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Central Otago travel guide for wine lovers

Poets, painters and a certain Lord of the Rings trilogy film crew have all been drawn to the epic alpine landscapes of Central Otago on New Zealand's South Island, says Jo Burzynska. But here are the best places to go in the area for wine lovers...

Central Otago travel guide for wine lovers

While the artists sought inspiration in the region’s lofty peaks, its wine producers have found theirs in the schistous lower slopes that have proved an ideal place to make pure-fruited expressions of Pinot Noir.

Many visits to the world’s southernmost wine region start in Queenstown, a picturesque settlement on the banks of the large glacial Lake Wakitipu that faces the rugged Remarkables mountain range. Cromwell, less than an hour’s drive further inland, may be the more central wine town, but it’s Queenstown that boasts not only the views but the hotels and restaurants that have made it Central Otago’s tourist hub.

Central Otago, harvest

Harvest in Central Otago.

A new favourite is the Sherwood which offers both fine accommodation and a restaurant serving great local fare – including one of the most interesting wine selections in the South Island.

Follow the direction of the Kawarau River east, and in less 30 minutes’ drive you enter wine country with its promise of both thrilling bottles and spectacular scenery. It’s a terrain in which the natural beauty of the mountains, deep gorges and fast-flowing rivers is juxtaposed with the intrigue of man-made endeavours: from the vineyards that cling to its hillsides to the sluicings that carve into them as a reminder of the region’s gold rush in the 1860s.

Insider’s tip: For a great perspective, head up to the Bendigo Scenic Reserve with its breathtaking views over the Upper Clutha Basin across tussock to the valley vineyards below.

‘Central’, as it’s called by locals, is a place of dramatic contrasts, which extends to its weather too. In winter its steep inclines are blanketed by snow, attracting an influx of skiers that keeps it buzzing and accessible in the colder months.

Its summers can be scorching, with a dry heat that draws out the aromas of the thyme that grows wild here and whose perfume can sometimes be detected in the region’s wines.

Rippon, Central Otago

Rippon, Central Otago.

For one of the most stunning vineyard vistas in the region – if not the world – head to Rippon, whose vines spill down a hillside to Lake Wanaka, overlooked by craggy peaks. Rippon’s biodynamic wines are as awe-inspiring as its location, and are shaped by a rare second generation of winegrowers in this youthful wine region.

Central Otago largely remains populated by such small producers, the best of whom tread their own paths despite the popularity of the region’s wines.

Make an appointment to visit Mount Edward’s quirky cellar door for another distinctive approach, where the wines may well be poured by the winemaker-proprietor Duncan Forsyth, sporting one of his ‘Jesus drank Riesling’ T-shirts. And you should try the Riesling too: both Forsyth’s divine incarnations and those from across the region; Pinot Noir is not the only variety with which Central excels.

It’s hard to fully evoke the sublime draw of Central Otago. As the local poet, Brian Turner wrote of his land: ‘You have to be here, you have to feel the deep, slow surge of the hills, the cloak of before, the wrench of beyond.’

Jo Burzynska is a wine writer, author and judge, and wine editor of the New Zealand Herald.

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