Growing on the edge: Wine tasting in the southernmost wine region of the world

On a morning in which I had no intention of drinking alcohol (yes, morning) I somehow found myself having a glass of what has officially been called the best wine in the entire world.

This is what happens when you take road trips, you stumble upon things. In this particular instance I happened to stumble upon a region I originally had little intention of exploring, only to find out it’s one of the most notable up and coming wine regions according to those in the know.

At 45°S latitude, the Central Otago region of New Zealand is officially the southernmost wine region on planet Earth, geographically besting out the wine regions of Chile by a fairly healthy 8 degree margin. The only reason I happened to drive through Central Otago is because of a free campsite located by a nearby river, but after walking through the front door of Aurum Winery at a liver-shaking 10am, an unplanned afternoon of viticulture was suddenly thrust upon me.

Lucie, a French woman with a charming French/Kiwi command of the English accent and the principal winemaker for Aurum, informed me that although Otago receives a healthy dose of winter, during the colder months the grapes are still sleeping and won’t freeze until temperatures of -20°C (-4°F). Seeing as Otago will only reach around -10°C (14°F) during the winter, the grapes are able to continue their growth before budding sometime during the spring.

Frost, Lucie admits, is definitely a problem once the grapes have formed, and wineries in the Central Otago region employ frost-fighting wind machines to project warm air layers onto to the fragile crop. Seeing as Aurum was voted as the best winery in New Zealand by the Corporate Events Guide for the past 2 years running, an award that Lucie admits is a bit like David versus Goliath (Aurum only puts out a modest 4000 cases/year), it’s apparent they have a handle on what they’re doing down here in Otago.

%Gallery-144571%Though the wines at Aurum were a welcome surprise, it was not the spot where I partook in the alleged “best wine in the world”. That bold title would go to a 2006 Pinot Noir from nearby Wild Earth winery which was bestowed the moniker by besting out 10,000 other bottles at the 2008 International Wine Challenge in London.

Though the owner of Wild Earth, a former American abalone diver turned New Zealand vineyard operator named Quintin, acknowledges there are many such titles in the wine world he nonetheless is passionate about the fact Central Otago is producing some of the finest Pinot Noirs on the globe.

A poster hanging on the wall of the Wild Earth tasting room boldly states that “the best Pinot Noir in the world is also one of the world’s best kept secrets.” Anyone who keeps up with wine trends, however, knows that Otago won’t be a secret for long.

Though the peppery pinot is smoky and fabulous, Quintin admits he is more interested in cultivating scenarios where wine can be properly matched with food that is wild and fresh and taken straight from the Earth.

“There are a lot of wine experts out there” he chuckles, “and I’m not one of them. We like to be known for wine and food matching…it’s all chemistry really.”

Some of that matching involves smoking or steaming fresh fish and seafood on an innovative wine barrel BBQ that Quintin himself has engineered. Employing the same types of oak barrels used to age the fine vintages, Quintin has managed to fuse wine culture with a practical and effective way to deliver finely smoked meals to accompany the robust wines.

Making a final stop at the Gibbston Valley Winery on the road towards the South Island’s adventure capital of Queenstown, from the number of tour buses populating the gravel parking lot it’s apparent the secret is quickly getting out. In addition to being one of the more popular stops on the Central Otago wine trail, Gibbston Valley Winery is also renowned for having the largest wine cave in all of New Zealand, a chilly, climate-controlled sanctuary which can house over 400 oak barrels and is accessed by massive doors which each weigh nearly a ton.

While the wines were admittedly worthy of the hype, my attention was more so drawn to the Gibbston Valley cheesery which shares the same grounds as the popular vineyard. Over a fresh serving of peppered gouda, oven baked alpine flatbread, and a tall glass of crisp Chardonnay, it was all too easy to sit back and relish in the accidental afternoon found by giving yourself Freedom to Roam.

For the next 2 months Gadling blogger Kyle Ellison will be embedded in a campervan touring the country of New Zealand. Follow the rest of the adventure by reading his series, Freedom to Roam: Touring New Zealand by Campervan.