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Regional Studies
The Terroir and Wines of the Gibbston Valley and Wineries and Its Western Sub-districts
 - David Farmer

The Gibbston Valley is the closest of the Otago vineyards to the tourist town of Queenstown, a town which fringes the glacial derived Lake Wakatipu. This lake used to drain south west to the sea but recently, probably in the last 10,000 years, this route was blocked and the new lake overflow, the Kawarau River, drains to the east.

This river flows to the Cromwell Basin where is joins the Clutha River. In places the Kawarau River has cut, a spectacular, narrow, gorge with steep to vertical cliffs over 50 metres high which is much loved by bungy jumpers and white water thrill seekers. The Gibbston Valley is a valley from one to three kilometres wide and about five kilometres long that is sliced through by the Kawarau River. It is aligned approximately east-west. The elevation is approximately 400metres. This valley predates the Kawarau River and is filled with sediments dating from 362,000 to 128,000 years.

These valley sediments are all glacially derived and include outwash gravels associated with moraines, weathered fan gravels and alluvium. These are the types of sediment deposited by water flowing from melting glaciers and include gradations from pebble and boulder beds to finer sediment layers, these being derived from the fine rock flour that is made by glaciers as they grind over rock. There is also a boulder, breccia deposit which is probably a landslide deposit.

These sediments have in turn been eroded and the valley now shows a sequence of stepped layers, the top surfaces of which can be flat or gently to moderately undulating and are ideal for growing vines. All the vines though are on valley slopes south of the Kawarau River.

It is difficult to know what the original land surface would have looked like before the Maori and white settlers arrived and in particular what sort of soil profiles had developed. The removal of trees and alluvial gold mining has stripped much of the top soil layers although any soil development would have been restricted to the warmer period after the last ice advance that reached its maximum about 10,000 years ago.

The vines are planted in the unconsolidated valley fill which is quite fertile and drains freely, a feature that vines need. The surface layer also includes recently accumulated fine, wind blown particles, which is common in glaciated terrains and is derived from the fine rock flour made by glaciers.

The best wineries are Peregrine, Mount Edward and Nevis Bluff.

The Western Sub-District of Gibbston Valley Wines and Chard Farm

Gibbston Valley Wines and Chard Farm share similar characters and while they are grouped as part of the Gibbston Valley they are geographically removed and have others differences in valley fill and setting that places them in a sub-district.

Gibbston Valley Wines was established in 1981-1982 with the first plantings being a tiny two hectare plot. This was the first vineyard planted in the Gibbston Valley and the first commercial release was in 1987. It sits in its own small valley. Going west the main Gibbston Valley pinches out between rock walls opens briefly for the small valley of Gibbston Valley wines, abruptly closes between towering rock walls and then opens again into another valley that continues to broaden and merges into the flat areas east of Queenstown. .

It is at the far eastern end of this valley and on the southern slope that the vineyards of Chard Farm precariously cling. Chard Farm was at the turn of the century a market garden and orchard, the produce of which was sold in Queenstown.

Both Gibbston Valley Wines and Chard Farm are planted in very fine rock flour which overlies gravels and sands derived from alluvial fans. The surface layer can be several metres thick and is completely unweathered with no organically enriched ‘top soil’. Up slope at both vineyards these lower sediments merge into scree slope sediments produced from fractured rock and sediment falling off the actively eroding steep mountain slopes. These valley sediments are quite recent being less than 10,000 years in age.

At Chard Farm the rock flour is so fine it has the texture of talcum powder and is very soft and readily eroded. This powder is a uniform grey green colour and is the exact colour of chips of unweathered rock that can be found in the vineyard. It is likely that this rock flour is wind blown, termed loess, and in one cutting at Chard Farm very finely banded layers were exposed suggesting wind blown flour settling out in a pond.

The Gibbston Valley, the tiny valley encompassing Gibbston Valley Wines and the area of Chard Farm are largely developed although there may be room for you a few more hectares in the Gibbston Valley.

Best Gibbston Valley Wineries

Best never lasts for long and this is a young and fast moving scene. Also many Gibbston Valley growers have vineyards at other Otago locations so when you buy one of the brands it may not be 100% from the Gibbston Valley. Check the detail on the label first or email the winery if in doubt. The best are Chard Farm, Peregrine, Gibbston Valley Wines and Mount Edward.

Looking south at the Chard Farm vineyards taken from the road to Queenstown with the Kawarau River gorge in the foreground.

A road cutting on the higher slopes at Chard Farm showing scree deposits overlying a band of wind blown rock flour that also so signs of having settled in a pond and overlying alluvial fan deposits.

Looking north west from Chard Farm with the vineyards behind and shows a layer of ‘loess’ or wind blown rock flour overlying alluvial fan deposits with the gorge of the Kawarau River and in the background the road to Queenstown.

Looking east at Chard Farm with the ‘loess’ layer of rock flour overlying alluvial fan deposits and in the middle distance the paler basement rock. The sediment overlying the basement has been removed by gold mining. The cliffs dropping down into the Kawarau River are on the left. In the distance the gorge opens out into the valley of Gibbston Valley Wines. The Chard Farm vineyards are up the slope to the right.

Old farm houses in the Gibbston Valley, Central Otago.

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