Most descriptions of Central Otago would leave you wondering why on earth people would plant grapes here. It’s the world’s most southerly (at latitude 45° south) and New Zealand’s highest winegrowing region – and prompts titles for books like Vineyards on the Edge (D. Cull, 2001). This is a place of extraordinary contrasts with craggy bare mountains, massive schist rock tors, and gorges carved by raging rivers but also spectacular glassy lakes, rolling green farmlands and deep valleys of orchards producing some of New Zealand’s best stone fruit. Although the conditions are known to be marginal for growing grapes with frost a big risk as well as a short growing season, it has become New Zealand’s fastest growing region with leading international wine critics raving about its wines.
Central Otago is home to 16% of New Zealand’s wineries, yet it only represents 5% the nation’s planted hectares – which means average vineyard size is very small. And it harvests only 2.4% of the country’s total grape harvest – which means yields are managed to very low levels. Nearly 80% of the grapes grown in the Central Otago region are Pinot Noir, followed by Pinot Gris (12%) and Chardonnay and Riesling which are both around 4%. All of this is in contrast to the country’s largest wine growing region of Marlborough which contains 65% of New Zealand’s vineyard area and produces 74% of the country’s grapes with 80% of their vineyards planted in Sauvignon Blanc – and with 90% of New Zealand’s total production of Sauvignon Blanc coming from Marborough.
So the volume of wine from Central Otago is tiny however it’s Central Otago’s Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris that command the country’s highest price per tonne of grapes. So what’s so special about this region? A well-chosen site, especially on the warmer northern and north-western slopes, with yields managed to very low-levels, will generally produce excellent fruit – and make world-class wines. The blend of icy cold winters, hot summers with little to no rainfall, and large diurnal temperature swings during the ripening season, allow grapes to ripen with wonderful flavour intensity yet retain high levels of crisp acidity enabling excellent ageing potential.
The grape-growing areas of Central Otago experience a semi-continental climate unlike the rest of New Zealand which has a maritime climate. The landscape of Central Otago is also quite different with soils generally low to medium fertility ranging from heavy clays to free draining silts to stony schist-dominant and glacial soils.
It is this blend of this climate, the soils, and the location of each vineyard that come together in a specific way to create a unique flavour profile – a term the French call ‘terroir’. With Pinot Noir, known to be a very ‘transparent grape’ – meaning it is affected by every aspect of its growing environment, this element of “terroir” is extremely important. It’s one of the reasons that the world has so many Pinot Noir enthusiasts – as every Pinot Noir is different and speaks clearly of its origins. For many winegrowers and winemakers, producing Pinot Noir represents the ultimate challenge and no other variety seems to awaken the same passions as Pinot Noir.
(Statistics from “NZ Winegrowers 2008 Statistical Annual”)
New Zealand’s Place in the World
New Zealand is one of the leading new world wine producing countries and exports premium quality wines to countries all over the world. In 2014 global wine production was 27.9 billion litres (or 279 million hectolitres). Of that, Australia produced just over 1 billion litres (4.44% of global production) and is the 6th biggest producer with New Zealand producing 320 million litres (1% of global production) and ranked as the 15th biggest producer. Interestingly, the percentage change from 2010 to 2014 was a positive 69% for New Zealand – which was the highest percentage growth within the top 20 producers but also on the decline of some European producers and a bumper year for New Zealand.
The New Zealand wine industry has expanded significantly over the past ten years with the grape producing area tripling from just over 10,000 hectares in 2000 to 35,500 hectares in 2014. Vineyards now cover more than twice the surface area of any other horticultural crop in New Zealand. Exports have also seen a nine-fold increase in the past 10 years as exporting has been a big focus for wine producers. New Zealand’s share of global trade for wine is 1.5% which puts it into 11th place in the top 12 wine exporters. Australia, UK and the US are the biggest markets for NZ wine. Exports to Canada and Asia are also steadily increasing.
With just over 700 wineries registered in New Zealand (nearly double the number of wineries back in 2000), it’s still primarily the domain of small wineries and relatively small growers although there has been increasing international investment and now the 6 largest companies account for approximately 55% of total wine production and 19% of total grape production.
New Zealand may be one of the smallest producing countries with less than 1% of the global wine production, but in the UK, New Zealand achieves the highest prices for its wines. Over the past 10 years New Zealand has had the highest price per litre of all wine imports into the UK beating even France in this highly competitive market. New Zealand’s average price per litre is also double that of Australia’s price per litre. And in the US, New Zealand wines command a premium as well, and second only to France in terms of the price per litre, and again almost double the price of Australian wine.(Investment New Zealand – Data from UN Comtrade, Coriolis Analysis).
Although New Zealand’s largest export variety is Sauvignon Blanc (and accounts for 70% of New Zealand’s total wine production), Pinot Noir has now become the country’s second-largest export variety and continues to grow. But premium Pinot Noir will never be produced in large volumes! The world-class Pinot Noir produced in Central Otago is expensive – vineyards are small and usually family-run, everything is done by hand, crops are managed to extremely low levels, and producers are all trying to produce the very best quality they can. It is very much the domain of artisans in search of the highest quality. The region represents only 0.018% of the world’s wine – so Central Otago Pinot Noir is a scarce commodity indeed.
So New Zealand may be small, but it punches well above its weight in so many areas. Its place in the world with respect to wine is probably best summarized by the marketing vision from New Zealand Winegrowers: “To be internationally recognized as the leading producer and marketer of highly distinctive premium quality wines.”