Joelle Thomson

Wine writer and award winning wine author

What I am drinking, reading and savouring each week


Playing favourites with Otago Pinot Noir

Ripe wine festival offered an insight into many of Otago's vastly different styles of Pinot Noir

Pinot Noir is king and queen for a vast number of red wine drinkers in New Zealand but not everybody loves the fruity styles made in many of this country's Pinot Noir regions, including Central Otago, which is far from one 'region' when it comes to wine. This was highlighted at a stunningly situated, if slightly chilly, wine festival held on the shores of Lake Wanaka this month called Ripe. It's a great name for a festival, alluding to wines that ideally taste their best when made from grapes that are ripe. The festival was a showcase of Central Otago wines, which meant that it was mostly devoted to Pinot Noir, which makes up over 80% of Central's entire vineyard area. Since this region is really a bunch of very different wine regions in one vast area, the tasting I hosted at the festival took a deep dive into some of these fascinating sub regions from windy Wanaka to chilly Waitaki. 

Top three highlights

This trio of Pinot Noirs were my personal top picks from a vast range of wines at Ripe, each of these wines shows a different style of Pinot from Central Otago, not only in the winemaking but in the style of fruit flavour that comes through from each sub region. 

2021 Valli Waitaki Pinot Noir RRP $79 to $80

Waitaki is a chilly region with a maritime influence and is New Zealand’s newest wine growing region. It's first commercial vintage was in 2004 and soils are heavily limestone based, which is highly sought after for Pinot Noir vine health and the styles of delicacy that are considered to come from such soils. 

This is a delicate wine with a light ruby colour and pronounced red fruit flavours of cherry, plums and spicy notes on the wine. Medium bodied, dry and it has lush fruit with high acidity driving the wine to a long flavoursome finish. 

2021 Maude Kid’s Block Wanaka Pinot Noir RRP $55

Mt Maude Vineyard in Wanaka was founded in 1994 and remains family owned today. Kids Block Pinot Noir is made from a one hectare vineyard site planted at 400 metres above sea level with no irrigation and three different clones of Pinot Noir; 667, 777 and 115. It is named after the owners' grandchildren, hence the name. This is a full bodied wine benefitting from 25% whole cluster fermentation and with complex spicy aromas adding interest to every sip. Acidity adds backbone and drive to the wine, which can age for at least another six to seven years.  

2021 Quartz Reef Bendigo Pinot Noir RRP $54.99

Quartz Reef’s Bendigo vineyard is named after New Zealand’s largest quartz rock deposit at Bendigo in Central Otago and this winery was founded by winemaker Rudi Bauer. He owns 30 hectares of land in Bendigo, including a 15 hectare, north facing slope which is mainly planted in Pinot Noir and is used to make both still high quality red wine as well as sparkling wine made in the traditional method. 

This is a full bodied wine with depth and bold, powerful tannins, suggesting it needs another decade to mellow and reveal its layers of flavour, as aged Quartz Reef Pinot Noirs are well known for doing. 

Key facts on Central Otago

Central Otago is New Zealand's third largest wine region with 2055 hectares of producing vineyard land

Over 80% of the vineyards are planted in Pinot Noir

The leading white grapes are Chardonnay, Pinot Gris and Riesling

Small amounts of Chenin Blanc, Gewürztraminer, Gruner Veltliner and Pinot Blanc are planted.

Key sub regions to date


The most northern and western with a strong westerly wind influence due to the lake, very few vineyards and milder winter temperatures due to the moderating influence of Lake Wanaka.


A hot dry sub region, which is usually the first to harvest and traditionally makes bigger, more full bodied styles of Pinot Noir. 


Near to Bendigo and with a similar climate but typically not as windy.

Lowburn and Pisa

Hot property right now and home to some great vineyards with elevation providing hotter ripening conditions during the day with cooler nights extending the growing season, potentially adding depth of flavour to the wines.


More of a hub of production than a viticultural area but there are some grapes grown around Cromwell, which is also home to large wineries.


Dry, windy and has extremely hot summer days with very cold winters and interesting range of elevated vineyard sites with different exposures and vastly different styles of wines made here. Home to some of Central Otago's most iconic wineries, such as Felton Road, Mount Difficulty and Akarua.


Cool climate, edgy frost conditions and fewer than 250 hectares of vines in total, making it one of the smallest sub regions in Central Otago for vineyards. Most of the wineries here source grapes from other areas, apart from the occasional Gibbston-devotee, such as Coal Pit.


The most southern and eastern with high frost risk in spring and autumn as well as very arid soils and rocky vineyards.

Waitaki Valley

The most northern and smallest sub region in Otago with a cold climate with a strong maritime influence, high risk of frost, high degree of limestone in the best vineyards and tiny yields as a result of wind, frost and cold temperatures. The intensity of Pinot Noirs and dry whites from Waitaki can be outstanding but the economics make it difficult to have a lucrative wine business here.