Most people think of New Zealand for its Sauvignon Blanc, and rightly so—but these days the buzz is about Central Otago, the trendy Kiwi area garnering critical acclaim for Pinot Noir. As more wines from “Central” (as the locals and cool somms call it) make it onto the U.S. markets, you just may see one on a wine list. So what are they all about? Are they worth seeking out for a try?
Located on the nation’s South Island, Central Otago is the southernmost wine region in a country with some established wine regions like Hawke’s Bay and Marlborough. The oldest producers in Central Otago have only been producing wines since the 1980s, and many observers believe that in the next 20 years, it’s likely to become the next real worldwide pinot powerhouse. The region is small, making up about 5 percent of New Zealand’s planted vineyards, but new producers are starting up every year. (Think Oregon’s Willamette Valley 30 years ago.)
Central Otago’s particular latitude (about 45 degrees) and cool climate is what makes it perfect for the finicky grape. Its vineyards are the highest elevation of any in New Zealand, and its uniquely long days and (so they say) clear air are what give the grapes here such a unique cool climate exposure. Thick skinned grapes yield deep colors for these wines that are still bright with great acidity, lots of minerality, and around 14% alcohol.
Central Otago pinots are accessible now and don’t need age, although I’ve tasted some old ones and they have potential to cellar well. There are six sub-regions including Gibbston, Bannockburn, Cromwell Basin, Wanaka, and Alexandra, and many growers blend fruit from several regions.
Some wine lovers compare the region to Burgundy (and there are climatic and soil similarities), but let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves. For now, here are a few producers from Central to try if you’re interested in exploring this old world classic with a new world twist.
Be warned: These wines can be hard to find in the U.S., so some creative sleuthing will help. In the meantime, if you see a pinot from this unique region, snag it! Additionally, you’ll find that some of the larger producers ship directly to the U.S., giving you an excuse to say you’re waiting on a package from New Zealand.
Felton Road is one of the best known Central Otago producers. The wines consistently get 90+ scores (as noted from the 2007 and 2008 single vineyard offerings in my tasting notes). My Pick: 2019 Felton Road Bannockburn
This Bannockburn-based producer released its first vintage in 1998. Originally a consortium of four individual growers, it’s now a thriving domaine known as one of the best. You can also look for their second label, Roaring Meg. My Pick: 2018 Mt. Difficulty Bannockburn Pinot Noir, Central Otago
Located on the shore of Lake Wanaka at the northern edge of the region, Rippon is one of the early pioneers in the area, planting their first vines in the 1980s with 1989 as their first vintage. These vines produce rich, distinctive, tannic wines with loads of fruit. My Pick: 2016 Rippon Pinot Noir Mature Vine Central Otago
This estate has a German connection since it’s owned by Weingut Koehler Ruprecht from the Pfalz. The property, near Cromwell, is making a name for themselves and they ship to the US. My Pick: 2016 Burn Cottage Central Otago Pinot Noir
On the western edge of the region, Amisfield is tucked against Lake Hayes. It would be a perfect first stop if you start your tasting day in Queenstown. My Pick: 2016 Amisfield Pinot Noir
Whether you find them similar to wines from California’s Central Coast, or Burgundy’s Cote de Beaune, these bottlings have plenty of unique pleasures. We can’t wait to see what another 20 years will bring.