Central Otago Pinot Noir
Central Otago is a dramatic semi-arid terrain of basins and ranges unlike any other pinot noir producing region.
The Central Otago Pinot Noir winegrowing region is spread from Wanaka in the northwest to Alexandra in the southeast, a distance of 60 km (39 miles) in a straight line and 1 hour by car. The area is four times the area of Hawke's Bay and two times the area of Marlborough.
Without travelling through Central Otago, it is difficult to appreciate how high the mountain ranges are and how important they are in influencing the pinot noir growing conditions in each of the winegrowing sub-regions.
To capture the scale of Central Otago let us take a journey from Wanaka, down the valley following the Clutha River. As we travel down the valley images will help visualise the landscape and where each winegrowing sub-region is located. The map below shows the journey and where the numbered images are from and in what direction. The four major sub-regions are shown although Cromwell can be broken down further in detail we will cover later.
The second map shows the latitude and longitude lines. To drive from Wanaka to Alexandra is to drive south and a little east. Gibbston is directly west of Cromwell. This is important because it influences the rainfall gradient and temperatures.
We start our journey in Wanaka, the source of the Clutha River.
Image 1 looks northwest across the lake towards Mount Aspiring, 3033 m (9,951 ft), in the Southern Alps about 50 km away. Wanaka is 290 metres above sea level. Lake Wanaka is 45 km long, covers 192 sq km and is 311 m deep. It is a deep u-shaped lake formed by glacial erosion and dammed by glacial moraine. The image highlights how close Wanaka is to the Southern Alps and the scale of the lake. Both these features have a major influence on growing pinot noir in the Wanaka sub-region.
As we leave Wanaka we travel down the valley to the southeast.
The river descends slowly and only loses about 150 m in elevation between Wanaka and Alexandra 60 km away in the far southeast corner of Central Otago Pinot Noir country. Image 2 is about 20 km from Wanaka looking east as we leave the Wanaka basin and pass through the first set of ranges separating Wanaka from the upper-Cromwell basin. The range on the left and to the north is the Grandview Range which rises to 1,398 m. The Pisa Range starts on the right and runs south above the Cromwell basin to a height of 1,963 m (6,440 ft). The range in the distance is on the far side of the upper-Cromwell basin.
When we enter the upper-Cromwell basin the valley widens out.
The height of the ranges here can be deceiving as we drive down the middle of the valley. In image 3 we turn to head south down the valley towards Cromwell about 30 km away. The Pisa Range towers to our right on the western side of the valley (Mt Pisa 1,963 m) and across to our left is the Dunstan Range which marks the eastern boundary of the Cromwell basin (Mt Dunstan 1,667 m). In the distance, at the foot of the Dunstan Range is the Bendigo winegrowing sub-region. The vineyards on the lowers slopes above the valley floor should be visible.
As we travel down the western side of the valley and through the area known as the Pisa Flats, the vineyards increase in density and some are hidden from sight on old glacial terraces above the road.
Lake Dunstan, a manmade hydro lake, becomes visible as we near Cromwell.
In image 4 as we continue south we become aware of the mountain range on the far side of Cromwell and surrounding the basin to the south. These are the Carrick Range with Mt Difficulty rising to 1,285 m and the Old Woman Range rising tp 1,749 m.
Some vineyards are established to the left on the far side of the lake in a area know as Northburn. The lake elevation is 196 m. Moran in his book (title) refers to the two sides of the Cromwell basin seperated by Lake Dunstan as Luggate to Cromwell (Clutha and Lake Dunstan right bank) and Tarras to Cromwell, including Bendigo (Clutha and Lake Dunstan left bank).
We arrive in Cromwell, the main service centre for the Central Otago wineries.
Image 5 looks southwest across Cromwell. The mountain range ahead is the Carrick Range and Mt Difficulty (1,285 m) is the high peak. Central Otago's Bannockburn sub-region lies at the foot of the range, to the left, on north facing terraces above the Kawerau River. We have a better view of Bannockburn when we return from Gibbston.
The Gibbston sub-region is west of Cromwell and up the Kawarua River towards Queenstown. The Kawerau River starts from Lake Whakatipu (Queenstown) in the west and flows east joining the Clutha River at Cromwell.
Gibbston is the third major basin and is reached by travelling the narrow Kawarau Gorge road which passes between the Carrick Range to the south and the Pisa Range to the north. The arrow on the horizon marks where the direct in which Gibbston sub-region is located.
Before we leave Cromwell we can zoom around and look back up the valley towards Wanaka
The Pisa Range is on the left (west) and the Dunstan Range is on the right (east). The range at the distance is the Grandview Range and about 35 km away in a NNE direction
At the western end of the Kawerau Gorge we reach the Nevis Bluff
Image 7 is looking west and shows the entrance to the Gibbston sub-region from Cromwell. Gibbston is 20 km in a straight line from Cromwell but experiences very different weather which is discussed later.
Alan Brady planted some of the first pinot noir vines in Central Otago here. The mountains in the distance are on the far side of Queenstown.
After our side trip to Gibbston we return to the Cromwell basin
As we leave the eastern end of the Kawerau Gorge and enter the Cromwell basin again we catch a good view of Bannockburn (Image 8). The vineyards visible in the distance to the right are the Bannockburn vineyards on the north facing terraces on the other side of the Kawerau River. Cromwell is around to the left.
When we leave the Cromell basin we will head southeast to the Alexandra basin. Alexandra is in the direction of the arrow on the horizon and about 25 km away in a straight line.
We need to pass through Cromwell on the way to Alexandra.
Image 9 looks across Cromwell towards the southeast and where the Clutha River (Lake Dunstan) leaves the Cromwell basin towards the Alexandra basin. The arrow marks where we are heading. The Alexandra basin is the most southern and eastern sub-region. Travelling towards Alexandra we pass through what is known as the Cromwell gorge. This passes between two ranges with the Dunstan Range (Leaning Rock 1,647 m) to the north and the Cairmuir Range to the south (1,114 m).
When we reach the end of the gorge and the Clyde dam we look out across the Alexandra basin
The high range in the south around to the right in Image 10 is the Old Man Range (Obelisk 1,682 m). The lowest altitude vineyards in Central Otago are in the south eastern corner of the basin at 150 m. The vineyards here a mainly on the north facing slopes on the edge of the basin or on the flats. The near township is Clyde, an old goldming town. Some of the world's richest alluvial gold deposits where found here and a goldrush was declared in the 1860s
The Clyde dam is 100 m high and was constructed between 1982 and 1993
This image is looking west from Clyde to the dam. The dam stands as the gateway to the Alexandra basin where the earliest vines were planted in Central Otago in the 1860s. The construction of the dam was controversial because it flooded significant horticultural and agricultural land. To help establish new horticulture industries the Government collected and mapped detailed climate data on a scale never seen before. This climate data was to prove a unique resource in establishing new vineyards.