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Central Otago Pinot Noir: Discover the Sub-Regions

Central Otago Pinot Noir
Photo credit: Misha’s Vineyard/ NZ Winegrowers

 The Central Otago on New Zealand’s South Island is famous for Pinot Noir. Wine has been produced in this rugged, mountainous region since the heady days of the 1860s Gold Rush. Today, as critical acclaim continues to grow for Central Otago Pinot Noir, the diverse styles of each vineyard sub-region are gaining in recognition.

Regional Overview

The Central Otago is a land formed by glacier activity and the many lakes and rivers that traverse the region. At its most northerly point, the Central Otago crosses the 45th parallel south. According to the New Zealand Winegrowers organization, Central Otago is the world’s most southerly commercial wine region.

Ancient mountains, many rising well over 2000 metres, shelter the Central Otago region from the maritime influences that define all other New Zealand wine growing areas. While meso-climates vary significantly, in general Central Otago has a dry, semi-continental climate with strong diurnal variation.

The region’s exceptionally high UV light levels give deep colour to many of its Pinot Noir. Soil composition is also varied, but stony, free-draining subsoils are common, with schist or greywacke bedrocks.

A mere 1,930 hectares of vineyards spread across the slope sides and valleys of Central Otago. Pinot Noir accounts for 80% of these plantings. The reputation the region has carved out internationally for Central Otago Pinot Noir stems in part from this monovarietal dedication.

Central Otago Pinot Noir Styles by Sub-Region

Due to the region’s diverse terrain and multitude of mesoclimates, the growing areas are divided into multiple sub-regions, all offering a different expression of Central Otago Pinot Noir. From north to south, Central Otago’s sub-regions include:

Wanaka

Wanaka, the smallest sub-region, is situated 80km northeast of Queenstown. The vineyards surround Lake Wanaka, on gravel and silt-based soils overlying a schist bedrock. These soils provide excellent drainage, encouraging the vine to root deeply.

This is among the cooler sub-regions, marked by cold winters, rainy spring weather, warm, dry summers, and long, temperate autumn conditions that allow for excellent ripening while preserving lively acidity.

Central Otago Pinot Noir from Wanaka is often described light, delicate, and very elegant in style, with intense, bright red fruit flavours. Producers of note include: Rippon, Maude Wines, and Akitu.

Bendigo

Moving southeast across the mountains, east of the Clutha River, bordering Lake Dunstan lie the stony, hillside vineyards of Bendigo. This is the largest and warmest sub-region in Central Otago.

The vineyards are planted on moderate slopes of 200 to 350 metres in altitude in the foothills of the Dunstan Mountains. They are oriented north to abundant sunshine. Conditions are hot and dry here, and there is significant diurnal variation preserving fresh acidity.

The Central Otago Pinot Noir from Bendigo is among the ripest, most full-bodied, and tannic styles of the region, balanced by fresh acidity. Wineries to watch include: Prophet’s Rock, Quartz Reef, and Balgownie Estate.

Cromwell/Lowburn/Pisa

The trio of Cromwell/Lowburn/Pisa includes low terraces and valley floor vineyard sites stretching 25 kilometres northward from the township of Cromwell. They sit along the western shore of Lake Dunstan, parallel to the Pisa Mountain range.

The climate is dry and warm, with temperature extremes moderated by the lake. Soils are quite diverse, with large areas of sandy-loam, and of gravelly, schist- based zones at higher elevations in Lowburn.

This early ripening area produces supple, approachable, generously fruited styles of Central Otago Pinot Noir, with silky tannins. Great producers from this region include: Burn Cottage, Wild Earth, Rockburn.

Gibbston

Gibbston is the highest altitude and coolest of all Central Otago sub-regions. It is located along the Kawarau Gorge, directly east of Queenstown. Vineyards are planted from 320 to 420 metres above sea level on northern exposures.

The areas’ soils are composed of loess with underlying layers of schist rocks and alluvial gravel. This is a late ripening area that can be quite rainy, experiencing more vintage variation than more easterly sites.

Central Otago Pinot Noir from Gibbston is described as light and ethereal, with fragrant red berries, fresh herbs, and mixed spices on the nose. It is generally soft on the palate. Top wineries include: Valli, Peregrine, Mount Edward, and Gibbston Valley.

Bannockburn

Southwest of Cromwell lies Bannockburn, a very warm, dry, early ripening sub-region. It is located on the southern shore of the Kawarau River, by the Cairnmuir Mountains.

