Keep Your Eyes on the Road: Central Otago, New Zealand

Along the way, the Clutha river is dammed, forming huge inland lakes for irrigation.

Golden poplars march up steep volcanic hills, their Autumn confetti brightening this forbidding desert. The mighty Clutha river roars down below, a deep turquoise and tumultuous presence, as it moves at swift pace carrying its huge load towards the sea 338 kilometers away.  Fertile river communities huddle in valleys, surrounded by these dark majestic hills, with apples, pears, quinces and pumpkins for sale, as the orchard leaves turn scarlet. The local wines taste like their place. It is not hard to appreciate how the notion of ‘terra’ can flavour a wine. The white quartz and schist deposited in these ancient glacial valleys give that tingling mineral sensation, so readily discernible on the palate, to the Pinot Gris from Central Otago.

Wandering through small colonial towns, the old gold mining villages of Clyde, Cromwell, Arrowtown and Wanaka, enables you to step back into the 1860s. The preserved and partly reconstructed Chinese huts in Arrowtown attract many Chinese visitors from Guangdong province as Chinese tourists begin to take more interest in the history of the Chinese diaspora during the gold rush era. Old Cromwell Town is a quaint precinct within the larger modern, sprawling town of Cromwell, with ‘saved’ buildings after the construction of a dam and Lake Dunstan in the 1990s.

Old Cromwell Town
Old Cromwell Town

These small places are well-developed tourist haunts but also make good bases for day touring around the district. We stayed in Cromwell, Arrowtown and Wanaka, all quite striking in different ways.

‘Keep your eyes on the road and your hand upon the wheel’. The views are so stunning in Central Otago, it’s like driving through a dream.

Turquoise Turbulence. the Mighty Clutha river, the largest by volume in New Zealand.
Turquoise Turbulence. The mighty Clutha river, the largest by volume in New Zealand.

Wines of Central Otago, New Zealand.

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An old Italian expression always makes me laugh out loud- Voler la botte piena e la moglie ubriaca, which translates literally asto want the barrel full and the wife drunk.’ This is a lot more colourful than the English version of ‘having your cake and eating it too.’

Barrels outside Mt Rosa Winery
Le Botti Antiche. Barrels outside Mt Rosa Winery.

I was thinking about this expression often as we travelled through the wine district of Central Otago, New Zealand. As the wifely half of this travelling roadshow, I would rather have a barrel full of Central Otago wine AND a sober husband to drive me to the next wine tasting venue.

From Mt Difficulty
From Mt Difficulty

Julie and Andrew from Toi Toi Wines armed us with a fabulous touring list of the district, which included historic villages, wineries of note and good restaurants. If we tried them all, we would still be in Central Otago, which would be rather lovely indeed. Four days touring around the area was not long enough.

A vineyard on the moon?
A vineyard on the moon? The volcanic hills around Mt Difficulty.

If you plan to do some wine touring, grab yourself a local map from the Tourist Information Centre or your accommodation, which will list the cellar doors and hours of opening. The Central Otrago area has around 5 distinct wine districts and vineyards are clustered along each route. Not all vineyards are open in May. Some charge a modest wine tasting fee which is deducted from your purchase. Even if you don’t drink wine, heaven forbid, the views along these routes are stunning. You will find yourself stopping at every bend for another photo.

last of Autum vines
Last of the Autumn colours.

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The wineries we visited included-

  • Wooing Tree, Cromwell. Expensive, cheapest Pinot Noir is $48.00. Wine tasting per person is also costly, but is deducted from the cost of a purchase. Small and cramped tasting room.
  • Mt Difficulty. Includes a restaurant with a fabulous view. Extremely expensive antipasto platter for two ($50). Excellent Pinot Gris. Taste those hills!
  • Brennan wines. Modest tasting shed, amusing and very informative host, excellent wines. Sensible pricing. We bought some Pinot Gris and Noir which were packed to bring home. We loved this place. Top pick.
  • Peregrine wines. Stunning building and setting. Not impressed with the 2015 Riesling we purchased. Extremely volatile. Think photo opportunities, old sheds, rolling valleys.
  • Chard Farm. We didn’t make it to the cellar door of this winery but wish we had as this wine is sensational, an absolute knock out! Recommended- Pinot Gris and Chardonnay.  Voler la botte piena di vino del fattoria di Chard! Magari!
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    Brennans wine, Gibbston

    In case you think I missed Toi Toi Wines, I should mention that they don’t have a cellar door in the area but market their wines widely throughout supermarkets in New Zealand and Australia ( Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc). In New Zealand, you can hunt down some of their reserve wines which are not available in Australia, such as their award-winning Marlborough Riesling 2013. Yum.

Stone shed, Peregrine wines
Stone shed, Peregrine wines

Next post- more on Central Otago, the most beautiful district in New Zealand.