Round 1 in New Zealand: The Wines of Central Otago

Twelve days is nowhere near enough time to experience all of the wonders of New Zealand. Two days out of those twelve is certainly insufficient for a fair sampling of their outstanding wines. Two days was enough time, however, to reach a few conclusions:

  1. New Zealand should be on everyone’s wish list for a vacation.
  2. That vacation should include as many wine tours as you can fit in.
  3. There are two clear kings of the New Zealand wine world: Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir.

View from Gibbston
View from Gibbston Winery

Our first tour was on the South Island just twenty minutes outside of Queenstown in New Zealand’s Central Otago region. While we barely got to scratch the surface on our one-day tour of this wine-rich locale, the relatively young region (as all New Zealand wine regions are) shows great promise and is already producing high quality wines. The first stop on our four-stop tour was Gibbston Winery.

We were met at the door by Sue, who began our brief tour. She explained that it has been a cold, cloudy summer in Central Otago this year, and that the vines are thus 3-4 weeks late in flowering. It has been so cold, in fact, that Gibbston has brought out helicopters to circulate the air above the grapes and prevent frost three or four times already this year at a cost of $20,000. Gibbston is hoping that their VSP growing system will maximize the sunlight hitting the grapes over the rest of the summer and ripen the grapes in time for harvest.

Riesling Flowering at Gibbston
Riesling Flowering at Gibbston

Sue then spoke in detail about Gibbston’s Pinot Noir production. New Zealanders are very excited about their capacity to produce fine pinot noirs: their climate and land provide many areas of the country on both islands with the perfect terroir to grow this picky grape. While the grapes often grown themselves with these surroundings, the winemaker has a great deal of control over the kind of pinot noir that they produce through the wine-making process. At Gibbston, the percentage of stems used in fermentation is decided by the winemaker on a wine by wine, year by year basis. The winery blends grapes from the various vineyards it owns in order to incorporate the different characteristics of each particular terroir in its wines and uses the punch-down method to mix the juice with the skins during fermentation.

Pinot Noir Vines at Gibbston
Pinot Noir Vines at Gibbston

We then went down into Gibbston’s cave for a tasting of three of their current offerings. The first, and in my opinion the strongest, wine we tasted was Gibbston’s 2006 Blanc de Pinot Noir. I detected notes of strawberry, watermelon, banana, and pineapple in the aroma followed by a semi-dry, tart palate of strawberry and citrus. This wine packs a punch at 14.9% alcohol, but it was the standout among those we tasted. 4 Stars 1/4, $17.12 per bottle. It should be noted, however, that Gibbston produced many different wines, particularly pinot noirs, at many different price points. Many of its reserve pinot noirs and older vintages were featured wines at Gantley’s, one of the best restaurants in the Queenstown, New Zealand area. If you love pinot noir and are feeling adventurous, it might be worth looking into Gibbston’s shipping costs.

Mrs. Wine with Dinner at Mt. Difficulty’s Tasting Room
Mt. Difficulty’s Tasting Room

Our second winery stop was perhaps my favorite of the four, Mt. Difficulty Wines. The reason for the name is obvious as soon as you start to climb the long, windy, unpaved road to the winery. It’s worth the trip just for the view. The hilltop location of the tasting facility provides the perfect environment in which to sample the fruits of the soil.

Mt. Difficulty offered us six wines for tasting. While the overall quality and consistency were most impressive, the 2004 Roaring Meg Merlot (yes, I said Merlot) and 2005 Pinot Noir were the standouts. The ruby-red colored Merlot is named after a popular madam from the days of the Queenstown gold rush. It presented aromas of plum, blackberries, and hints of spice and coffee with a lovely palate of cherries, cedar, and delicate tannins. 4 Stars 1/2, $19.14 per bottle. The Pinot Noir displayed a similar color and aromas of cedar, plum, cherry, and spice with an interesting light flavor of red fruit and green leaves with a hint of pepper. 4 Stars 1/2, $27.35 per bottle. Mt. Difficulty distributes around the world; information can be found here.

View from Mt. Difficulty
View from Mt. Difficulty

Our third stop was Olssens Winery, a lovely vineyard at the base of Nipple Hill (and, yes, I said Nipple Hill — see below). Of the six wines offered, Olsen’s scored best with their 2006 Riesling and 2006 Nipple Hill Pinot Noir. The Riesling, a varietal that grows well in New Zealand but is struggling a bit to gain popularity on the Islands, was clear and nearly colorless with fruity apple and mango/pineapple aromas and a palate of citrus flavors with a bit of a kick. 4 Stars, $14.38 per bottle. The Nipple Hill Pinot had a bright purple color with cherry and plum aromas and a fruit-forward flavor. I could have sworn I detected just a hint of oak, but was deceived, as it turns out the wine was aged in steel — no wood at all. 4 Stars, $16.43 per bottle. Check out Olssens’ website for pricing and ordering information for the United States.


