Back in Central Otago

It’s so great to be back in Central Otago, in New Zealand’s South Island. Prior to the annual Central Pinot celebration, which starts on Thursday, I’m spending a week visiting producers and getting to know this region better. I’ve been here several times already, but there’s still much to learn. And as it’s such a young wine region – just 32 years old – it’s quite dynamic, and is still evolving and growing.

I left London on Tuesday afternoon and arrived In Queenstown on Thursday late morning: losing a day is the result of two long flights and a 13 hour time difference. Pictured top is a view of the main part of the wine region, the Lake Dunstan basin, also referred to as the Cromwell Basin. At the far end is the main town in the wine region, Cromwell, which is one of New Zealand’s fastest growing towns at the moment. It isn’t fancy, but I’m spending six nights here, and four nights in, I’m quite enjoying being here. Queenstown, the main regional hub, is about 50 minutes drive away, and it’s a very pretty but sometimes dangerous drive – there are a fair number of erratic drivers around here, particularly tourists who don’t drive much at home and then rent a car.

Lake Dunstan is artificial, and is part of the Clyde dam hydroelectric scheme. It was filled in 1990, and before this the area would have been a rabbit-infested mess of relatively poor sheep farming country. Now it has some of New Zealand’s most expensive vineyard land. Along the left of the lake in the picture is the Bendigo subregion, and on the right, there’s Pisa and Lowburn. There are a few vineyards close to Cromwell, and then behind the town there is the Bannockburn subregion, home to some famous names.

As well as the Cromwell basin, the other three subdistricts are Wanaka (which is effectively behind me in that picture, some 50 km away from Cromwell heading along the lake and a bit further beyond), Gibbston and Alexandra. All three are a bit cooler and capable of making some very interesting wines. The second picture, also from the air, shows Chard Farm, one of the main vineyards in Gibbston, which is on the way to Queenstown from Cromwell (and vice versa). Alexandra is 20 minutes drive west heading towards Dunedin from Cromwell.

I have so many questions to ask about this region. One of my deep interests in the influence of soils on wine flavour, so wherever I go I’m asking questions. I haven’t yet been able to crystallise all my answers, but a few pieces of the jigsaw puzzle are falling into place – a few corners and edges maybe. The parent bedrock in the region is schist, but most of the soils are things that have come from elsewhere and then been deposited. During the ice age the water levels were much higher, and as well as some glacial activity the main influence has been the deposition of stones and silt from advancing and receding water, quite recently in geological terms. These are young soils. And then these river silts and glacial moraines have been moved around. There’s a lot of wind blown loess here as top soil. Because it rains very little, there hasn’t been a lot of plant growth and so the organic matter in the soil is very low. And with different water levels there are a series of terraces of different ages, with the highest ones the oldest, and this has an effect on the vines too. The low rainfall has also resulted in a very interesting phenomenon known as pedogenic lime, and there’s a fair bit of this in the region.

The challenge is to be able to understand this diversity, how this affects vine growth, and then to try to relate this to wine flavour. I have lots more to process, but right now I have to sign off and head out for another day of visits!

A cross section of the soil at Doctors Flat, a high terrace in Bannockburn

Pedogenic lime

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