The soils of Bannockburn are remarkably diverse. A long history of mining in the area, has left heavy deposits of gravel in certain vineyard sites. Other gravel-rich sites, of schist and greywacke, are naturally occurring. Elsewhere, pockets of heavy clay loam and sandy loam exist.

Central Otago Pinot Noir from Bannockburn is renowned for its dense, concentrated dark fruit flavours and bold tannic structure. Notable wineries in the area include: Felton Road, Mt. Difficulty, Doctor’s Flat, Ceres, Akarua

Alexandra

Alexandra is the most southerly of Central Otago’s sub-regions. It is situated in a mountain basin, bordering the Clutha River. Marked continentality, in the way of very hot, dry summers and exceptionally cold winters, define the climate.

Compared to Queenstown, Alexandra sees over 100 additional sunshine hours each year, and 600 millimetres less rainfall. The region’s wide temperature swings give highly aromatic, lively wines. Free draining alluvial gravel and loess soils dominate here.

Central Otago Pinot Noir from Alexandra is known for its fragrant aromatics, fine structure, and signature dried thyme notes. Excellent producers from this region include: Grasshopper Rock, Black Ridge, Three Miners.

 

*** This Central Otago Pinot Noir article was written for SOMM360  Want to learn more about wine & spirits? Check out their excellent learning platform for articles, audio capsules, and loads of fun quizzes to test your knowledge. ***

Reviews Wines

Why You Need to Taste Hawkes Bay Chardonnay

Hawkes Bay Chardonnay
Photo credit: Sacred Hill Wine

Picture a crisp, steely, cool climate style of Chardonnay. Now, dial up the fruit ripeness several notches. Add a little more mid-palate weight and richness. Et voila, you have the basic outline of Hawkes Bay Chardonnay.

Hawkes Bay is the oldest wine producing area in New Zealand. Located on the eastern coast of the North Island, the region extends inwards from the South Pacific coast. With its abundant sunshine and temperate climate moderated by cooling maritime breezes, Hawkes Bay produces voluptuous wines with bright acidity.

With just over 5000 hectares planted, the region accounts for 13% of the country’s total acreage (second only in size to the mighty Marlborough). Best known for its Merlot-led red blends and Chardonnay, Hawkes Bay is also gaining critical acclaim for its Syrah, Sauvignon Blanc, and Pinot Gris.

The vineyards of Hawkes Bay cover a large and highly varied terrain arching 350 km along the South Pacific coast and sprawling inwards across a land contoured over thousands of years by four major rivers.

  • The Coastal Areas, prized for their chiselled Chardonnay and aromatic Pinot Noir, have a distinctly maritime climate and long growing season.
  • The Hillsides offer a range of altitudes and orientations. They are mainly planted to red varieties, with some particularly favourable limestone-rich sites.
  • The Alluvial Plains are diverse in soil type and plantings. The Gimblett Gravels sub-zone, particularly revered for its Merlot blends, boast gravelly soils with excellent drainage.
  • The River Valleys provide diverse, yet generally warm, sheltered growing conditions.
  • Central Hawkes Bay is a cooler, inland sub-region with altitudes reaching 300 metres. Aromatic white grapes like Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Gris, as well as Pinot Noir, are popular here.

Hawkes Bay may seem an insignificant wine region in global terms. However, the quality of its Chardonnay is ample proof that New Zealand is far more than a one trick (aka Sauvignon Blanc) pony. It was this thinking that led the Hawkes Bay Winegrowers Association to create a Hawkes Bay Chardonnay Collection to send out to wine critics around the world.

In order to select the 12 Hawkes Bay Chardonnays to include in the pack, Master Sommelier Cameron Douglas was called into action. He blind tasted over 50 of the region’s best Chardonnays with the view to selecting the best possible cross-section of styles, prices, and terroir.

The 2019 growing season was deemed “extraordinary” by local growers. Hot, sunny days and cool evenings blessed the period leading up to harvest. This allowed estates to pick according to their optimal timelines, resulting in wines praised for their pristine fruit quality and vibrant acidity.

This was indeed the impression I had after tasting the range. The majority offered vivid, ripe fruit flavours and weighty structures balanced by lively acidity. The best of the bunch are already quite approachable, with harmoniously integrated oak. They also possess the freshness and concentration to age well over the moderate term.

Curious to try a Hawkes Bay Chardonnay? Here are my notes on the 12 wines sampled.

Hawkes Bay Chardonnay Pack

Photo credit: Hawkes Bay Winegrowers Association

(What do VW, PW and LW mean?  Click on my wine scoring system to decode the scores for these week-end wine recommendations):

Cooper’s Creek ‘The Limeworks’ Select Vineyards Hawkes Bay Chardonnay 2019 – 89pts. PW

Intense notes of pineapple, ripe lemon, and red apple on the nose. The palate is tangy and bright, with medium body, a smooth texture, and attractive flavours of lemon curd and vanilla spice. Great value!

