The Diverse Pinot Noir Subregions of Central Otago

  • By Jacky Blisson MW
  • 12 Dec 2020
  • 5 MIN
  • Level 301
Made possible by
Central Otago Mishas Vineyard - Credit : 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 subregion are gaining in recognition. 

Regional Overview

Central Otago is a land formed by glacier activity and the many lakes and rivers that traverse the region. At its most northerly point, 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 2,000 metres, shelter the Central Otago region from maritime influences. 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 Noirs. Soil composition is also varied, but stony, free-draining subsoils are common, with schist or greywacke bedrocks.

Central Otago total vineyard acreage currently sits at 1930 hectares, with 80% of plantings dedicated to Pinot Noir. 

Pinot Noir Styles by Subregion

From north to south, Central Otago’s subregions include: 

Wanaka

Wanaka, the smallest subregion, 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 subregions, marked by cold winters, rainy spring weather, warm, dry summers, and long, temperate autumn conditions that allow for excellent ripening while preserving lively acidity. 

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

Bendigo Pinot Not is among the ripest, most full-bodied, and tannic styles of the Central Otago, 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 Pinot Noir, with silky tannins. Great producers from this region include: Burn Cottage, Wild Earth, and Rockburn.

Gibbston

Gibbston is the highest altitude and coolest of all Central Otago subregions. 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.

Gibbston Pinot Noir 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 subregion. 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.  

Bannockburn Pinot Noir 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, and Akarua

Alexandra

Alexandra is the most southerly of Central Otago’s subregions. 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. 

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

Central Otago Mishas Vineyard - Credit : NZ Winegrowers