The name "Otago" is an old southern Maori word whose North Island dialect equivalent is "Otakou", introduced to the south by Europeans in the 1840s. The exact meaning of the term is disputed, with common translations being "isolated village" and "place of red earth", the latter referring to the reddish-ochre clay which is common in the area around Dunedin. "Otago" is also the old name of the European settlement on the Otago Harbour, established by the Weller Brothers in 1831. The place later became the focus of the Otago Association, an offshoot of the Free Church of Scotland, notable for its high-minded adoption of the principle that ordinary people, not the landowner, should choose the ministers.
Major centres of what is now the Otago Region of the old province include Dunedin (the principal city of the region), Oamaru (made famous by Janet Frame), Balclutha, Alexandra, and the major tourist centres Queenstown and Wanaka. Kaitangata in South Otago is a prominent source of coal. The Waitaki and Clutha rivers also provide much of the country's hydroelectric power. Some parts of the area originally covered by Otago Province are now administered as part of Southland Region.
The Central Otago wine area produces award winning wines made from varieties such as the Pinot noir, Chardonnay, Sauvignon blanc, Merlot, and Riesling grapes. Central Otago has an increasing reputation as New Zealand’s leading Pinot noir region.
The region is administered by the Otago Regional Council.