Central Otago is "God's country when it comes to pinot
noir", Australian wine writer James Halliday wrote in Panorama
in 2000. At the region's 25th anniversary celebration at the
weekend, Charmian Smith asked him if he thinks it still
James Halliday. Photos by Charmian Smith.
In 1990, James Halliday, elder statesman of Australian wine,
opened Gibbston Valley Wines, the region's first
purpose-built winery and restaurant. He was privately
thinking that there was no way good wine was going to be made
there, he says, and he warned Alan Brady and his investors
that wineries had an inexhaustible appetite for funds -
something many have found since.
Halliday has been to Central many times since, obviously
revising his opinion about the quality of the wine. Last
weekend he was back for the 25th anniversary celebrations of
the region's first wine produced for sale in 1987. These were
Gibbston Valley pinot noir, a pinot gris and a white, Taramea
wine and a Rhine Riesling made from the few grapes the
half-dozen pioneers could get together from their little
plots of vines.
It marked the end of the hobby stage and the drive to turn
wine into a business, according to Rob Hay, who arrived in
1986, made many of the early wines and established Chard
The landscape of much of Central Otago has changed since
then, now lushly green in summer with 1600ha of vineyards,
wineries, tasting rooms, new housing developments and a
greater sophistication - and there are more than 100 brands
of Central Otago wine.
But is it still God's country for pinot noir?
I asked Halliday.
"Yes," he says without hesitation, and puts it down to the
nature of the climate and growing conditions.
"It has an impossibly short season between the spring and
autumn frosts, but it's not until you understand the extra
daylight hours and the heat and the effects of that warmth
that make it truly unique. The consistent quality of the
wines indicates the suitability of the climate," he says.
Central Otago now has an enviable international reputation
especially for pinot noir, but it was achieved only with
effort, determination and an unwavering belief in the
potential of the region.
Even as late as the mid-1990s, some northern wine writers
were scathing about the ability to make decent wine so far
south - as they had been about Marlborough a decade or two
At a celebratory lunch at Carrick on Saturday, winemakers and
wine writers reminisced and brought out old bottles to taste.
Some had developed and were still drinking very well at 10 or
15 years old; others were tired and fading.
There were only a few winemakers here in the early days: Rob
Hay, of Chard Farm; Rudi Bauer, now of Quartz Reef who was at
Rippon from 1989 to 1992; Grant Taylor, now of Valli but at
Gibbston Valley from 1993 to 2006; and the late Mike Wolter,
at Black Ridge.
One of the strengths of the region was the collegiality among
the winemakers who helped each other, discussed their
ferments and problems and shared equipment. Grant Taylor,
whose Gibbston Valley Reserve pinot noirs won several
trophies in the mid to late 1990s, says it was virtually a
joint effort although his name is on the back of the bottles.
The first commercial vineyard block at Rippon was planted
in 1982, largely against the advice of viticultural experts
at the time.
In 1991, they combined to launch a distinctively shaped
"Central Otago bottle", which gave the region an identity,
although after a few years it was abandoned.
After modest medal successes with wines from 1989, 1990 and
1991, it looked as if the nay-sayers might be right after
all, because of the effects of the June 1991 eruption of Mt
Pinatubo in the Philippines. The dust in the atmosphere
caused decreased temperatures for several years, making it
difficult to ripen grapes in the South, according to Rob Hay.
It was so cold they were able to make a real ice wine, when
the grapes were picked still frozen on the vine, something
not possible since, he says.
However, despite the blip in the weather, new vineyards were
being planted in the early 1990s: in Bannockburn, led by
Olssens, Felton Road, Carrick, Akarua and the Diceys of Mt
Difficulty; at Bendigo led by Rudi Bauer of Quartz Reef;
Lowburn with Kawarau Estate and along the Wanaka Rd with Pisa
Range, Amisfield and others; and in Gibbston, Peregrine, Two
Paddocks and others were all establishing vineyards.
By the late 1990s, with fruit from these areas and the
effects of Pinatubo wearing off, there was a noticeable
difference in wine quantity and quality, which was reflected
in the number of medals and trophies being won.
One of the significant developments was Mike Wolter's
establishment of Central Otago Wine Company, a contract
This meant people with small vineyards who did not have the
capital to build a winery and employ a winemaker could have
their wine made professionally, again helping ensure quality,
something that has been vital to the region's reputation. As
demand grew, another facility, Vinpro opened in 2004.
From 2001 another spurt of planting, especially along the
Pisa flats and terraces, at Bendigo, and around Alexandra,
increased the vineyard area, leading, a few years later to
surplus grapes, which are sold to producers outside the
More recently there has been a new trend of small brands made
by dedicated winemakers, like Yoshiaki Sato, whose Sato brand
is highly regarded overseas, but not seen much here. Others
include Burn Cottage, established by Americans Marquis
Sauvage and Ted Lemon, Steve Davie's Doctor's Flat vineyard,
and Ian and Marianne Dee of GeorgeTown Vineyard.
Why has Central sprung from nowhere to become one of the most
highly regarded pinot noir regions internationally in only a
couple of decades?
Is it the result of the "achingly beautiful landscape" and
being close to the Queenstown tourist hub as some people used
There are other beautiful regions, Halliday points out - the
Cape in South Africa and perhaps the Valais in Switzerland -
but it is more than stunning landscape and decent wine that
builds an enviable reputation such as Central's for quality,
integrity and authenticity.
One of the factors is the dedication of the winemakers and
growers, who are committed to the region and their wines, and
their willingness to work as a team and share information,
experience, equipment, problem-solving and marketing.
They are not distracted by other red varieties, and tend not
to come from corporate backgrounds, although as the industry
grows, this is changing somewhat.
They recognise what they have achieved and are thinking about
where they are going, according to Halliday.
"The mere fact they are posing that question means they are
not self-satisfied, they still have fire in their bellies,"