Central Otago is New Zealand’s coolest wine region, and with its location – almost at the bottom of South Island – it is the world’s most southerly wine region. The centre of the region is on the 45th parallel, which is the same as Bordeaux, but the climate is similar to Burgundy, this highlights the similar importance of Pinot Noir.
Despite the districts potential as a wine growing area being recognised by French and Australian viticulturists from the 1860’s onwards, wine-grapes were not commercially grown again in Central Otago for more than a century. Modern day wine growing began in 1972 and shortly followed in 1975 with experimental plantings at Rippon Vineyard, Lake Wanaka. The first commercial release of a Pinot Noir from Central Otago, the regions flagship variety, was the 1987 vintage from pioneer Alan Brady at the Gibbston Valley winery.
Bungy Jumping, skiing, white water rafting, other extreme sports and Middle Earth from Lord of the Rings make Central Otago New Zealand’s premier tourist/adventure sports destination while some come just for the wines.
Central Otago is becoming internationally recognized as one of the few places in the world where the pernickety Pinot Noir variety has found a home outside Burgundy. Many of the world’s top wine writers have recognised this fact :-
Many believe this is where the Pinot grail is to be found (Jancis Robinson – Wine Atlas of the World)
Tuck into Central Otago Pinot Noir, at last Burgundy has a serious New World rival, October 11, 2003, Times. Jane Macquitty.
This is God’s Country when it comes to Pinot Noir (James Halliday in Panorama 2000)
Where as most of New Zealand’s wine regions have a maritime climate Central Otago is as far inland as you can get with a semi-continental climate resulting in greater daily and seasonal extremes of temperature than found elsewhere in the country. Growing grapes in Central Otago is often referred to as “Vineyards on the Edge”. The landscape is dominated by snow capped mountains and deep valleys centred around the Kawarua and Clutha Rivers and the man-made Lake Dunstan. The vineyards are the highest in New Zealand ranging from 200 to 400 metres above sea level, the altitude helps keep the temperatures cooler. The continental climate leads to large diurnal temperature shifts, the difference between day and night temperatures, the temperatures can range from plus 30ºC during the day and down to 0ºC at night. The hot days and cool nights are one of Central Otago’s best attributes in growing grapes as this aids in developing flavour and colour intensity and complexity as the grapes ripen slowly and allows what the winemakers call a long hang time. This slow ripening also helps retain acidity, which aids the stability of the wines.
Central Otago also has a very low rainfall 325-600mm per annum getting wetter as you go west, in fact the second wettest place in the world is 120 km to the West in Milford Sound. This low rainfall and very low humidity mean fungal and rot problems are minimised, but irrigation is a must in the dry climate. Pinot Noir is very susceptible to Botrytis, so low humidity and low rainfall in the autumn is a big plus.
During the summer the days are often hot and long, with very little cloud cover, with peak temperatures in the high 30’s. Sunburn can be a problem for the workers and grapes alike. The Cromwell subregion where Wooing Tree is situated achieves higher temperatures largely due to a lower altitude than the other cooler regions.
Frosts are one of the main risks to growing grapes in Central Otago, heavy frosts occur throughout winter and often cause problems during the growing season and are not unheard of in the summer months. Most vineyards employ some form of frost protection, be it planting on a slope and on flatter sites they use helicopters, wind machines, frost pots, and water sprinklers. At Wooing Tree we use Flippers, a type of water sprinkler which allows us to minimise the amount of water we apply and direct it along the rows. It is not uncommon to frost fight well after bud burst and before harvest in the autumn.
Winds can be a problem usually around October and November this requires careful and timely canopy management by keeping the trellis wires lifted to support and protect the new shoots.
Take a look at the Weather station link www.harvest.com/w.cgi?hsn=3009
The weather station is an important tool to help with frost fighting, it includes a cell phone which texts us when the temperature drops to 3ºC and then 2ºC, we then usually turn on the frost fighting system before 1ºC to protect the vines. The weather stations also records rainfall, humidity, dew point, wind and sunshine hours, all useful data in grape growing.
Central Otago soils are moderately old (often windblown Loess), formed over successive ice ages as the glaciers ground Schist rocks to a fine flour. Layers of Loess of various depths are interspersed with river gravels. Add to these sandier soils, formed by water erosion and the viticulturist has a spread of challenges and opportunities.
Wooing Tree soil is of the sandier type over a gravel base, this light a free draining soil gives us greater control over our irrigation programme where we are able to just keep the vines above the stress point and water as needed. We also use the irrigation system to fertigate the vines in a little and often method as the soils have a low organic matter content with in low cation exchange capacity and high base saturation. We have two distinct sides to the vineyard divided by soil type, the south block has less vigour and therefore requires different management to the north block. The 5 different clones are planted on both sides of the vineyard giving us 10 different clone/soil type combinations, we harvest these separately and the wines are managed differently in the winery as they all have different characteristics in the wine. We are slowly building up profiles from the different blocks to use in the future winemaking decisions.