Where to stay
Blacks Hotel Quirkily decorated old pub with colourful, themed rooms,
an excellent decked and grassed central beer garden and open fires in the public bar. Double from £75. Corner of Swindon Street and Ida
Valley, Omakau Road, Ophir, 00 64 3447 3826, blackshotel.co.nz
Burn Cottage Retreat Three comfortable, self-contained cottages set in peaceful, beautiful gardens. Double from £117. 168 Burn Cottage Road, Cromwell, 00 64 3445 3050, burncottageretreat.co.nz
Mt Michael Lodge Luxurious B&B set in a vineyard. Expect great
cooking from the hosts, a heated pool, views over Lake Dunstan and a front lawn that doubles as a helipad. Double from £247. 5A Lowburn
Valley Road, Cromwell, 00 64 27 950 3422, mtmichaellodge.co.nz
Olivers Central Otago Spacious lodge and stable rooms beautifully renovated and decked out with oriental rugs, heritage furniture, couches and freestanding baths. Double from £117. 34 Sunderland Street, Clyde, 00 64 3449 2600, oliverscentralotago.co.nz
Pitches Store The six stylishly renovated rooms here are compact but comfortable. Some feature their own courtyard. Great camaraderie every morning around the communal breakfast table. Double from £147. 45 Swindon Street, Ophir, 00 64 3447 3240, pitchesstore.co.nz
Central Otago is the most inland region of New Zealand, located in the southern half of the South Island. Flights from the UK take up to 33 hours, most with two stopovers. Time is 13 hours ahead of GMT. Currency is the New Zealand dollar (NZD). In December, the average high temperature is 22C and the average low temperature is 10C.
Tourism Central Otago is the regional tourist organisation and its website is packed with all the information you’ll need to help you get the most out of your trip. centralotagonz.com
The Bone People by Keri Hulme (Picador, £8.99), winner of the 1985 Booker Prize, explores isolation and love in New Zealand’s South Island.
To offset your carbon emissions when travelling to Central Otago,
visit climatecare.org and make a donation. Return flights from London produce 5.2 tonnes of CO2, meaning a cost to offset of £39.10.
Where to eat
Prices are per person for two courses and a glass of wine or beer, unless otherwise stated
103 The Lounge and Store Charmingly eccentric café and gift store
that does a fine line in quality bagels, roast pork sandwiches and
delicious old-school cakes. The coffee’s top rate, too. From £10,
without wine. 103 Scotland Street, Roxburgh, 00 64 3446 8158
Bannockburn Hotel A fabulously run pub with impressive views from a grassy beer garden and a menu that covers all the quality burger/steak bases plus good tacos. Its wine list embraces both the local and the rest of the world. From £25. 420 Bannockburn Road, Cromwell, 00 64 3445 0615, bannockburnhotel.com
Carrick Wines Stunning views across to Mount Difficulty from the
terrace of this winery restaurant complement a menu that takes its lead
from the veggie patch outside and local venison, lamb, hare and quail.
The estate wine counts among the best in the region. From £30. 247 Cairnmuir Road, Bannockburn, 00 64 3445 3480, carrick.co.nz
Ferris Road Brewery This brewery and pizzeria in Alexandra’s industrial area and right on the Otago Central Rail Trail has a great line up of hand-crafted beer (try the superbly named Trail Ale) and crisp-crust wood-fired pizzas. Pizza and a beer from £17. 7 Ngapara Street, Alexandra, 00 64 3448 7543, ferrisroadbrewery.co.nz
Mt Difficulty Winery The elevated, modern cellar door building at Mt Difficulty has a spacious outdoor terrace that takes full advantageof views over vines, with mountains as a dramatic backdrop. The food’s good, too: classic dishes beautifully plated and expertly paired with Mt Difficulty’s extensive range of wine. From £32. 73 Felton Road, Bannockburn, 00 64 3445 3445, mtdifficulty.nz
Olivers Central Otago Gorgeous dining room in a mining-era general store complete with rough-hewn walls and central fireplace. The kitchen dishes up some of the best food in the district – sophisticated and ingredient focused without getting too fussy. From £30. 34 Sunderland Street, Clyde, 00 64 3449 2805, oliverscentralotago.co.nz
The Orchard Garden This restaurant, in between Alexandra and Clyde, does an impressive job with well-cooked, hearty café food and a short list of mostly local wine. The big draw though is the superb, extensive, oasis-like garden, formerly an orchard, that now includes a verdant maze and a series of dreamy, leafy vistas. From £21. 576 Dunstan Road, Clyde, 00 64 3449 2865, theorchardgarden.co.nz
Paulina’s Chef Paulina Corvalan’s restaurant is a cosy place with a love of shared dishes. It has a multicultural accent that runs to
tempura, tortillas, local steak and seafood paella. From £30. 6 Naylor Street, Clyde, 00 64 3449 3236, paulinasrestaurant.co.nz
Pitches Store Modern food in a restored gold rush-era general store that was also, at one point, a service station. Good ingredients and flavours with a strong wine list to match. From £35. 45 Swindon Street, Ophir, 00 64 3447 3240, pitchesstore.co.nz
Food and Travel Review
Close your eyes and think of New Zealand. Chances are you’re picturing emerald-green paddocks dotted with sheep, set against a backdrop of snow-capped mountains. Or perhaps forest-fringed lakes reflecting the sky. But forget about the lush green New Zealand narrative for a moment and think about another landscape. This one is an alpine desert, stark and magnificent, punctuated by rugged mountains covered in nothing but wild thyme, rosehips and a dusting of snow. Deep river gorges, 200m above sea level, are carved into the dusty terrain beneath immense clear skies, with air so dry and fresh it should be bottled. Still showing scars from the 1860s Otago Gold Rush that brought Europeans here in great numbers for the first time, the area’s eroded hillsides have an Arizona desert quality, a likeness supported by matching gold-rush era buildings in small, mining era towns.
