Lunchtime at a vineyard (Chris Sisarich Photo)

Lunchtime at a vineyard (Chris Sisarich Photo)

Dozens of vineyards dot the hills just outside Queenstown, New Zealand. Barely visible through the fogged-up windows of the bus, the rows of grapes sprawl across the golden landscape of the Central Otago wine region. Our driver is deep in the story about the region’s wine-producing capabilities, explaining how the continental climate and unique soil makes for ideal growing conditions for pinot noir. The region is known for producing fine wines, claiming some of the best varieties in the world. And yet, as I glance down at the map of all the vineyards, I hardly recognize any.

New Zealand has been producing wines since the 1800s, but did not become widely known until the 1970s. It took years to gain ground in the wine industry, but New Zealand has managed to make a name for itself, and now its wines are some of the most sought after in the world. However, with the high costs of production, importation and marketing, only a select few vineyards have become Category 3wineries, which produce over two million litres a year. Most others in the country are boutique, small-scale operations, and we had the privilege of sampling a few of them.

Hot days and cool nights help to produce exceptional pinot noir in New Zealand's Central Otago wine region. (David Wall Photo)

Hot days and cool nights help to produce exceptional pinot noir in New Zealand’s Central Otago wine region. (David Wall Photo)

It is a rainy, cool afternoon, not the best weather for walking a wine trail, which was the original plan. Luckily, we were allowed onto the guided wine tasting, giving us the dry comfort of a bus to take us to each vineyard. The tour starts off at Gibbston Valley, where we stroll through the region’s largest underground wine cave, followed by a delicious lunch in the vineyard’s restaurant. A quick stop off at the gift shop, and we climb back on the bus to head to the next three wineries to sample at least a dozen more varieties of pinot gris, chardonnay, riesling, sauvignon blanc and, of course, pinot noir.

Wine tours through Otago offer groups a unique look at one of the fastest growing wine regions in New Zealand. There is a variety of tour options from which to choose, depending on the kind of experience a group wants. We took the original day tour with Queenstown Wine Trail, departing daily at 12:30 p.m. and lasting about five hours. The company provides pick up and drop off service, and a guided tour of four vineyards.

Group wine tasting tours can also be booked through Wine Tastes, Relaxing Journeys, or Appellation Central Wine Tours.

A wine tour is a wonderful way for groups to experience the tastes of the region and is an ideal option for tour groups visiting Queenstown. For those venturing around the rest of the South Island, or even heading to the North Island, there are plenty of other popular New Zealand wine regions, including Hawke’s Bay, Northland, Canterbury and Marlborough. And if your group gets the chance to attend a winery expedition, be sure to take note of those labels you like and perhaps pick up a few bottles, since the chance of finding some of them anywhere else is pretty low. So raise a glass, sip slow and relish the fact that you get to enjoy something few others have.