GRAPE GROWING AT THE 45th LATITUDE SOUTH

Central Otago is a geographic region located in the southern half of New Zealand’s South Island.  At the 45th latitude south it is the world’s most southern winemaking region.  It is a stunningly beautiful area with snow capped mountains, clear blue rivers, and deep gorges.  The major area town is Queenstown.

LatitudesCentral Otago is a developing wine growing region with an international reputation for Pinot Noir.  Grape growing and winemaking at 45th Parallel South is an adventurous business.  The vineyards are at 600-1100 feet elevation and subject to cold winters, hot dry summers and a huge day to night temperature variation.  Such adversity has led to the development of unique winemaking and viticulture skills.

Gibbston Valley (the “Valley of Vines”) is a small valley about 10 miles from Queenstown.  The Sims Vineyard, like most Gibbston Valley vineyards, is planted on a north-facing slope high above the dramatic Kawarau River Gorge. 

Climate

Summers are hot and dry and consequently all vineyards require drip irrigation.  Autumns are cool and dry with cold nights.  During the summer and fall the big variation between the daytime and nighttime temperature helps contribute to flavor intensity, giving depth of color and stability to the wines.  Annual rainfall averages 15-30 inches a year.  Heavy frosts are common during the spring and fall. 

Latitudes  
Kawarau River Gorge bordering Sims Estate Vineyard  

History

The region was rich in alluvial (river) gold which was heavily mined from the 1860’s to the 1930’s.  The history of many Central Otago communities can be traced back to the gold mining era.

The most notable early Central Otago winemaker was (wouldn’t you know it) a Frenchman, John Desire Feraud, who arrived in 1862 during the gold rush.  He didn’t find gold but did plant wine grapes in 1864.  The grapes did well and Feraud built a commercial winery and sold a variety of wines over the next twenty years.  When Feraud left Otago in the 1880’s commercial winemaking stopped. 

In 1895 Italian viticulturalist Romeo Braggato, after studying the potential for grape growing in New Zealand, predicted that Pinot Noir would achieve great success if planted in selected areas of the country.  Central Otago was one of the areas he selected.

Current Wine History

The first modern-day commercial Pinot Noir wines were released in 1987.  In just a little over twenty years the Central Otago region has gone from a tiny niche Pinot Noir producer to receiving international recognition for its wines.    

How did this happen?  Maybe some luck, but most likely it was the hard work by some of the early “Pinot Pioneers”, much like what happened during the early days of the Oregon wine industry.  In Central Otago Pinot Noir was planted as part of the search for the grape varieties that would grow best there.  It was discovered that Pinot Noir performed well and displayed flavors and structure that is now unique to this specific “terroir”.

Successful grape growing at 45th South is right at the edge for viticulture, just as grape growing in Oregon is at the edge at 45th North.  Only a very few places in the world can grow great Pinot Noir, and Central Otago and Oregon are two of them.