At 45 degrees south of the equator, the stunning landscape of Central Otago is defined by the outermost massifs of the Southern Alps. Dramatic, snowcapped mountain ranges that reach well over 3,000 metres into the clear blue sky. Their glacially carved, rugged slopes cascade down into ridges and ravines that annually flow with fresh meltwater into rivers and lakes that shimmer an icy azure blue.
Kā Tiritiri o te Moana protects the region from the worst of the Roaring Forties; strong and bitterly cold westerly winds that blow through the Southern Hemisphere from the South Pole. The Alps create a significant rain shadow, which means Central Otago is very dry. Thus, irrigation is essential for winemaking here. Vital glacial meltwater comes care of the Kawarau and Clutha Rivers.
Growing wine at the ends of the Earth has its benefits. As the world’s most southerly grape-growing region, the vines here benefit from a large diurnal temperature range. This means long, warm days and cool nights – excellent for ripening fruit.
Despite being renowned for producing powerful pinots, Central Otago’s aromatic white wines stylistically define and encapsulate the region as a place of great wine, much better than pinot noir has, thus far.
For a fine wine to become a great wine, first, it must be of its place. Place gives meaning to wine. The region gets reflected; the climate is captured, the soils are showcased, the people are present, though, never at the expense of place. Wines of great distinction strongly display a sense of place.
The Central Otago wine region is one of those rare winemaking places on Earth where the perception of place is distinctive in nearly all of its fine white wines.
“Everybody knows how great the pinot noir from here is, but not many people know how good Central Otago white wines are. All you ever hear about is pinot,” says Rudi Bauer of Quartz Reef. “I think the whites speak a beautiful language of this region; just look at the landscape… the mountains, the rivers, the lakes… the whites reflect that, and they are just as stunning,” he says.
It’s true. Not many know it, but there is a spectacular vitality present in the white wines of Central Otago. In the riesling, in the chardonnay, in the chenin blanc, and sav blanc, even in the gewürztraminer and grüner veltliner, and, of course, in the region’s other pinot variety, pinot gris.
Each and every one of these grapes, when grown and made into wine, has an easily identifiable, highly traceable, distinctively obvious common denominator; purity and precision bound up by a sense of compression.
“Compactness and linearity are good white wine attributes and a unique trait of Central Otago whites,” says Duncan Forsyth of Mount Edward.
“Our level of light inception allows for ripeness at lower Brix levels, plus our strong diurnal shifts allow acidity to be ripe while retaining its strength and presence. You can harvest whites early and still achieve a ripeness of flavour while retaining tension and freshness.”
Vivid acidity is a hallmark of Central Otago white wine.
“These climatic factors combine with our lean soils [of mostly loess, schist, and some gravel] to give the wines a mineral, textural edge; an almost sherbet pithiness, which is another unique trait, for me,” Forsyth says.
“These are mountain wines,” states Nick Mills of Rippon. “They are wines of power and detail over volume or mass.
“For us, here at Rippon,” Mills continues, “riesling and gewürz are particularly suited to the Wanaka environment. These varieties consistently issue balanced fruit that, at the moment of skin and seed ripeness, require no adjustments to the must. Acidity is naturally present from the outset.”
While pinot noir dominates plantings in Central Otago, white wine grapes account for 20% of vineyards in the region. Pinot gris leads the way at 10%, followed by a cohort of other whites, including riesling (3.5%), chardonnay (3%), sauvignon blanc (2%) and gewürztraminer (0.6%).
Bulk winemaking mentality has seen poor pinot gris maligned by serious wine lovers as being rather boring or otherwise too sweet, but in Central Otago’s cool, continental climate, PG gets an M for mature rating by Valli Vineyards winemaker and GT WINE New Zealand Winemaker of the Year, Jen Parr.
“We make a single vineyard pinot gris from Gibbston, which is the coolest part of the region. For me, the sole purpose when making pinot gris is aromatic preservation; I see lots of citrus and crunchy pear, apples, and white florals,” Parr says.
“We whole-bunch press, ferment cool without solids in stainless, and put it in bottle as soon as possible. Doing so captures an aromatic style that drinks really well young, but because of the wonderful natural acidity we achieve, the wines will easily cellar for 10-plus years.”
Chardonnay is starting to emerge as a provocative prospect, too. There’s an intrinsic, authentic precision about the ones that hail from Central Otago, which has winemakers like Bauer excited.
“It’s still in its infancy, but there is a niche [of winemakers] coming through with chardonnay,” he says.
“We’ve learnt we need to focus on what we do best, which is highlighting the vibrancy of our acidity with clarity and precision, and very smart oak handling. Over the next 10 years I think Central Otago chardonnay will be spoken about, in terms of quality and uniqueness, just as we do now about our pinot noir.”
While Felton Road continues to be the standard bearer for chardonnay in the region, Amisfield has made its future intentions clear by planting some 7,000 chardonnay vines at its estate. And, of course, chardonnay is a major component in sparkling wines, where Quartz Reef continues to be nigh on peerless for its outstanding quality.
“For now, our climate still has the biggest impact on our wines, but that’s changing every year as the vines get older and we learn to unlock our soils. That will be the next chapter, when the vineyard really starts to speak in your glass,” Bauer says.
At the very least, the white wines of Central Otago are looking the region’s famous pinot noirs in the eye and asking, which really are the great wines of the land?
2013 Quartz Reef Methode Traditionnelle Vintage Blanc de Blancs, A$80/NZ$80
Stunning. An infinite bead, so fine and finessed. Refreshing lemon citrus, pastry crust and crushed chamomile florals, woven into a graceful and elegant mouthfeel.
2017 Rippon Mature Vine Riesling, Wanaka, NZ$38
Wild tangle of lemons and apples, jasmine and honey perfumes carried upon cool, clean, crisp mountain air. Limy, waxy acids, green apple and stone fruits; massif glacial refreshment.
2017 Burn Cottage Riesling Grüner Veltliner, Cromwell, A$53
Pale gold with high-tone citrus florals, white peach and pear set beneath a faint veil of togarashi spice. Slippery, not slick, juicy but dry, with crisp acidity and pleasing phenolic persistence.
2016 Valli Vineyards Pinot Gris, Gibbston, NZ$55
Vivid scenes of elderflower, pear and blood orange against a background of cream and rocky minerality; then, lychee, kiwi and quince. Gentle acidity, sappy and firm. Dry, long and lingering.
2017 Mount Edward Chenin Blanc, Gibbston, A$38/NZ$27
A cavalcade of yellow apple and salted butter, rockmelon, oily pear, some spice and chamomile tea. Unusual, but wonderful. Fragrant, fresh and bright.
2018 Felton Road Chardonnay, Bannockburn, A$55/NZ$43
Gorgeous. Flinty tropical fruits overrun by mountain top meltwater; a white floral halo around a pineapple core anchoring limy acidity for structure. Flesh with finesse.