Central Otago: from Bendigo to Wanaka to Pisa

Mondillo

You’ve been around the wineries of Bannockburn, walked the 4 Barrels Trail, and visited the Cellar Doors of Cromwell – time for a drive through some gorgeous Central scenery, and, in some cases, get a bit off the beaten track. We’ll head out along the lake and around to Wanaka, then back down the western side through to Pisa. Strap in for an epic day out.

If the Farmers’ Market is on in Cromwell, make sure you have an early morning stop there – you can pick up some superb local produce. Grab a takeaway coffee with your breakfast and pile into the car, heading out of town on SH8 on the eastern side of Lake Dunstan.

Your first stop is the (relatively new) Cloudy Bay Shed at 45 Northburn Station Road. The Shed is open from 11am to 5pm, Tuesday through Saturday, expanding to seven days a week from the summer months onwards. Offering the full range of Cloudy Bay wines to taste, and to enjoy by the glass, with light snacks available alongside. You can also book a private tasting, or a range of custom-made experiences, including vineyard tours by land and by air.

Cloudy Bay has been making wine from Central Otago since 2010, having bought the Northburn vineyard in 2012 and leasing part of the Calvert vineyard on Felton Road in Bannockburn. The Cloudy Bay Pinot Noir “Te Wahi” combines the qualities of the two distinctive vineyard sites, and is well recommended.

Cloudy Bay Shed Northburn

Leaving Northburn behind, you’re on your way to one of Central Otago’s most talked-about regions for viticulture – Bendigo. It’s often remarked upon that Bendigo is a unique sub-region within Central, producing wines that are identifiably of this place – I’ve described them as ‘sunshine in a glass’

Vines cling to the hills above the valley floor – the Bendigo Flats – although quite a few vineyards are along the flat besides the gravel Bendigo Loop Road as well. One of the sub-region’s pioneers, Quartz Reef, have their vineyards here – established by Rudi Bauer in 1998. 

A range of other labels that you may have visited along your tour of Central Otago Cellar doors – like Misha’s and Peregrine, have vineyards here. Other wine brands also produce wines from Bendigo, with grapes grown on contract from vineyards such as the Zebra Vineyard (Valli and Thornbury, to name a couple) for example. Tarras Vineyards, The Trig Hill vineyard of Rock Ferry is here in Bendigo; as is Craig Gasson’s Lamont Wine boutique label, with four vineyards in the area; and Folding Hill make a couple of Pinot Noirs – with some Chardonnay coming along I hear – but also don’t offer a Cellar Door. You can check out these Bendigo labels websites though and either order wines, or take a mental note and look for the bottles in retail and restaurants.

Open by appointment is Prophet’s Rock, where the talented team make some pretty serious Pinot Noir from their ‘Home’ and ‘Rocky Point’ vineyards. Winemaker Paul Pujol’s collaboration with Francois Millet of Chambolle-Musigny (that’s in Burgundy, France – also where Paul worked the 2009 vintage) has resulted not just in wines of some distinction – the two Cuvée aux Antipodes wines, but also seems to have elevated the labels other wines to new heights. They make a pair of Pinot Gris, and a dry style Riesling alongside the headline wines. Worth a look.

The location is spectacular – they’re way off track and over 350 metres up the side of Chinaman’s Terrace. If you wanted a visit, take a look at the website – www.prophetsrock.co.nz and send them an enquiry.

View from Prophets Rock
Domenic Mondillo

Another of the pioneers of the region, Domenic Mondillo runs his eponymous label, Mondillo, out of a beautiful winery and Tasting Room at 370 Bendigo Loop Road. Established in 2001, you can read the full story of how this Single Estate wine producer was being scoped out as far back as 1998, in our interview here…

They only grow two varietals – Pinot Noir and Riesling, (the single row of ancient Gewurz doesn’t really count) but produce a range of wines, from an intoxicating Rosé to a decadent botrytis Riesling – ‘Nina’ – in certain years. Their two Pinot Noirs are fantastic – the limited edition ‘Bella’ Reserve, and the elegant Pinot win hatfuls of awards.

The Cellar Door is by prior appointment only – give them a call on 03 442 6641 or take a look at their website www.mondillo.com. Domenic is the most gregarious host and tells some remarkable stories (most of them true). Creativity isn’t just limited to the wines though – they have a distinctive and quirky way of turning their barcodes into mini works of art – really! Check out their bottles and see for yourself.

