Over the past 20 years or so, Central Otago has established itself as New Zealand's pinot noir wine region. The area was previously better known as a winter sports playground, but now wine is a major drawcard in addition to the ruggedly beautiful alpine scenery, stunning mirrored lakes, and numerous near-death experience adrenaline sport options.
As with most overnight successes, Central Otago has been many years in the making. Frenchman Jean Desire Feraud planted the first grapes in Clyde in 1864, winning a prize in an 1881 Sydney wine competition. In 1885 an Italian viticulturalist, Romeo Bragato, visited Central Otago and pronounced it "suitable for grape growing."
But it was not till 1976 that the first of today's crop of successful wineries was established when the late Rolfe Mills and his wife Lois planted their first vines at Rippon Vineyard in Wanaka. Five years later, Alan Brady started Gibbston Valley. Now there are more than 130 wineries in the region.
Day one: Misha's Vineyard, Wooing Tree, Rockburn and Chard Farm
The first stop on my visit to Central Otago was Cromwell. In 2004, Andy & Misha Wilkinson began Misha's Vineyard after living in Asia for 16 years working in marketing and sales. The Asian market was well in their sights when they made their change of vocation to winemaking. They own 25 hectares of vineyards, with plans to expand. Pinot noir is the star here, but they also grow sauvignon blanc, riesling and gewürztraminer. The airy tasting room offered five tasting samples out of a choice of nine. We chose two pinot noirs, a rosé, a gewurztraminer and a sauvignon blanc. The pinots were great as expected, but the surprise for me was the sauvignon blanc – barrel-fermented and soft with floral, citrus and blackcurrant.
Next up was Wooing Tree, owned by Stephen and Thea Farquharson and Stephen's sister and brother-in-law, Jane and Geoff Bews. The label takes its name from a large pine tree, which had long been a local meeting point for lovers and the site of many a proposal to southern lasses. It is another barn-style tasting room and cafe, with dark brown corrugated-iron roof, exposed beams and slate floors. The focus here is almost entirely on pinot noir, with a small amount of pinot gris and chardonnay, and rosé that has been a runaway success.
The Stoaker Room
By this stage, we were getting a bit peckish, so we headed back to Cromwell village. Led by the delicious wafting aroma of smoked grilled meat we discovered The Stoaker Room, where they steam, bake, grill, and smoke local foods in French oak pinot noir barrels. (Adjacent to the hot smoking oak barrels is a "No Smoking" sign).
From a seat in the covered courtyard, we could see that it was well patronised by locals in the know. We opted for Wakanui beef rump with a side of roast potatoes with aioli, and Cajun smoked cauliflower with hummus, chimichurri and honey roasted cashews. Fantastic. Plenty enough for two people and washed down with a local Otago Brew School Ultravox11 Vienna Lager.
Thus fortified, we headed to the Rockburn tasting room in the Gibbston Tavern Art Gallery. On offer was as selection of award-winning pinot noir as well as sauvignon blanc, pinot gris, riesling, rose and fumé blanc. All the pinots were knock-down fabulous: The Devil's Staircase, the standard Rockburn Pinot, and The Chosen Single Vineyard.
Approaching Chard Farm is not for the faint-hearted or the alcohol-impaired. The road is a narrow shingle goat track, which clings desperately to the slopes of the steep gorge which races down to the green Kawarau River. Brothers Rob and Greg Hay selected the sloping former orchard and market garden site (owned by a Richard Chard in the 1870s) for their vineyard and planted their first vines in 1987. Rob and his German-born wife Gerdi Schuman now oversee the winery, which continuously clocks up awards for its aromatics and pinot noirs. Stunningly good pinots and a charming hostess made this a memorable tasting visit. The whole range was consistently excellent from the Sur Lie (aged under yeast) pinot gris, to the riesling and four pinot noirs: River Run, Finla Mor, Mata-Au and finally The Tiger.
Day two: Across the Crown Range
On day two, we took the Crown Range drive to Wanaka. Many had recommended this as a good thing to do, but what they don't tell you is the first part of the trip is a series of steep zig-zag switchbacks and hairpin corners for about 5 kilometres before you reach the summit. Our trusty Toyota Corolla rental managed the curves, and we were finally rewarded with magnificent views of brown alpine tussock-clad hills, with acres of multi-coloured blue, mauve and pink wild lupins nestled around the lowlands.
Wanaka Lavender Farm
Driving along Wanaka's main road, we stumbled across the Wanaka Lavender Farm. At first sight it looks quite ordinary, but once on the property and though the gift shop, for $10 each you are free to explore picturesque acres of landscaped fragrant lavender, plus a petting zoo for kids or animal fans like me (donkeys, pigs, alpacas, sheep and highland cattle). The gift shop sells soaps, cosmetics and lavender honey.
Coal Pit, Hawkshead, Kinross, Valli and Wild Irishman
Back on the main road back to Queenstown, we dropped in at Kinross which is the official cellar door for five Otago wineries - Coal Pit, Hawkshead, Kinross, Valli and Wild Irishman. Another great tasting with a knowledgeable host. With such a variety on offer, we tried many notable wines, particularly enjoying the Valli range, and the excellent value Coal Pit Tiwha pinot noir.
Day three: Akarua
Not to be confused with the fabulous Akarua Wines & Kitchen restaurant on the main road to Arrowtown, Akarua was founded in Bannockburn in 1995 by businessman and former mayor of Dunedin Sir Clifford Skeggs. Initially, plantings consisted of 50 hectares, with 70 per cent in pinot noir. To keep up with demand, from 2014 Akarua began purchasing prime established vineyards at the end of Felton Road in Bannockburn and in Pisa sub-regions. A true 'location-location' winery, it sits on the slopes above Lake Dunstan. Here, the premium Akarua pinot noir is the star, although they also grow chardonnay and pinot gris, and produce rosé and a Champagne "methode" sparkler.
After a tour through the winery plant, barrel hall and vineyard, we were treated to a great line up of wines, and then, to lunch at Akarua Wines & Kitchen restaurant. I had heard great things about this restaurant, and it certainly lived up to, and exceeded expectation. On a blue-skied day, we had a lovely leaf-dappled table outside. We shared the confit half duck with apricot puree, soft herbs and duck jus, with sides of twice-cooked Southland potatoes with chipotle mayo (spud heaven), and grilled corn with cashew cream, almonds, and shredded cauliflower. A glass of the Akarua Pinot Noir was the perfect match. Five-star cuisine with a relaxed Southern charm.
Day four: Homeward bound
For our entire trip, we had been blessed with perfect weather, with days up to 27C. Then overnight the temperature had plunged to 7C and we woke to the magical sight of fresh snow on The Remarkables. The day started mildly drizzly and chilly, but by about 1pm the snow melted, and the skies cleared. It was a last hurrah from Central Otago reminding us that while it's beautiful in summer, it's gorgeous in winter too.
Phil Parker runs Auckland Fine Wine Tours. Visit insidertouring.co.nz to learn more
Otago's annual celebration
Otago's biggest wine event, Clyde's Easter Harvest Wine & Food Festival, runs each year on Easter Sunday. This annual celebration of the bounty of Central Otago takes place in Clyde's historic precinct, a section of schist stone buildings that date to the 1860s.
With the stunning backdrop of schist mountains beyond, it's a stunning place to explore some of the best drops that come out of the world's most southerly wine region.
Entry is $20 with a festival glass (which you need in order to taste), and you'll find entertainment and food as well as wine stalls up and down the main street. historicclyde.co.nz