In this land of extremes, where mountains meet lakes, and shield our deep valleys from the rain picked up in the Roaring Forties, daring pioneers have braved the elements for generations to produce the worlds best fruit. Off the back of a lucrative gold rush in the 1860s Central Otago’s agriculture and horticulture boomed. Owing to the semi-arid landscape, where temperatures can reach 35C during the day and drop to freezing at night, we have the perfect conditions to ripen stone fruits, cherries, apples & especially Pinot Noir grapes.
From the beginning
1860 - 1960
In the late 19th century the government appointed Romeo Bragato to survey the country to assess & identify regions with great wine-growing potential. Bragato was astonished when he came to Central Otago, stating “there does not appear to me any stateable limit to the productiveness of that magnificent territory”. He identified that cool-climate loving varieties would thrive in Central Otago, including Pinot Noir & Riesling which now predominate in the region.
Credit: Thomas L. Brown – “Otago Winemakers” 2008.
However, despite Bragato’s foresight and optimism, stone fruit plantings dominated until the 1980s when a renewed interest and commitment by Central Otago’s winemaking pioneers, saw their dreams become reality, with the first modern commercial production of Pinot Noir in 1987.
1980 - Present Day
The 1980s saw a renewed interest in growing grapes in New Zealand and a few visionaries disregarded advice telling them Central Otago was “too cold, too high and too far south” to grow wine. Rolfe and Lois Mills at Wānaka’s Rippon Vineyard, Alan Brady in Gibbston Valley, Anne Pinkney in Whakatipu, and Sue Edwards and Verdun Burgess at Black Ridge near Alexandra all planted grapes and began their winemaking journey with almost serendipitous simultaneity in the early 1980s.
Far removed from the rest of the country’s budding wine industry and lacking a manual for making it work in this extreme environment, these early pioneers shared their knowledge, experiences and winemaking equipment as they grew the nascent industry from barren land to fields of (the new) gold. This spirit of collaboration helped lubricate the burgeoning industry and remains central to its character to this day.
The first commercial release of Pinot Noir was from Gibbston Valley Winery in 1987 and by the end of the ‘80s, word was spreading, attracting fresh blood such Chard Farm founders Rob and Greg Hay.
Having returned from Germany where he studied wine, Hay fell in love with Chard Farm, an orchard perched high on a ledge above the Kawarau River in Gibbston. By the time Brady was popping the cork on his first vintage, Rob and his brother Greg were clearing trees for grapes. Down the local pub, the brothers had their doubters. “A waste of bloody good merino [sheep] country!” they were heard to say.
But the world was waking up to Central Otago pinot noir too, with Gibbston Valley Winery and Rippon both winning medals in the early-mid ‘90s. Meanwhile, more wineries were coming online in Bannockburn, Cromwell, Bendigo, Wānaka and Alexandra and in 1991, four vineyard owners on Bannockburn’s Felton Road banded together to create Mt Difficulty, now one of the region’s largest and most prominent producers.
As production and quality increased, so did the desire to showcase these wines at their source. Cellar doors and restaurants opened, allowing visitors to discover the region’s wines in their unique terroir. With Queenstown as a hub, Central Otago wines now attract hundreds of thousands of visitors to the area every year who come to enjoy the epic scenery and punishing landscapes that accompany our stunning wines.