It’s about 45kms drive around the top of the lake to our next destination in Wanaka, but, as with anywhere in Central Otago, the scenery is breathtaking, and there are plenty of places to stop (see below) so settle back and enjoy the drive.

At 413 Maori Point Road in Tarras, there’s the award-winning Maori Point vineyard, open for Tasting from June to November Thu-Sun 1-5pm, and in Summer every day except Tuesday. Another family-run business, you’ll meet the person who makes the wines, grows the grapes and so on. Interesting people with a definite scientific background (neuroscientists and professors!) with a real artisan approach to the winemaking. The property is gorgeous – the winery is virtually amongst the vines and you can stroll down to the Clutha River. The Pinot Noirs regularly attain 95 and 96 point scores from critics (I’m yet to try one myself, sorry – maybe next time) and should be on your list for tasting when you visit. Check before visiting on their website www.maoripoint.co.nz, or call 03 428 8842.

A little further along the road heading north away from Tarras, on the Luggate-Tarras Road is Swallows Crossing Vineyard, and the Swallows Rest Lodge, beside the Clutha River. Producing single vineyard wines, from the family estate, Julie and Dan Asher run the vineyard and wines are made by Matt Dicey at the Mt Difficulty winery over in Bannockburn.

Maude Tasting Room

During the evening, this is Bistro Gentil, serving elegant French-inspired food and 7-course degustations; but during the day it’s the Tasting Room for Maude Wines. This family-run winery are now possibly best known for a range of Pinot Noirs, but I discovered them through a showstopper of a Chardonnay (I know). You should definitely check out all the single vineyard expressions – they are all particular personalities. ‘Mohawk Hill Pinot Noir’ has been winning awards this last year, but I do like the ‘East Meets West Pinot Noir’ myself.

The ‘Maude Pinot Noir’ is a blend of fruit from their vineyards, and the 2017 vintage was The Champion Wine of Show at the NZ Wine of the Year Awards (so that’s like saying it’s the best wine in New Zealand!!) I’d rate this a Must-Do if you’re anywhere near Wanaka. Tasting Room is at 76A Golf Course Road, phone 03 443 2299 and do check out their website www.maudewines.com.

Rippon vineyard Wanaka

Moving on from Maude, head over to the best view in town, at 246 Wanaka-Mt Aspiring Rd. Rippon only take appointment bookings for their tastings which will take about 30 minutes, and they’re usually open from Weds through to Monday in the afternoons from 1pm. It was 1982 when Rolfe and Lois planted the first block of vines here, and the land continues to be biodynamically farmed by the Mills family, producing outstanding Pinot Noir and a quirky range of other varietals. One of the ‘Mature Vines’ Pinot Noirs (the 2010 vintage) scored an amazing 100 points from top critic, James Suckling, and is consistently considered one of New Zealand’s best wines.

At the tasting you’ll get the chance to try some wines such as Osteiner – a white varietal cross of Riesling and Sylvaner, a relatively hard-to-find ‘Gamay’ (like a lighter Pinot Noir, commonly used in Beaujolais wines), asa well as the more common Riesling, Gewurz and Pinot Noir of course. It’s at the Cellar Door that you might be able to pick up one of those rare 100-point wines too! Don’t forget your camera as the view from here is very, very hard to beat. You can read more about Rippon in our feature elsewhere in WineFolio. Website is www.rippon.co.nz for bookings, or call 03 443 8084. They do not serve food, and don’t allow you to picnic – just come for the wine (oh, and maybe a photo, did I mention that?).

Another place well worth a look whilst you’re in town is Aitken’s Folly Vineyard. The Cellar Door is usually open from midday until 5pm, 7 days a week (look out for the flag – if it’s flying, they’re open!) The wines are made up at Maude (who do produce a few people’s wines as well) from their small family-run vineyard of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Their ‘Riverbank Chardonnay 2018’ just won a coveted Gold Medal at the NZIWS, and is made in fairly small quantities, so I’d recommend giving that a go when you visit. They have a place to stay in as well if you fancy a night overlooking the vineyard. 246 Riverbank Road – Ph 03 443 2663, www.aitkensfolly.com

