by Victoria Moore, The Telegraph, October 1, 2019
“Tribes came up here for jade, the local greenstone,” says winemaker Nick Mills as we drive towards Lake Wanaka on New Zealand’s South Island. “They had a high inland camp that was a place of rest and education. Then, in 1836, the warring chieftain Te Puoho came down the exposed west coast with over 100 warriors in a war canoe, found a local community, took some slaves as a guide, and wiped the valley clean. The place wasn’t settled again for a while after that. Anything that came here had to fly or swim. There were no mammals save for bats and seals.”
It isn’t difficult to imagine this landscape without people in it. Vines have a habit of civilising the most extreme of places, but much of Otago – the wine region is Central Otago – still feels as wild as it is beautiful. Snowy mountain peaks rise out of a landscape of weathered rock. Even under a grey sky the rivers are a piercing turquoise.
The wine pioneers planted vines here in the Seventies, but it was only in this century the industry really accelerated. Today Central Otago, or “Central” as it is known, is famous for the quality of its pinot noir and contains around 125 wine producers. It is also home to the town of Alexandra, a 50-mile (80km) drive south of Wanaka, which is not just the hottest, coldest, highest, driest place in the country but also officially classified as semi-desert.
And, close to Alexandra, are the most southerly vineyards in New Zealand – owned by the Jurassic Park actor Sam Neill whose Two Paddocks winery is sadly only visitable if you are a member of the Two Paddocks club. (Trivia collectors will be wondering if they are the most southerly in the world and the answer is that they once were but both Chile and Argentina now have experimental contenders.)
The Otago landscape is so spectacular that in recent years it has proved a huge draw to both domestic and international tourists. Wanaka – in living memory a small settlement with a population of 400 servicing local farmers – is now a resort town, and a hugely popular place for wealthy Aucklanders to buy their holiday homes.
Today people are drawn to Otago for the chance to relax amid spectacular surroundings or to visit the places that provided the backdrop to Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy adaptations. But in the late 19th century the draw was gold. The Otago gold rush peaked in the 1860s, and it’s estimated that two million ounces of gold – most of it alluvial – were taken by June 1867. But because the winters in Otago are harsh, the ebb and flow of the population meant that the money didn’t stay, leaving the place almost as isolated as it was before they came. The draw now, apart from the scenery, is the wine – here is where to get the best of it.
The five best wineries to visit
Sitting on the shores of Lake Wanaka, the celebrated Rippon winery commands one of the best vineyard views you will find in Central Otago – and there is some stiff competition. It’s run by Nick Mills, a former Team NZ skier (his Olympic dreams were shattered when he smashed a knee in a skiing accident) who talks with huge charisma and detail about the history and landscape of the place – and is a superb winemaker. Nick’s great-grandfather, Percy, bought the original property in 1912; his father, Rolfe, planted the first vines here in the Seventies after being inspired by the vines he had seen clinging to the steep terraces of Portugal’s Douro Valley; and since 2003 Nick has been responsible for “trying to understand the land, and how it could express itself through wine”.
Rippon makes exquisite pinot noir. There are old and young vine expressions of the estate as a whole, and also wines made from individual blocks. There isn’t one I’d want to miss.
Open 11am-5pm daily for tastings until Oct 1; after this appointments must be made (rippon.co.nz).
Austrian-born Rudi Bauer is regarded as one of Central Otago’s trailblazers, and has twice been crowned New Zealand winemaker of the year. He first came to New Zealand in the mid-Eighties as a trained winemaker on a six-month working visa. Cycling around Central Otago he fell in love with the beauty of the place, and with a girl, and ended up staying. Rudi founded Quartz Reef in 1996 in Bendigo, once a buzzing hard rock gold-mining area, and he famously runs it according to biodynamic principles – a method of farming that takes into account the movement of the moon and planets.
Quartz Reef pinot noir is excellent but Rudi also makes superb traditional-method sparkling wine using chardonnay and pinot noir. Make sure you try the Methode Traditionnelle Brut NV.
The cellar door is in Cromwell, in the working winery on an industrial estate. It opens noon-4pm Monday to Friday, or contact the winery directly to book a tour (quartzreef.co.nz).
Carrick is situated in Bannockburn and takes its name from the nearby gold-mining town. It was planted in 1994, now has organic certification and is particularly friendly to visitors, with an excellent restaurant whose menus are written to make the most of fresh local seasonal produce.
