The Kawarau River flows out of Lake Wakatipu near the Queenstown Hilton and winds its way past Queenstown’s airport before picking up the waters of the Shotover River and plunging into the Kawarau Gorge. The river stays confined for the next 30km before spilling into Lake Dunstan by Cromwell’s Goldfields Mining Centre.
The valley is a major destination for Queenstown’s whitewater rafting, sledging and bungy operators, but Gibbston, essentially the first 12km of the gorge, has gained an enviable reputation for its wineries. It is only since the 1980s that grapes have been grown commercially in Central Otago, one of the world’s most southerly wine-growing regions. The vineyards lie close to the 45th parallel in a landscape detractors pooh-poohed as too cold for wine production, despite the fact that the Rhône Valley in France lies on a similar latitude. A continental climate of hot dry summers and long cold winters prevails, which tends to result in low yields and high production costs, forcing wineries to go for quality boutique wines sold at prices which seem high (mostly $25–40) until you taste them.
Pioneer winemakers initially experimented in Gibbston, and although far more grapes are now grown around 30km west near Cromwell and Bannockburn, Gibbston remains a wine showcase. Half a dozen places have cellar doors open for tasting, several with superb restaurants.
You can drive to them all, but you’ll appreciate the experience a lot more if you join one of the wine tours that depart from Queenstown.
The steep schist and gravel slopes on the southern banks of the Kawarau River were recognized as potential sites for vineyards as early as 1864, when French miner Jean Désiré Feraud, bored of his gold claim at Frenchman’s Point near Clyde, planted grapes from cuttings brought over from Australia. His wines won awards at shows in Australia, but by the early 1880s he’d decamped to Dunedin. No more grapes were grown until 1976, when the Rippon vineyard was planted, outside Wanaka. It was another five years before the Kawarau Gorge was recognized as ideally suited to the cultivation of Pinot Gris, Riesling and particularly Pinot Noir grapes, with Alan Brady releasing the first commercial wines from Gibbston Valley Wines in 1987. Since then, local winemakers have garnered several shelves full of awards, especially for the elegant, fruit-driven Pinot Noirs.
As an added bonus, the dry conditions inhibit growth of fungus and mildew; the dreaded phylloxera has been kept at bay so far.