Special New Zealand feature
Tricia Welsh mixes spectacular scenery with fine drops in the world's most southerly grape-growing region.
Central Otago, the region around picturesque Queenstown and Wanaka is internationally known for its fabulous snow-capped mountains, plethora of skifields and heart-stopping activities – it is the home of bungy jumping, after all.
But over the past few years, this newest and fastest-growing of New Zealand's wine regions has been luring food and wine-lovers to sample, buy and enjoy their wines at cellar doors and in the increasing number of good winery restaurants.
In this, the most southerly grape-growing region in the world, pinot noir is the hero, closely followed by white aromatic wines – pinot gris, riesling as well as chardonnay and methode traditionnelle sparkling wines made from pinot noir and chardonnay grapes. It's not surprising these wines are proving so outstanding, for at 45 degrees south, Central Otago shares similar climatic conditions with some of the most prestigious wine-producing areas in the world – such as Burgundy and the Rhone Valley in France and the Willamette Valley in Oregon, in the USA.
There are more than 80 wineries spread through four distinct sub-regions and separated by mountains, streams and deep gorges. Some 70 per cent of vineyards are in the central Cromwell Basin which includes Bendigo, Pisa, Lowburn and popular Bannockburn in the south; 20 per cent of vines are grown around Gibbston – the closest vineyards to Queenstown; just seven per cent are tucked away at Clyde and Alexandra; while a whole three percent are grown around Lake Wanaka where vineyards edge the lake with a backdrop of majestic snow-capped peaks.
To get a quick overview of the wine-rich region, it's an easy hour and a half to drive the 116kms from Queenstown to Wanaka via Gibbston and the Cromwell Basin. You won't be disappointed wherever you stop, but as in any region, there are some standouts.
Close to Queenstown
Just a few minutes out of town there are several wineries with cellar doors open to the public. Near the Kawarau Suspension Bridge (site of the original bungy jump), is spectacularly sited Chard Farm with views across the Kawarau River. It's a bit of a goats' track in, but visitors are welcome to bring a picnic and enjoy the extraordinary location. Try their award-winning pinot noirs as well as pinot gris, sauvignon blanc, pinot rose, gewurztraminer and a spirited sparkling, CO 2.
Less than a kilometre from the bridge is Gibbston Valley Wines – the region's largest wine producer and the most visited winery in the country. Although some 40,000 dine each year at its Mediterranean-inspired restaurant, it retains a relaxed pace – many choosing to take a tour of the underground wine cave (with tastings) and visit the on-site cheese factory. Again pinot noir is king, with riesling, pinot gris, pinot blanc and their blanc de pinot noir rose also worth trying.
A few kilometres further along the Kawarau Gorge Road is Peregrine whose architecturally-designed falcon's wing curved roof is nothing short of spectacular. In the underground tasting room with views into the barrel room, you can sample their latest release pinot noirs – including a regional pinot blend, as well as riesling, pinot gris, chardonnay and gewutztraminer.
Bannockburn is the home of the region's most presitigous label, Felton Road Vineyard. Perched above its vineyards, the cellar door is open only in the afternoons, but if you are serious about wine a visit here is highly recommended. Their pinot noirs are internationally-acclaimed; there are usually two offered for tasting, plus a riesling and chardonnay.
Sadly named, but beautifully sited is the cellar door and restaurant of Mt Difficulty that overlooks the myriad Cromwell Basin vineyards. You could do worse than book a table here to sample their pinot noir, riesling or sauvignon blanc with a generous tasting platter or slow-roasted duck.
Best winery experience
Without doubt one of the best local winery experiences to be had is at Amisfield – just 15 minutes by car from Queenstown on pretty Lake Hayes. While the winery itself is in Cromwell Basin, the Amisfield Bistro (and cellar door) here is the full deal: great location with picture window overlooking Lake Hayes that is edged with poplars ablaze in autumn; a welcoming open fire for cosy wine-tasting; and an outstanding dining room that excels with modern dishes to match estate-grown wines. Expect Serrano ham, nectarine and rocket accompanied perhaps by a glass of Arcadia blanc de noir, fried groper and celeriac mayonaisse with an Amisfield sauvignon blanc or a barbecue rib-eye with bearnaise and watercress with an Amisfield pinot noir. Be sure to book well ahead or you might miss out on one of New Zealand's best wine and food experiences anywhere.
Vino and Victuals Wine and Food Festival: beginning of January; sample great Cromwell Basin wines with food and live music.
Central Otago Pinot Noir Celebration: the last weekend in January; www.pinotcelebration.co.nz International speakers, seminars, wine tastings and fine food.
Gibbston Harvest Festival: the third Saturday of March; www.gibbstonharvestfestival.co.nz Family event celebrating Gibbston wine and local food.
Clyde Wine and Food Harvest Festival: Easter Sunday; Autumn festival celebrating local wine, food, local produce and music. More: www.cowa.org.nz
This series of articles has been sponsored by Tourism New Zealand.