General Information: The Central Otago Wine Region is the most southerly wine producing region in the world. The vineyards are also the highest in New Zealand at 200 to 400 metres above sea level, on the floor of glacial valleys. Central Otago is a sheltered inland area with a continental microclimate characterised by hot, dry summers, cool autumns and crisp, cold winters.Vineyard planting and production remained modest until the middle of the 1990s when the industry began to expand rapidly. In 1996 there were just 11 wineries in the Central Otago region, according to New Zealand Winegrowers, accounting for just 4.6% of the national total. By 2004 this had risen to 75 wineries and 16.2%. Over the same period, the area planted with vines rose from 92 hectares (1.4% of the national total) to 1,062 hectares (5.1%). Reflecting this rapid expansion, the long lead-time for planting to come into production, and the focus in Central Otago on quality wines rather than bulk wines, actual wine production accounted for only 0.5% (376 tonnes) of the New Zealand total in 1996, increasing to 0.9% (1,439 tonnes) in 2004.
Climate:At around the 300 metre elevation level, Central Otago's vineyards are protected by high mountains (up to 3,700 metres) from New Zealand's characteristic maritime climate. They thus enjoy the only true continental climate zone in the country, with the large daily and seasonal temperature extremes typical of such geographies. Rainfall averages around 375-600mm here: summer is hot and relatively dry, and often accompanied by the Nor'wester foehn wind; autumn is short, cool and sunny; and winter is cold, with substantial falls of snow. Heavy frosts are common throughout winter and, indeed, frost can occur at any time between March and November.
Soil:The structure of the soil also differs considerably from other wine growing regions of the country, with heavy deposits of rough-edged mica and other metamorphic schists in silt loams. This soil drains easily, and given that most vineyards are positioned on hillside slopes, artificial irrigation is generally essential.
Grapes:Pinot noir is the leading grape variety in Central Otago, and is estimated to account for some 70% of plantings. The Pinot Noir is notoriously fickle and difficult to grow. Central Otago, however, with its combination of climate, terroir and determined winemaking appears to have the capacity to produce a world-class Pinot Noir that is increasingly sought-after. The grape there is producing elegant wines with great ageing potential that some experts believe will ultimately equal the best in the world.
The other 30% of production comes from Chardonnay, Sauvignon blanc, Riesling, Pinot gris, and Gewürztraminer.