. But with more than 50 cellar doors, it can be hard to know where to even navigate the experience. Here’s how to get started.
First things first - it's not really one region. Well it is, but it's made up of six sub-regions: the Cromwell Basin, Bendigo, Bannockburn, Gibbston, Alexandra and Wānaka and where you're staying may end up determining where you visit. It might be better to thoroughly explore one sub-region near your accommodation (or near your main activities) than drive all over the show. Get basic information on the differences between sub-regions at nzwine.com/en/regions/centralotago.
If it all feels overwhelming there are definitely tour companies who can help - Altitude Tours, Appellation Wine Tours and Black ZQN all operate from Queenstown so can be good to do as soon as you fly in (or on your last day).
If you're staying in Central Otago itself, there's Roaring Wine Tours, who are based in Cromwell but also operate out of Queenstown, Alexandra and Wānaka. Co-owner and self-described wine-nerd Natalie Lions is a former sommelier who has worked in some of the top restaurants in the country and prides herself on a very personal experience.
Another option is Pinot Junction, which recently opened as part of local Italian favourite, Armando’s, in Cromwell Old Town. It’s perfect if you need some orientation. Kate Barnett knows a thing or two about wine after 30 years in the industry - her family established Felton Road Wines and she’s worked at Mt Difficulty as well as establishing the cellar door at Domaine Thomson.
She and husband Matt want to be an unbiased source of information for anyone - from people who know nothing about wine, right through to people who visit the region regularly.
They will have 16 wines available via an enomatic machine where visitors purchase a token or card and draw samples themselves. There will also be a wine bar over the summer months. Matt and Kate are locals so can help direct you towards the cellar-door experience you're looking for, whatever that might be.
For the foodies
Sometimes you just want to taste wine, sometimes you'd like some first-rate food to go with that. Kinross, Mt Difficulty, Amisfield, Cloudy Bay, Carrick and Akarua all have great reputations and if you are after an outstanding meal, these should definitely be on your list. An honourable mention has to go to the Bannockburn Hotel - it's not a winery but has 200 wines on its menu (more than 50 by the glass) and the food is fantastic.
For something a bit different
Every winery is unique but there are some experiences in Central Otago that will give you something a bit different. The award-winning architectural design of Te Kano has some serious modern wow factor. The rustic welcoming charm of Desert Heart (and their legendary platters) makes it a favourite for whiling away time over some wine, chat and a great view.
Domaine Thomson's French connection is fascinating (they have vineyards in Central Otago and Burgundy and you can taste wine from both) and Stoneridge will make you wonder if you've stepped back in time with its stunning English gardens and restored Catholic chapel. The cave at Gibbston Valley Wines is worth a look - it's New Zealand's largest wine cave and is pretty impressive; and the art, space, food and views at Cloudy Bay are drawing crowds from all over for good reason.
Travelling with kids
If you have your offspring in tow, head to Carrick Winery, where there's plenty of space for them to run around outside. The restaurant is wonderful if they are happy to sit, if not there's a pizza and wine trailer outside, complete with beanbags.
Newly reopened Scott Base (Allan Scott Wines) and Wooing Tree are very child friendly too - Wooing Tree is open, despite all the construction surrounding it.
More than wine
While wine tasting is obviously what you're here to do in Central Otago it's interesting to know that Terra Sancta Winery also produces an amazing Aperitivo, and a Double IPA; Mt Rosa does mulled wine and sangria (you can buy their house-made syrups to make these at home) and both Tannacrieff and Judge Rock make excellent port.
If you're short on time
If you only have limited time but want to taste some excellent wines, top vineyards Misha’s Vineyard, Pisa Range and Wild Earth all have their cellar doors right next to each other in the centre of Cromwell. As a bonus, you can grab a bite from the Stoaker Room afterwards (attached to Wild Earth), where all the food is cooked in pinot noir barrels.
The ultimate in intimate wine tasting
The Alexandra Basin provides a truly unique wine experience. Because the vineyards in this area are small, you will often be tasting in someone's beautiful back garden or in a room attached to their home. It's an amazingly intimate and rare opportunity to talk to the people making the wine, not just pouring it. For details of the wineries in the area, see alexandrabasinwines.co.nz
DETAILS For more things to see and do in the region, go to centralotagonz.com