Price: NZ $25.00 at the winery

Monowai ‘Upper Reaches’ Hawkes Bay Chardonnay 2019 – 88pts. PW

A fragrant white, with heady notes of honeydew melon and underlying floral, spice hints. Fresh and rounded on the soft palate with candied fruit flavours and subtle vanilla spice on the finish.

Price: NZ $35.00 at the winery

Collaboration Wines ‘Aurulent’ Hawkes Bay Chardonnay 2019 – 91pts. PW

An attractive nose, with complex aromas of orange blossoms, lemon curd, tropical fruit, and underlying spicy oak nuances. Mouthwatering acidity on the palate gives nice vibrancy and lift to this full-bodied, moderately concentrated white. Toasty, crême caramel notes linger on the finish.

Price: NZ $35.00 at the winery

Tony Bish ‘Heartwood’ Hawkes Bay Chardonnay 2019 – 88pts. PW

Tempting aromas of orchard fruit and anis, mingle with hints of marzipan and butterscotch on the nose. Fairly tightly wound on the palate, with brisk acidity, a firm, full-bodied structure, and subtle phenolic edge. Cellar for two to three years, or decant before serving.

Price: NZ $35.00 at the winery

Pask Winery ‘Declaration’ Chardonnay Hawkes Bay Chardonnay 2019 – 89pts. PW

Initially restrained, with white floral notes, red apple, and herbal nuances developing with aeration. A taut, racy attack gives way to a creamy, medium weight mid-palate with overt toasty, vanilla oak flavours and orchard fruit on the finish.

Price: NZ $45.00 at the winery

Clearview Estate Winery ‘Reserve’ Hawkes Bay Chardonnay 2019 – 91pts. PW

Enticing aromas of white blossoms, anise, apricot and stony mineral hints feature on the complex nose. The palate is initially crisp and taut, then deepens to reveal a subtle creaminess on the medium weight core. A touch of salinity and lively acidity lift and balance the spiced oak finish.

Price: NZ $45.00 at the winery

Askerne Wines ‘The Archer’ Hawkes Bay Chardonnay 2019 – 90pts. PW

A temptingly ripe nose offering aromas of yellow pear, red apple, and raw honey. A Mâcon lookalike in terms of its fresh acidity, rounded structure, and sun-kissed, fruity flavours mingled with subtle toasted oak nuances. Finishes warm yet smooth.

Price: NZ $50.00 at the winery

Sacred Hill ‘Rifleman’s’ Hawkes Bay Chardonnay 2019 – 94pts. LW

Flinty mineral notes add wonderful nuance to the pretty chamomile, lemon, and yellow apple aromas on the nose. The palate is elegantly constructed; crisp, full-bodied, and subtly creamy with flavours of brioche, orchard fruit, and subtle vanilla spice. Long and layered.

Price: NZ $70.00 at the winery

Elephant Hill ‘Salomé’ Hawkes Bay Chardonnay 2019 – 94pts. LW

Heady notes of ripe lemon, red apple, quince, brioche, and spice fairly leap from the glass. The palate offers fine balance between its tangy acidity, full body, and concentrated core of juicy orchard and stone fruit flavours. Enticing gooseberry notes mingle with saline hints and well-integrated toasty oak nuances on the finish.

Price: NZ $75.00 at the winery

Villa Maria ‘Keltern’ Single Vineyard Hawkes Bay Chardonnay 2019 – 90pts. LW

Overt lime cordial aromas overlay white blossoms and stony mineral hints on the fragrant nose. The palate is full-bodied, with striking acidity and a concentrated, textural core. Finishes on zesty notes of citrus mingled with spicy oak.

Price: NZ $80.00 at the winery

Bilancia ‘Tiratore’, La Collina Vineyard Hawkes Bay Chardonnay 2019 – 88pts. LW

Discreet lemon, lime aromas mingle with yellow apple and floral hints on the nose. The palate is crisp and medium weight, with bright, fruity flavours, and a warming, toasty finish.

Price: NZ $90.00 at the winery

Church Road ‘Tom McDonald’ Hawkes Bay Chardonnay 2019 – 92pts. LW

A flinty nose, with delicate notes of white fleshed fruit, chamomile, and fresh almond developing over time. The palate is racy and firm, with notable weight and depth of flavour, ably balancing the vibrant acidity and lingering spicy, butterscotch flavours.

Price: NZ $150.00 at the winery