by John Douglas
Soon after the early Dunstan gold rush of 1862, two Frenchman, Jean Desire Feraud and partner Bladier took up a claim on the Clutha river, (Frenchman's Point) just opposite the mouth of the Manuherikia River. It proved to be a very rich claim and they mined it together until at least 1865.
In the spring of 1864, both travelled to Australia and bought back a wide range of plants, including several thousand grape cuttings. In October 1864 they planted the first wine grapes in Central Otago, at their orchard, " Monte Christo", close to the Waikerikeri Creek, Clyde. Bladier soon disappeared from the area and it was left to Feraud who continued to grow grapes right through to 1882. Over these years he made a variety of wines, which won prizes in Sydney and Melbourne wine competitions from 1879 to 1881. In 1882, the Feraud's sold up - local market gone with gold mining declining and / or from frost loss and moved to Dunedin. With the Feraud's gone, the fledging wine industry went to.
It was not till scientists from a NZ Government Department, DSIR at their Earnscleugh Experiment Orchard along Earnscleugh Road, Alexandra, from 1972 till 1978, showed grapes again could be successfully grown here in Central Otago. Different varieties were tried and as well they carried out climatic research at various locations around Central Otago. With help from their research, a handful of "new" pioneers too began growing grapes experimentally in the late 1970s and 1980s. The first commercially produced wine was released in 1987. In the short time since, Central Otago has become New Zealand's fastest growing region and as well, has established itself on the international market. By early 2004, now over 120 vineyards planting out of about 2000 hectares, many recent, are now in the region, with nearly half yet to become fully established as an economical viable concern.
There can be few places in the world were vineyards are found in such diverse and rugged locations. European winemakers argue that great wine is made in challenging environment. At 45 degrees South, Central Otago is perched on the southern edge of the grapegrowing world and the vineyards live with the risk of frosts in spring and autumn. To combat frost, some have installed overhead frost fighting sprinklers, others use heated air dispersed by blade towers while others still and will use helicopters when required, so as to break up the cold ground air lying over the vineyards.
Its the continental type climate - warm dry summers, cool autumns, generally free from rain at harvest time, cold winters, the large diurnal temperature between the night and day over the growing season that all help to seal in the flavour and acid in the white wines and encourages colour development and stability in Pinot Noir. Also the relatively low humidity results in low incidence of fungal disease and thus minimise spraying.
The vineyards of Central Otago are clustered mainly in four distinct sub-regions based on the towns of Alexandra, (Earnscleugh / Springvale) Cromwell Basin with over 60% of the regions grapes (Bannockburn / Lowburn / Bendigo), Queenstown (Gibbston Valley / Lake Hayes) and Wanaka. For a wine tour it is possible to drive around the regions in a day though it is best you take two days. Each sub-region has its own character, but the unifying factors are altitude, climate and normally most are on north facing slopes. At between 200 and 350 metres above sea level, these are the highest altitude vineyards in New Zealand and the most distance from the sea.
The finicky Pinot Noir has found an environment in which it thrives. Since 1990, Central Otago Pinot Noir has topped its class many times in national wine competitions. Now all the new vineyards are planting out Pinot Noir as their main wine. White wines are also performing well, characterised by delicate flavours, aromas and crisp acidity. The symbol and the distinctive Central Otago bottle are guarantees that the wines are produced in Central Otago from grapes grown in the region.
Tours of the Central Otago Vineyards, Historical Goldfields, wild flower walks and general tours can be arranged with John Douglas of Safari Excursions.
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