Niche winegrowers put valley on the map

New signs welcome drivers on State Highway 83 to wine country.

Waitaki Valley North Otago, New Zealand’s newest, smallest wine region, is home to boutique vineyards that many — even in Otago — do not know about.

But just as the Intellectual Property Office of New Zealand approved the Waitaki Valley Winegrowers Association’s application for a geographical indication — used internationally to promote and protect the reputations of wines’ places of origin — a third cellar door  opened in the valley in December.

As Waitaki Valley North Otago is growing in reputation, River-T Estate Wines co-owners Karen...
As Waitaki Valley North Otago is growing in reputation, River-T Estate Wines co-owners Karen Tweed and Murray Turner have opened just the third cellar door in New Zealand’s smallest wine region. Photo: Hamish MacLean

And the owners of River-T Estate Wines are committed to telling the region’s story.

With 11,000 vines — pinot noir, chardonnay, riesling, pinot gris and a "just planted" gewurztraminer — producing 1500 cases, fourth-generation horticulturist Murray Turner and his partner Karen Tweed know River-T Estate Wines and the wines the valley produces are considered "niche".

"Niche means it’s special," Ms Tweed said.

"We are a boutique region producing top-quality wines.

"We’re the last to harvest in New Zealand, this region, which makes our wines quite special. The fruit, the grapes have been able to mature naturally right through."

The new River-T cellar door was intended to be rustic. Handpainted signs just east of Kurow point to a countrified setting.

And as punters pass through the cellar door, they walk out on to a back deck decorated with barrels, hay bales and herbs growing in tyres overlooking vines.

Views extend out over pinot gris and chardonnay varieties, over the Waitaki River, to Station Peak.

"We’re in the game and we’ve been to cellar doors where we’ve felt intimidated, you know?" Ms Tweed said.

"We’re not like that, we’re not posh. We wanted it how we would like it if we walked into a cellar door. It’s welcoming, it’s casual."

And while better-known Waitaki wines Pasquale and Ostler Wines have their own cellar doors nearby, those that do not, like Run 23, Bobbing Creek, Q Wines and others, line the shelves alongside River-T wines. All up, 15 vineyards dot a map Ms Tweed created to champion the region, while backing the "paddock to the plate" approach of River-T.

And, she said, as far as cellar doors go, to attract the growing wine tourism market, "the more the better".

First planted in 1998, the valley’s limestone soils and cool maritime climate offered both distinct wines and a challenge for growers, Mr Turner said.

"It’s down to the stayers now, you know? And the quality of the wines and the accolades that come out of here are amazing," he said. 

"The quality is great."

And while the region was still considered an "emerging area", River-T was selling just about everything it had produced since the label was started in 2014.

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