Well-known Central Otago brand Archangel Wines, was rebranded as Nanny Goat Vineyards last year. The vineyards and Winery and are a short drive from Wanaka, just past Luggate, at 68 Queensberry Terrace in Queensberry. The Cellar Door opens at 11am on Fridays and is open through the weekend and on Mondays. You can grab a platter to go with your tasting and relax amongst some pretty spectacular vistas. The wines are classic Central Otago – a couple of Pinot Noirs, one a blend of regional vineyards, and a premium “Super Nanny” (how could you resist trying that!) made from the year’s best fruit. Add in a Chardonnay (I know), a blend of Gewurz, Pinot Gris and Chardonnay (it looks like a rose) and a whole bunch limited edition wine called “Basket Case”. www.Nannygoatvineyard.co.nz – Ph 03 443 4347

Queensberry is also home to the LazyDog vineyard, operated by the Harker family. Their Cellar Door at 2 Gladsmuir Road,  is open Thursday to Sunday from midday and it’s pretty much the same distance from Cromwell or Wanaka to get here, so it can get fairly busy and bookings are recommended. The location provides superb ingredients for the kitchen – think local venison, salmon, pork, lamb and beef; so it makes sense to have a meal with a glass of local wine, as well as the wine tasting. Queensberry is one of the newer sub-regions of Central, and some parts of the area are still undergoing plantings of new vines. Try one their Chenin Blanc varietals, including a sweet version, or Gewurz and Chardonnay also feature alongside a Pinot Noir, of course. www.lazydog.co.nz, or Phone: 03 445 3211 or email info@lazydog.co.nz for a booking or more information.

The Two Degrees wines label has another beautiful vineyard site in the Queensberry area, but it is just that – they don’t offer a Cellar Door. With three Trophy Awards for their Pinot Noir at the Royal Easter Show Wine awards since the vineyard’s first vintage in 2007, this would definitely be a wine to look out for.

A little further down the road is the 14 hectare Locharburn Vineyard, a boutique family-run affair, producing a range of limited-release wines. You can taste the current range up the road at the Lazy Dog in Queensberry. Also look out for the owner, Jenny Hill’s art, including textile and mixed media, which is inspired by the region’s landscapes. www.locharburnwines.com

The Ramsay Pinot Noir

The Ramsay is a vineyard established in 2001, with Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Riesling and Chardonnay. Initially made at COWCO, Matt Connell is now the contract winemaker, and we have reviewed the rather nice wines here >>

Tours are available by appointment – see their website www.ramsaywines.co.nz for booking details. The 2017 Pinot Noir won a Gold medal at the NZIWS in 2019, and is a big recommendation from us at WineFolio.

Also in the region are Pisa Range – www.pisarangeestate.co.nz. Their ‘Black Poplar Block’ Pinot Noir is rated as a NZ Classic by Michael Cooper. Right now their Cellar door is listed as ‘temporarily closed and relocating’. We’ll let you know when we know what’s the latest news on this. For now, keep an eye out for the wines in store and restaurants – it’s worth a look. Their new ‘Soli Vero 2018 Pinot Noir’ (means Soil Truth) won a Gold Medal at the NZIWS that I worked at in 2020. It’s another elegant Pinot from this consistently good producer.

Domaine Thomson

Opening earlier this year, was one of the most spectacular new Cellar Doors – the much-anticipated Tasting room at Domaine Thomson at 46 Clark Road, Mount Pisa. Open daily from 11am to 5pm for booked appointments – you can either check out the website – www.domainethomsonwines.com, and email or call 03 445 4912. The Cellar door is on a natural ridgeline floating above the vineyard, with majestic views across the lake to the hills beyond.

It’s a simply gorgeous building – feeling totally at home despite being brand-new, with a rustic but refined ambience of limestone, iron roofing, wooden floors and exposed beams. It was undoubtedly one of my Cellar door highlights of the year (and I was privileged to be one of the first few through the doors).

Domain Thomson wine

Named after one of the owner’s Great-Great Grandfather – John Turnbull Thomson – known as ‘Surveyor Thomson’ who had mapped and explored much of central Otago in the 1850s. In fact, the Pisa Range and St Bathans Range were both named by him.

Unusual in that the company operates vineyards in both Central Otago’s 45 degree South, and Burgundy’s 47 degree North parallels – a perfect marriage of Old and New World visions. Plus you can taste both ‘sets’ of wines at the Cellar door. From Central comes a trio of beautiful Pinot Noirs and a rose, as well as Chardonnays (and more Pinot) from France.

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