Central Otago (‘Central’ to those in the know) is an astonishing, and often astonishingly beautiful, place. It’s an area of extremes in the south of New Zealand’s South Island. Further from the sea than anywhere else in the country, Central is also the driest place in New Zealand, with an average of 340mm rainfall per year. It records some of the country’s hottest temperatures, and some of its coldest too. The sunsets over the mountains are renowned.
It’s also the southernmost commercial wine-producing region on the planet. Any further south or higher in altitude and vines will fail. Right on the edge of viability, Central Otago’s vineyards are assisted by a ‘continental’ climate, mineral-rich schist soils and an impressive variety of separate microclimates.
It’s a young wine region, too (the first commercially produced Central Otago wine was sold just 30 years ago), with a refreshing sense of camaraderie among the makers and a pioneering no-rules approach to what can and can’t be grown and made. The attitude fits well with the frontier quality of the landscape.
But the growing numbers of small wineries scattered throughout the region are making truly great pinot noir, chardonnay and riesling in anything but cowboy fashion. With many farming organically and biodynamically and producing finessed wines that are dispelling the original ‘fruit bomb’ reputation they once had, the region is attracting ever-increasing attention. Wine writer Jancis Robinson has anointed Central Otago one of the five great wine regions of the New World.
So how to make wine in a desert? Irrigation, much of it courtesy of the swift-flowing Clutha River (New Zealand’s second longest) is an essential part of the story here. The region is riddled with smaller rivers and several lakes, including the large, man-made Lake Dunstan, created when the hydroelectric Clyde Dam was built during the Eighties and Nineties. All this water obviously helps with the growing of grapes – and in attracting boating, trout fishing and swimming fans – but it also means this arid region is able to produce an awe-inspiring variety of delicious stone fruit, alongside an increasing number of artisan businesses producing everything from honey, saffron, olives and cheese to craft beer and gin.
Good restaurants have sprung up in the wake of the wine industry’s success and the coffee is often excellent, something virtually de rigueur in modern-day New Zealand. Add the fact that there’s easy access to the region via the international airport at Queenstown, on Central Otago’s western edge, and it’s no wonder this once-unnoticed part of the country is, for wine and food fans in particular, now one of New Zealand’s worst-kept secrets.
While the region’s first vines were planted in the 1800s, the fledgling industry was quickly overtaken by the business of gold. A renaissance in the Eighties was led by a new breed of oenophiles who weren’t trained winemakers but were attracted by government studies that had pegged Central as being ideal for growing. Pioneering wineries like Black Ridge (one of the world’s southernmost vineyards), Rippon and Gibbston Valley paved the way, discovering via trial and error the varieties that could survive the region’s rocky dry soils, extreme temperatures and hungry birds and rabbits.
At Aurum Wines, just outside the town of Cromwell on Lake Dunstan, winemaker Lucie Lawrence makes wine with her husband Brook on a vineyard originally planted by her husband’s parents 20 years ago. Lucie was born in France and has completed vintages in Burgundy and Alsace, but it is Central Otago’s freedom from tradition and potential that’s in her blood now.
‘When I first moved here in 2004 there was the vineyard, a cottage, some roses, rabbits and dust,’ she says, looking over the now lush gardens, complete with a magnificent walnut tree, that surround the Aurum cellar door. ‘But we were 25 years old and were going to have our own winery, so why would we want to be anywhere else? We felt like the next chapter in the story. The first people who came here to make wine loved wine but didn’t really know what they were doing. They just took this crazy leap. Now more people are coming in with training and knowledge and are taking the legacy of the original people to the next stage.’
One thing not changing – and a major part of this low-key wine region’s charm – is that the wineries here continue to be small and artisan – focusing on having quality over quantity. Even the larger and longer-established wineries, such as Rippon on Lake Wanaka, and Mt Difficulty and Domain Road, both found in Bannockburn, are small-scale relative to other wine regions, even by New Zealand standards. Central Otago might be producing more wine than ever before but it still only contributes around two per cent of the country’s total wine output.
