A Drive Through The Otago Vineyards

17 February 2015

Want to enjoy one of the world’s most pleasant drives? Head to the New Zealand Alps.

More precisely, take to the road out of Queenstown that links local vineyards, before heading up into the mountains towards Wanaka. You’ll enjoy not only some dazzling scenery, but pass by some of the country’s best cellar doors.

 The magic of a wine cave (Credit: Brian Johnston)

Grapes have been grown in Central Otago since nineteenth-century gold-rush days, but the first commercial wines only appeared in the late 1980s.

Since then, the region has made up for lost time: this is New Zealand’s fastest-growing wine region, with some 80 cellar doors. Pinot Noir is its most impressive grape variety, but Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling and Pinot Gris do well too.

The vast majority of vineyards lie in the Cromwell Basin around towns such as Pisa and Bendigo.

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Alpine Scenery At The Cellar Door

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However, more convenient for visitors using Queenstown as a base are the vineyards that extend from Queenstown to Wanaka. Along this route, you can stop off at Otago’s most enjoyable cellar doors and soak up the alpine scenery. If you only ever visit a single wine region in New Zealand, make it this one.

Brown tourist signs mark the way from Queenstown towards the vineyards of the Gibbston Valley, where the first cellar door appears 15 minutes out of town.

Most of the vineyards of Amisfield Estate actually lie further afield in the Cromwell Basin, but here you’ll find the copper-roofed, multi-million-dollar cellar door in Italianate rustic style.

 Brown tourist signs point the way (Credit: Brian Johnston)

Already the setting is scenic: you can gaze over vineyards towards lake and mountains as you sit on the terrace and tuck into platters of salad and Serrano ham, nicely accompanied on a hot summer’s day by the estate’s sparking Arcadia wine.

A quick motor further up the valley brings you to the most-visited cellar door in all New Zealand at Gibbston Valley Winery, an early pioneer of Central Otago wines. Now its Pinot Noir is considered a classic New Zealand wine – indeed, its 2000 Reserve won world’s best at the International Wine Challenge.

Take a guided tour and learn about production of this and its other wines on a visit to the cave, where oak barrels sit in regimented rows. Later, the cellar door’s suntrap courtyard is the place for an antipasto plate; the adjacent cheese company also allows you a nibble on boutique cheeses.


See another side of Queenstown. 4 Quirky Ways To See Queenstown

Another look at the Otago wine district. Central Otago Wine Tour


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The Tasting Counter Looks Like A City Bar

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Another interesting vineyard, Peregrine Wines, is smaller but also very successful. It’s a complete contrast to its cousin down the valley: the cellar door is ultra-modern and features an aerodynamic silver roof said to be shaped like a peregrine’s wing.

Inside the visitor’s centre, barrels are laid out in artfully lit rows behind glass, and the tasting counter looks like a city bar.

There’s quite a choice of other cellar doors as you continue your drive. Among them, just off the main road near Bannockburn, you’ll find Felton Road Vineyard, one of the area’s most notable wine labels. It’s a must-stop for anyone with a serious interest in New Zealand wines, since they make some of the country’s best Pinot Noirs.

 The tasting counter (Credit: Brian Johnston)

Northburn Station has been running sheep since the 1850s, but in 1999 its owners planted grapes on its sheltered, northwest-facing slopes overlooking Lake Dunstan.

Their cellar door sits in a beautifully tranquil setting alongside a duck pond. Though now only open by appointment, it’s the perfect spot to sample the estate’s Riesling, Pinot Gris and Sauvignon Blanc.

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Wine Lovers Have Reason To Visit A Ski Town

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You’re still a 45-minute drive from Wanaka, but you pass through some glorious mountain scenery, over which moody clouds alternate with sunshine. Otago weather can be temperamental, resulting in fluctuating wine production and quality – in 2004, most white-wine grapes were lost entirely.

But the climate compares in some respects to the Burgundy, Alsace and Mosel wine regions of Europe, and the hot dry summer is suited to slow ripening, which results in complex flavours in the best years.

Wanaka is, of course, a popular lakeshore holiday town and ski resort but, for wine lovers, Rippon Vineyard is the reason to visit.

The small, organic-certified vineyard grows mostly Riesling and Pinot Noir, but offers some interesting German varietals such as Gewürztraminer, Osteiner and Breidecker, and the Swiss Müller-Thurgau.

 The perfect back drop to a winery (Credit: Brian Johnston)

Chatty owner Nick Mills, if he’s around, will happily explain his organic principles and the ups and downs of grape growing in the world’s southernmost wine region, where high altitudes and cold winters are offset by long daylight hours and the warming effect of Lake Wanaka.

Wines apart, you could visit Rippon for its terrific February music festival, which has become a major event on the New Zealand music scene, or simply for its views over the lake towards the Buchanan Mountains.

It’s probably New Zealand’s most scenic vineyard, and a fine place to end a scenic drive.

Brian Johnston

Born in Nigeria of Irish parents, Brian Johnston has lived in Switzerland,the UK and China, and now calls Sydney home. The widely-published freelance writer and author is a two-time Australian Travel Writer of the Year.