The Story of Queenstown Wine
Brimming with colourful characters achieving improbable goals, the story of Central Otago’s wine industry starts with the gold rushes of the 1860s.
This remote and mountainous region of the South Island was first settled by sheep farmers in the 1850s. After gold was discovered in the Shotover River in 1862, a flood of prospectors arrived in search of fortune. Little did they know that, more than 150 years later, wine would be the glittering prize.
It was miner John Desire Feraud who originally sniffed out the region’s potential, planting the first grapes in 1864. A Frenchman with winemaking in the blood and money from the goldfields in his pocket, he set up Monte Cristo winery near Clyde, earning plaudits locally and in Australia for his efforts.
No further gains were made for another 30 years or so. In 1895, the New Zealand government commissioned European viticulturist Romeo Bragato to assess the prospects for a wine industry in this young country. His survey revealed great promise for certain varietals, his report noting that, “there was no country on the face of the earth which produced better Burgundy grapes than were produced in Central Otago and portions of the North Island.”
Bragato was bang on the money. Enjoying a near-Continental climate with hot days, cool nights and not a lot of rain, Central Otago has swell conditions for chardonnay, pinot noir, and aromatics like riesling and pinot gris. However, at 45 degrees south, and between 200 and 450 metres above sea level, this was – and still is – pushing winemaking to its geographical limits.
Unsurprisingly, grapes failed to budge cows, sheep and orchards from this rugged high country. That is, until Alan Brady and a handful of other experimentalists entered the picture in the early 1980s.
A Budding Industry
An Irishman, journalist and Central Otago convert, Alan Brady bought land in the Gibbston Valley in the mid 1970s. The self-confessed dreamer had an inkling that the fickle but coveted pinot noir grape would thrive, despite skeptics telling him it was “too cold, too high and too far south.” He went ahead anyway, planting his first grapes in 1981.
Luckily, Brady’s vision was shared by a few other local people, including Rolf and Lois Mills at Wanaka’s Rippon Vineyard, and Sue Edwards and Verdun Burgess at Black Ridge near Alexandra.
Far removed from the rest of the country’s budding wine industry and lacking a manual for making it work in this extreme environment, these early few shared their knowledge – from vine to bottle to customers’ glasses. This spirit of collaboration helped lubricate the burgeoning industry and remains central to its character to this day.
When it came to commercial release, Brady was first out of the blocks, producing a Central Otago pinot noir in 1987. By the end of the ‘80s, word was seeping out, drawing in fresh blood such as Rob Hay.