THE CENTRAL OTAGO WINE REGION
Significant European occupation in this region started with the Central Otago Gold Rush in the 1860s, but a French immigrant gold miner, Jean Desire Feraud, soon started planting vines and embarking upon small-scale commercial wine production — even winning medals in Australian wine competitions. Late in the nineteenth century, the New Zealand government hired a winemaker to survey the country. While this early experimentation showed the wine-growing potential of the region, the wine industry did not survive for long on a commercial basis.
Starting in the 1950s, and up through the end of the 1970s, small scale trial plantings of vines began again both by private individuals and under the auspices of the New Zealand Department of Agriculture. By 1980, sufficient experience and confidence had been gained for small scale commercial plantings to be made. Vineyard planting and production remained modest until the middle of the 1990s when the industry began to expand rapidly. In 1996, there were just 11wineries in the Central Otago region, according to New Zealand Winegrowers, accounting for just 4.6% of the national total. By 2004, this had risen to 75 wineries and 16.2%. Over the same period, the area planted with vines rose from 92 hectares (1.4% of the national total) to 1,062 hectares (5.1%). Reflecting this rapid expansion, the long lead-time for planting to come into production, and the focus in Central Otago on quality wines rather than bulk wines, actual wine production accounted for only 0.5% (376 tons) of the New Zealand total in 1996, increasing to 0.9% (1,439 tons) in 2004.
Climate and soil
Ringed by mountains interlaced with lakes and deep river gorges Central Otago is one of New Zealand’s most spectacular settings for vineyards. At around the 300 meter elevation level, Central Otago's vineyards are protected by high mountains (up to 3,700 meters) from New Zealand's characteristic maritime climate. Central Otago has a distinctive semi-continental climate, found nowhere else in New Zealand. It is one of the hottest, coldest and driest regions in New Zealand. The highest recorded maximum temperature is 38.7 degrees Celsius and the lowest –21.6 degrees, however winter minima seldom exceed –10 degrees. This unique terroir is also world renowned for producing premium quality wines. The parts of the land where grapes are grown lie mainly within the semi-arid inland basins of the region and typically experience hot summers, cold winters and long dry autumns.
Central Otago has recorded the lowest annual and twelve consecutive month rainfalls of 211mm and 167 mm respectively in New Zealand. High evapotranspiration largely negates this and severe soil moisture deficits develop during the October to April growing season. Humidity is low being about 65% in the morning falling to 30% in the afternoon. Rainfall averages around 375-600mm here: summer is hot and relatively dry, and often accompanied by the Nor'wester foehn wind; autumn is short, cool and sunny; and winter is cold, with substantial falls of snow. Heavy frosts are common throughout winter and, indeed, frost can occur at any time between March and November.
The climatic contrast between Central Otago and the more humid, warmer wine regions of the North Island can be illustrated by the difference in the timing of the grape harvest. In the more northerly vineyards, picking generally takes place in late February or early March, while in Central Otago the harvest begins in mid to late April — a difference of some six to seven weeks.
The structure of the soil also differs considerably from other wine growing regions of the country, with heavy deposits of rough-edged mica and other metamorphic schists in silt loams. This soil drains easily, and given that most vineyards are positioned on hillside slopes, artificial irrigation is generally essential.
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 at various depths are interspersed with river gravels with the addition of sandier soils formed by water erosion. Soils are therefore free draining even when heavy in texture. The low rainfall keeps leaching effects low so there is a good level of minerality present but low levels of organic matter. The result is a soil low in vigor but high in mineral richness with the ability to use irrigation to keep vines at the desired degree of controlled stress so as to provide optimum fruit quality.
All of these attributes have combined to result in Central Otago standing on the world stage as a unique winegrowing terroir, from which premium quality boutique wines are made.
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