Wine With Altitude: New Zealand’s Southern Pinots Win Big

Peregrine Wines

Central Otago in New Zealand is the southernmost wine growing region on the globe producing some exceptional Pinot Noirs on par with the best in the world. The region is located near the country’s most popular tourism destination, Queenstown, the main hub city in the lower South Island surrounded by snow-capped mountains and long verdant valleys. Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit were both filmed here. Due to the high elevation and a quirky deep southern climate, no wine growing region in the world undergoes the 24-hour changes in temperature here. So it took a very adventurous and plucky group of pioneering winemakers to plant grapes in these parts during the 1980s.

The fruits of their labors are reaching their zenith thanks to an astonishingly good array of 2009 vintages. Created by Peregrine Wines, the ’09 Peregrine Pinot Noir won the Bouchard Finlayson Trophy Pinot Noir at the International Wine & Spirit Competition in London last year. The pinot also won the 2010 Air New Zealand Champion Wine of the Show award—the nation’s highest honor.

The London judges said the Peregrine pinot exemplifies the wine term, “Peacock’s Tail,” where the flavors display themselves across the tongue. Their tasting notes read: “Sensuous, nervously controlled elegance are the hallmarks of this absolutely stunning wine. This rose effortlessly to its supreme gold mark with the panel.”

And Peregrine is just getting started.

“Although we’ve been quietly confident all along with the standards of wine we produce,” says co-owner Lindsay McLachlan, “never in our wildest dreams did we think we would receive two fantastic accolades like this early in our history.”

We popped in to scope out the event spaces at Peregrine. This is by far the most modern, edgy design of any vineyard we know about. The main building looks like a huge metal wing angling toward a large grassy meadow at the base of a mountain range. The elevated open-air main floor is a gorgeous space for about 100 pax for cocktails at sunset. The minimalist wine tasting and barrel rooms are underground, hosting about 50 pax, and there’s a lovingly restored 1860’s woolshed at the vineyard entrance well suited for 100-person dinners.

Peregrine's zingy wine tasting event space
Peregrine’s zingy wine tasting event space

Peregrine Wines pulls grapes from 11 vineyard sites in the three major sub-regions of Central Otago: Gibbston, Lowburn and Bendigo. Three of them are owned/managed by Peregrine, and all three are organically farmed. The company’s philosophy revolves around “the soil being the vine’s stomach.” The soil is nurtured with homemade composts created with pomace (winery waste), straw, baleage and cow manure, all of which are produced onsite.

The militant observation toward bio-diversity without using any herbicides is further realized through the rotation of cover crops, undervine weeders and sheep grazing.

Peregrine also sponsors a series of initiatives to protect peregrine falcons and the native mohua and saddleback birds. The saddleback was previously thought to be extinct, and through a partnership with the Fiorland Conservation Trust, the vineyard helped re-establish the mohua on Resolution Island last year. It was a momentous occasion because it was the first time that native wildlife has been returned to the island, and it will ensure the future of the species estimated to have reached as low a population as 14 birds.

Gibbston Valley Wines
Gibbston Valley Wines

Christopher Keys is an award-winning winemaker at Otago’s first vineyard, Gibbston Valley Winery, which shipped its first vintage in 1987. He showed us around his workplace and the fun variety of things to do and places to gather for groups.

The winery just opened a new Barrel Hall for group dinners up to 250 pax, surrounded by dozens of oak barrels in a spotless warehouse. There are lots of cool A/V options with the big blank walls and rows of light colored casks.

The Wine Cave hosts 100 for cocktail receptions and 25 for degustation dinners. There’s the Cellar Door and The Cheesery venues for smaller private pairing events in the evening. Keys says they often host corporate events, and they’re happy to create custom labels with the companies logos to place on the wine. Group capacity is 350.

As for the wine, the 2000 Gibbston Reserve Pinot Noir won the Champion Pinot Noir Award at the London International Wine Challenge, and the winery has bottled the most expensive local wines ever sold in New Zealand.

Keys and I had lunch together recently in Gibbston’s open-air courtyard restaurant (cap: 120) where we sipped one of his 2009 pinots over an overflowing charcuterie plate. The food is spectacular, especially in this setting. For example, a pan-fried Akaroa salmon cooked in cider with cinnamon, mint couscous and courgette agridulce goes exceedingly well with the 2010 reserve chardonnay.


When Keys gets rolling, philosophizing about the local food and wine, all you have to do was sit back, appreciate the summer breeze and soft wine, and get out of the way. Here’s a brief snippet of our conversation:

Christopher, I asked, how is the food and wine tourism industry evolving in New Zealand?

“The food movement is becoming less hedonistic, it’s not so much about, ‘Do I like it or not?,’ says Keys. “Instead, people are asking, ‘Where did this food come from, why does it taste this way, who created that?’ Context means so much, the people, the place…. And the same thing is happening with wine, it’s less about a 0-100 ranking. If you just drink wine against wine, you know, and say, ‘Is this worthy of a 92 or is it really a 90,’ then you’re never going to get the whole story, you’re never going to understand terroir and place.”

And what is the value of understanding that?

“It provides diversity and choice to the consumer. Without it, you have a very short conversation, like talking about how much of a certain fruit is in the wine.”

How does somebody start learning about Otago’s terroir to gain a sense of place?

“It’s like eating cheese in France,” laughs Keys. “If you don’t get it at first, just repeat over and over. From a winemaker’s perspective, we know what wines work in what places. We have a stronger recognition that the vineyard makes a huge difference.”

And how has that increased knowledge affected sales?

Keys smiles, “2010 was the first year that New Zealand shipped $1 billion (NZ) in exports.”

chris keys gibbston
Christopher Keys, Gibbston Valley Wines

To book a New Zealand program, contact Celeste Jones, director of incentives, at IDNZ Destination Management.