Austrian-born Rudi Bauer from Quartz Reef was one of the first trained winemakers to come to the region, and has witnessed the area’s reputation for pinot noir getting stronger and stronger. What’s fascinating, he believes, is that each sub-region of Central Otago has its own distinct expression.
‘We start with a pure expression of pinot noir in the region with vibrant acidity and we go from there,’ Bauer says. ‘You get depth in the wines from Bendigo and when you go to Bannockburn you see a silky, more textural influence, while the wines from Gippsland are beautiful, earthy and quite pronounced, like the lower keys on the piano. Then you go to the Alexandra Basin and you see these beautiful high notes of perfume.’
It’s not just pinot noir making music, though. ‘People expect fantastic, world-class pinot noir when they come to Central Otago but what I’ve noticed is the surprise and delight in the cellar door is to be found with the whites,’ says Mt Difficulty’s regional sales manager Greg Wilkinson. ‘The area has always been famous for its stone fruit – cherries, apricots, nectarines, peaches, plums – and what’s interesting is that there are those fruit characteristics in some of our pinot gris, chardonnay and riesling.’
Many orchards around here have been pulled out to make way for grapevines or were flooded after the construction of the Clyde Dam but there are still impressive quantities of amazing fruit with poetic names being grown on the valley floors. There are Sweetheart, New York and Stella cherries, apricots labelled Clutha Gold, Sundrop and Royal Rosa, Black Doris and Greengage plums and peaches called Scarlet O’Hara, Glowing Star and Southern Ice. The hot summers and frosty winters produce crops of intense sweetness.
The best place to find this fruit is in Roxburgh and the Teviot Valley, where the state highway runs through orchard country and fruit trees stretch away from the road. Many of the orchards have fruit stands by the side of the road, some of which still run on an honesty-box system, a fact that seems quaint and just about right in this isolated neck of the woods (though prominent signs stating that ‘Taking of Fruit is THEFT’ might signal that this era is coming to an end).
There is usually stone fruit on the menu at some of Central Otago’s best restaurants, too. Olivers in Clyde, a beautiful small town located in the shadow of the imposing Clyde Dam, with a main street lined with 19th-century buildings made from local stone, puts much of the region’s produce on its menu. Local lamb and beef, saffron and vegetables all feature in the restaurant’s rustic yet refined offering. Menu highlights include a curried pumpkin soup, thyme and caper-crusted lamb rump and, to finish, a fabulous warm apple and berry strudel with frangipane.
The restaurant building dates back to 1869 and was once the town’s general store. It now includes a craft brewery, a café that bakes all of its own bread and pastries, and accommodation in an attached historic lodge and stables. Olivers is a good example of the type of business now popping up across Central Otago, re-purposing abandoned and often dilapidated buildings to cater to the growing band of tourists flocking here for the wine and great cycling opportunities.
The best way to experience the area’s majesty is by bike on the Otago Central Rail Trail. For those averse to exercise, there are simple electric cycles available for hire, which take the grunt work out of traversing the region on two wheels. The trail is meticulously sectioned so you can choose to ride for a few hours or a few days.
The former railway line shadows mountains covered in wild thyme, crosses vast tussock-strewn plains, plunges through pitch-black tunnels, traverses deep river gorges on hair-raisingly narrow bridges and passes through picture-perfect old gold mining towns like Ophir.
As with several other towns in the region, Ophir has been brought back from ghost town status in recent years by hordes of wiry, grey-haired cyclists with a taste for Lycra, expensive bikes, good wine, coffee and food. Pitches Store, in the middle of town, usually has a pile of bikes parked out the front belonging to people staying overnight or stopping by for coffee and food. The Pitches menu also makes a point of embracing local produce and usually includes some of the magnificent cheeses made not too far away at Raggedy Range Cheese, in the foothills of the Raggedy Ranges.
A tiny, family-run goat and sheep dairy, Raggedy Range sticks to the local script of being organic and hands-on. Faith Gray, her husband Nick and son Bryce work the farm making Camembert, feta, chèvre and pecorino-style cheeses of great subtlety. Faith says the elegance is all down to the freshness of the milk.
‘We milk our 30 goats once a day and we always make the cheese before the milk is two days old,’ says Faith. ‘That way it doesn’t have that strong goat taste. The cheeses seem to age superbly, too – the flavours get deeper.’ Raggedy Range often sells its cheese at the Cromwell or Alexandra Farmers Markets, both of which operate weekly. They’re good places to get a take on the region’s produce – high-grade saffron, super grassy olive oils, wild thyme honey, local venison, wine and stone fruit (though you have to be quick with the superb cherries, as a good percentage are earmarked for cherry-fanatical markets in Asia).
Coming to Central Otago to experience New World pinot noir is a great entry point to this sometimes unsung part of New Zealand. But once you’ve experienced this magnificent landscape, the friendly, down-to-earth people, crisp mornings followed by still peaceful days, beautiful produce, excellent food and relaxed pace of life, the focus might change. Well-rated pinot noir becomes just one excuse to get back to Central as quickly as possible.
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