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Alan Kwok Lun Cheung
Pinot Noir. Two things are likely to change this: new clones of Pinot Noir and global warming. Scientists in the research establishments of several countries are attempting to breed cultivars of Pinot Noir that will mature in a shorter growing season. When these are available, sites now viewed as marginal will be re-evaluated. Global warming will further enhance the attraction of these higher sites because Central Otago viticulturists will be able to use planting at higher altitude to ameliorate its effects. Both factors will increase Central Otago’s area in land suited to viticulture.
Even without such environmental and technical changes, the land suitable for planting vines, notably Pinot Noir, is considerable. Constraints of climate and terrain are not the main restriction to increasing the area in vines in Central Otago. Access to suitable sites is likely to be more limiting. Many of them are at higher elevations and part of viable, although extensive, livestock farming operations. It will require landowners to make these sites available or plant them in vines.
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In the round of planting on greenfield sites from the mid-1990s into the new millennium the economic rent to be gained from winegrowing was sufficient to encourage runholders to free up land. Windfall gains of $15,000 per hectare from land sold for viticulture in localities such as Bendigo were difficult to resist when the market for fine wools from merino sheep was faltering. Whether demand for Central Otago wine will continue to grow at a similar rate is difficult to predict hard on the heels of a set of economic uncertainties in the first decade of the twenty-first century. But the international market for wines of high quality and reputation from exotic, beautiful places will continue to increase. Central Otago’s vines and wine landscapes enhance its attractiveness to tourists and to the international market for its wine.
Central Otago, like other regions of New Zealand praised by Bragato, saw few grapes planted until the late 1970s. The stirrings of the table wine industry in Hawke’s Bay, Auckland, and its extension into Gisborne during the 1960s aroused local and scientific interest in many parts of New Zealand including Central Otago. The region’s reputation for orcharding led two departments of central government – the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research – to establish grapevine trials starting in 1962. The interest in grape growing was stimulated by government’s rural policy, which offered generous tax breaks and low-interest loans for intensifying rural production, and the horticultural euphoria sparked by kiwifruit that swept the rural economy.
The objectives of the two trials were different. The Department of Agriculture one was to test the ‘hardiness of varieties in a region such as Central Otago, and the DSIR one to test varieties known to be suitable for unfortified table wines. A summary of the varieties of vines grown in the Department of Agriculture trial run from 1962 to 1973 and the DSIR trial that ran from 1972 to 1978 illustrates the sea change that was beginning to emerge in New Zealand viticulture. The hybrids, bulk producers such as the Muscats and Muller Thurgau, and the sherry grape Palomino dominated the Department of Agriculture trial. These were the foundation of New Zealand’s fortified wines and continued to be important in the ‘bag-in-box wines of the 1970s and 1980s because by then the vines of these varieties were mature and bearing heavy crops in Auckland, Gisborne and Hawke’s Bay. However, it does show that the South Island and Central Otago were on the Department of Agriculture’s viticultural radar a decade before Montana’s move into Marlborough in 1973.
The DSIR trial of the 1970s had a quite different suite of varieties. It concentrated on the vinifera wine varieties and clones that dominate the cooler regions of France and Germany. Some of these, especially Chardonnay and Riesling, had begun to show their potential in twentieth-century New Zealand during the 1960s. Others were yet to perform. The plantings included Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, these two plus Pinot Meunier, Gewurztraminer and Riesling, as well as Gamay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah. Also included were a few of the hybrids and recently bred German varieties such as Stein. Pinot Gris had been planted in the earlier Department of Agriculture trial.
Results from these trials encouraged both the pioneering growers, some of whom took cuttings from the vines, and those who organised the experiments. But the fuller incorporation of their stories into the folklore of the region had to await the development of the late twentieth-century wine industry in Central. Once commercial production was established, producers, consumers, publicists and journalists reinvoked and re-established these histories and extended the association of the region with the vine back to Ferraud and Bragato.