Central Otago has long been lauded as New Zealand’s premier pinot noir wine growing region but just over the hills, New Zealand’s newest wine region, Waitaki, is starting to make a name for itself.
Just a three-hour drive north from the famed vines of the Gibbston Valley in Central Otago, the northern Otago region is dotted with boutique wineries focusing on quality, not quanity. Like all wines the terroir of the region sets it apart and the Waitaki is no different. Limestone soil, similar to those in Burgundy, help the younger Waitaki region reach a quality that is of a very high standard.
"The Waitaki Valley is one of New Zealand’s smallest wine regions, producing world class Pinot Noir, aromatic whites and a handful of truly special Chardonnays," says Jen Parr, winemaker at Valli Vineyards whose Waitaki vineyard produces incredible Pinot Noir. A United States native, Jen came to New Zealand to work with Valli's owner Grant Taylor, a man who is widely considered one of the godfathers of Pinot Noir in New Zealand and a world renowned expert.
Cutting through the valley is the Waitaki River or Te Waitaki o Aoraki, referencing the tears of local Māori ancestor Aoraki / Mt Cook who watches over from afar. The silts from river and the unique make up of the soil sets the region apart from anywhere else in New Zealand. Add to this, the challenging weather and you have a formula for small quantities at harvest but an exceptional quality result.
Not far from Valli's Waitaki vineyard is Karen and Murray Turner's vineyard and cellar door River T Estate. The beauty of River T's cellar door is that it is a one-stop shop where visitors can try many of the wines being made in Waitaki Valley and enjoy a platter while overlooking the vineyard.
"I love giving the visitors an experience," says Karen. "They are free to walk through our vineyard, sample local produce and River T Wine's Cellar Door not only stocks River-T Wine but also nearly all the other producers. We have the largest selection of Waitaki Valley wine in the world for sale."
River T, like most of the wineries in Waitaki, is the last to harvest each year in New Zealand, around the end of April and sometimes well into May. Because the grapes are allowed to stay on the vine longer, the flavour develops more than its Central Otago cousin. The result is higher acidity levels which provides freshness and balance alongside minerality and earthy notes with delicate fruit flavours. In layman's terms, complex and delicious.
Less than a 5 minute drive from River T is Ostler Wines. As pioneers in New Zealand's newest wine region, brothers-in-law Jeff Sinnott and Jim Jerram founded Ostler Wines to produce distinctive vineyard-specific cool climate wines. The cellar door for Ostler (and other Waitaki Wines) is the Vintner's Drop in Kurow, and it is here you can taste wines of distinction, finesse and integrity.
Waitaki Wine Tours
The best way to get around the Waitaki Valley and visit some of the wineries is with Oamaru local Sue Mansworth who runs Waitaki Wine Tours. Sue warmly welcomes her guests and takes them on an intimate tour of the Waitaki wine region. Departing from Oamaru the tour will take a maximum of six guests to some of the region’s best wineries. The boutique vineyards are a fantastic opportunity to get up close with the people behind the labels and share their passion and stories.
"I love showcasing and sharing our region's scenery, history and wine with international visitors as it's unique and stunning," Sue says. "It's my pleasure to provide a memorable day out during their stay in the Waitaki District."
Waitaki Valley is just over three hours drive from Queenstown or two hours from Dunedin. The small town of Oamaru is a great place to base yourself for your visit. Renowned for its Victorian architecture, two penguin colonies and steampunk culture, Oamaru is a quirky spot with an interesting history. Don't forget to visit the Oamaru Blue Penguins, Steampunk HQ and Whitestone City.