Pinot noir is king here as in most of Central, but Carrick also makes chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, riesling, pinot blanc, pinot gris – and a rosé. Try the beautiful chardonnay for a taste of how well New Zealand can handle this grape.
The restaurant is open daily noon-4pm (but there’s a reduced menu after 3pm); the cellar door is open daily 11am-4pm. You can taste a range of wines, including two pinot noirs, for NZ$10 (£5) or book a wine tour and tasting from NZ$15 (£7). Book a place on a tour or for lunch at the restaurant in advance online (carrick.co.nz).
On my first visit to Central Otago I was picked up from the airport by Nigel Greening, the British owner of Felton Road (he bought the place in 2000) and is a dead ringer for Richard Branson with slightly wilder hair. Greening chatted non-stop all the way to the Bannockburn property, covering biodynamics, gold mining, bungee jumping and the goat curry he had in the boot (Nigel is absolutely brilliant on food – and on wine with food). In partnership with long-serving winemaker Blair Walter, he has refined and refined the quality of the wine here, focusing on the detail, to make this winery one of Central Otago’s most respected names.
Cornish Point was once a gold miners’ settlement, located next to the place where the first large find of gold was made. Later it became an apricot orchard. Now it is a Felton Road vineyard that makes beautiful pinot noir.
Visits are by appointment only (feltonroad.com).
The Skeggs family knew Central Otago from holidaying there and in the mid-Nineties the first generation planted vines in Bannockburn, producing the first vintage in 1999. The winery is still in family hands, now run by the second generation, and is one of those to have put effort into a cellar door that tourists can visit. The restaurant opens for breakfast, lunch and dinner and sample dishes include confit half duck with tamarillo, bittersweet leaves and watercress or wakanui short rib with toasted buckwheat, mustard glaze and a celeriac, parsnip and cauliflower purée. Lunch main courses are NZ$25-44 (£12-22) plus NZ$12-18 (£6-11) for sides.
Like everyone else in Central, Akarua makes pinot noir – and it’s good, make sure to try a glass in the restaurant whose food seems designed to make it shine – but sparkling wine is also a speciality here.
In summer, the restaurant, Akarua Wines and Kitchen, is open 9am-5pm seven days a week and the cellar door is open 11am-5pm seven days a week (akarua.com).
Where to stay
Lime Tree Lodge Hotel is a lodge with a very homely feel just outside Wanaka. Rooms from £158 (limetreelodge.co.nz).
QT Queenstown is a contemporary hotel on the shores of Lake Wakatipu. With extraordinary views, rooms are from around £150 (qthotelsandresorts.com).
Hotel St Moritz in Queenstown is also situated on the lake and is decorated in a contemporary meets Seventies ski chalet style. Rooms from £127 (stmoritz.co.nz).
Where to eat
Olivers, in Clyde, is a café-deli-bakery. The restaurant serves lunches and dinners (around NZ$57/£29 for two courses at dinner). Sample dishes include soy crisp pork belly with potato and pork miso gratin (olivers.co.nz).
The Spice Room in Wanaka is very good for an Indian and offers an early bird dinner menu for NZ$20 (£10) with mains starting at NZ$22 (£11).
Wild Earth winery’s Stoaker Room Bistro and Bar has a lot of fans and a meat-heavy menu. (wildearthwines.co.nz).
What to do
You could be happy doing nothing but driving through Central Otago, but the region is a huge draw for sporty types who come for the skiing, hiking, bungee-jumping and cycling. The Otago Central Rail Trail is a cycling, walking and riding track that runs through mountains and old gold-mining settlements, 93 miles (150km) along the former railway route from Middlemarch to Clyde and even has its own website to help you plan a trip (otagocentralrailtrail.co.nz).
If you envisage a more sedate trip then why not take a dive into the history of the area and visit the Cromwell Museum (cromwellmuseum.nz)?
You might also want to drive north to Canterbury and go stargazing around Lake Tekapo, part of a Unesco dark sky reserve.
Otago is on New Zealand’s South Island. The local airport is Queenstown, but you’ll need to change at Auckland to get here. Book direct with Air New Zealand (airnewzealand.co.uk) or check your options with an agent like Trailfinders (trailfinders.com).
New Zealand Tourist Board (newzealand.com/uk).