Me in Front of Nipple Hill
Me In Front of Nipple Hill

Our final stop on the way back to Queenstown was at Chard Farm. A trip to Chard Farm is not for the weak of heart, as the only road to the farm is a one lane dirt road running along a steep mountainside. Fortunately, as we had been sipping all day, we had a sober, experienced tour guide to handle all of the twists and turns for us. Chard Farm’s 2006 Sauvignon Blanc and 2005 Finla Mor Pinot Noir were the class of the tasting. The Sauvignon Blanc was clear and nearly colorless with aromas of citrus and bell pepper citrus and herbal notes on the tongue. 3 Stars 3/4, $14.38 per bottle. The Finla Mor presented cherry, plum, and licorice aromas with a smooth, velvety tannins on the palate. 4 Stars 1/4, $24.65 per bottle. Sadly, Chard Farm does not distribute in the States, but they will ship upon request (see their website for contact information).  If you don’t want to pay the shipping and you are taking a vacation to New Zealand in the future, Chard Farm is a nice place to stop . . . unless you are afraid of heights.

Chard Farm Vineyard
Chard Farm Vineyard

I have one final note before I leave Central Otago and the Queenstown area in my tales of New Zealand wine. We found a wonderful wine shop in Queenstown where we were able to sample some wines from regions of New Zealand that we were not going to be able to visit. We found some especially wonderful sauvignon blancs there. Sadly, my tasting notes fron there are in a temporary state of dislocation. However, we also found a wonderful spaghetti and pizza bar that everyone should go to at least once know as The Cow (outstanding garlic bread). While at The Cow, I ordered a glass of Mud House Wines 2006 Savignon Blanc from Marlborough. It was my first exposure to New Zealand sauvignon blancs and made quite an impression and I fully recommend it to everyone, though I do not have specific tasting notes. Fortunately, Mud House is among the growing number of New Zealand wineries that distributes in the States.

A View of the Bungee Jumpers from the Road to Chard Farm
A View of the Bungee Jumpers from the Road to Chard Farm

Gibbston Winery
2006 Blanc de Pinot Noir, 4 Stars 1/4, $17.12 per bottle.
2006 Pinot Gris, 3 Stars 1/2, $18.83 per bottle.
2004 Pinot Noir, 3 Stars, $26.70 per bottle.

Mt. Difficulty Wines
2006 Pinot Gris, 3 Stars 1/4, $17.08 per bottle.
2006 Target Gully (Off-dry) Riesling, 4 Stars, $17.08 per bottle.
2006 Pinot Rose, 4 Stars, $18.45 per bottle.
2004 Roaring Meg Pinot Noir, 3 Stars 3/4, $19.14 per bottle.
2004 Roaring Meg Merlot, 4 Stars 1/2, $19.14 per bottle.
2005 Pinot Noir, 4 Stars 1/2, $27.35 per bottle.

Olssens Winery
2006 Riesling, 4 Stars, $14.38 per bottle.
2004 Gewurztraminer, 3 Stars, $16.43 per bottle.
2006 Bannockburn Club Unoaked Chardonnay, 3 Stars 1/4, $13.69 per bottle.
2006 Nipple Hill Pinot Noir, 4 Stars 1/4, $16.43 per bottle.
2005 Jackson Barry Pinot Noir, 3 Stars 1/4, $25.68 per bottle.

Chard Farm
2006 Sauvignon Blanc, 3 Stars 3/4, $14.38 per bottle.
2004 Gewurztraminer, 3 Stars, $15.06 per bottle.
2006 Pinot Gris, 3 Stars 1/2, $18.49 per bottle.
2005 River Run Pinot Noir, 3 Stars, $19.17 per bottle.
2005 Finla Mor Pinot Noir, 4 Stars 1/4, $24.65 per bottle.
2005 Viper Pinot Noir, 3 Stars 1/4, $30.81 per bottle.

Published in: on February 11, 2007 at 12:46 am  Comments (6)  

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6 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. i’m really enjoying your site! great reviews and pictures. keep it up!

    Thanks so much, Erin. I like your site as well. The picture you have up today is particularly hypnotic. Mmmmmmm . . . donuts . . . .

  2. Great job – pics, review! Man, Dezel needs to visit NZ. Sounds like you had a wonderful time.

    Happy Sipping!

    Thank you, sir. I was torn as to whether to write about it because few readers will have a chance to go, but we enjoyed it so much I felt I had to. The shipping is expensive for the wineries that don’t distribute, but some of them may be worth it. Wait until I get to my review of Winslow Wines. Exceptional stuff.

    We should get the D.C. Area wine bloggers together at some point. Are you going to the D.C. Wine and Food Expo in a couple of weeks?

  3. I’m so glad I stumbled across your blog! My husband and I honeymooned in NZ in April 2004. As a matter of fact, tomorrow (April 3rd) is our anniversary! We went to the same wineries and have the same pictures, except the foliage in our pictures was a dazzling yellow. We absolutely LOVE the pinot noirs of Central Otago and managed to carry home about a case and a half of wine, very carefully selected. Mount Difficulty certainly stands out in my mind as being among the best. The country is truly amazing and 2 weeks is definitely not enough time. We’d love to compare itineraries!

  4. Thank You

  5. Wow. Great site. I was in New Zealand several years ago. I loved it! Everyone always talks about how awesome Australia is but in my opinion – while Australia is nice – I believe that New Zealand surpasses it. Awesome place to visit.

  6. […] As loyal readers may recall, Mt. Difficulty had some of the best wines that we encountered on our New Zealand honeymoonlast year.  We may have to return to Rock Creek to get a taste of the 2006 […]

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