Climate and region are the keys to understanding Pinot Noir in New Zealand. For publication in the week of 27 February 2017.
Pinot Noir has come a long way quickly in New Zealand. The first commercial bottling of this grape was a mere three decades ago, a blink of an eye in the world of fine wine.
Growth has been most notable in the past 15 years. The current total of 5,519 hectares of Pinot planted represents a major jump from the 2,029 hectares a decade and a half earlier. Pinot has become the second most planted variety after Sauvignon Blanc, with about 15 per cent of the total, forcing Chardonnay into third place. Pinot accounted for 6 per cent of total wine exports last year, according to data from New Zealand Winegrowers.
Marlborough has the most vines planted (2,590 hectares in 2016) – almost half of the total. Central Otago has the second highest number – about 1,500 hectares – and we find another 490 hectares in the Wairarapa.
Peter McCombie, a Master of Wine based in Europe, was born in New Zealand. He believes the key to understanding Pinot Noir is climate as much as terroir and region. Most successful wine regions in the country are located near the east coast or are protected by hills. “The mountains [down the centre of the country] make viticulture possible in New Zealand. The worst weather comes from the west, and the mountains shelter the vineyards, especially near the east coast.”
McCombie believes some of the most exciting Pinots come from the Marlborough region, famous around the world for the Sauvignon Blanc it produces. Marlborough winemaker Dr John Forrest has long maintained that his country would be famous for Pinot Noir if Sauvignon Blanc had not become the dominant grape.
Originally from Burgundy in France, Pinot Noir has found a natural home in the cool climate regions of New Zealand. In terms of quality the main ones are Marlborough and Central Otago, with the Wairarapa (centred around Martinborough near the bottom of the north island) challenging them in terms of reputation.
The 2015 Esk Valley Pinot Noir and the 2015 Tohu Awatere Valley Pinot Noir represent fine examples of wines from the Marlborough region. The latter is one of the few wine companies in the country owned by a Maori tribe. Both have soft tannins and zingy acid and offer intense fruit aromas. The former tastes of a red fruit native to the country known as the tamarillo or “tree tomato”, and the latter has a pleasing chalky and silky feel to the tannic backbone. The 2015 vintage was small compared with earlier years.
The Esk Valley winery is located in Hawke’s Bay. It is an accepted practice in many New World wine regions for a winery based in one region to make wine with grapes from another region. This practice seldom happens in Old World countries. A wine labelled as Burgundy means the Pinot or Chardonnay grapes were grown in the Burgundy region.
Kiwi Pinot styles vary from region to region. Marlborough wines sit in the red fruit spectrum on the nose and taste of raspberry, plum and cherry. Wines are typically fresh with subtle acidity and soft tannins. Winemaking influences play a part. Grapes are usually de-stemmed so the whole berry surrenders its full character, and a “cold soak” method used to extract flavours and colour from the skin without getting excess tannins.
Other notable Marlborough Pinots come from Villa Maria. The 2013 Reserve is a blend of fruit from the region and is simply delightful to drink, redolent with aromas of black and red cherries, plus a range of spices like cloves. The 2014 Pinot Noir has slightly more acidity and sits more on the red fruit spectrum in terms of flavours and aromas, but is equally charming.
Wine styles from Central Otago vary depending on the sub-region. The warmth of the Bannockburn and Lowburn areas means bigger wines with more tannins, and flavours of dark fruit such as black cherries. Wines from the Gibbston Valley tend to be softer and sweeter with flavours of strawberries, raspberries and a range of fresh herbs. Some people believe pinots from Central Otago smell of dried thyme. Early settlers planted a lot of this herb, McCombie said, and it grows wild.
That thyme was distinct on the nose of the 2013 Ceres Composition Pinot Noir from the Bannockburn sub-region. This muscular wine still needs time to evolve, with its tight and chalky tannins. The 2014 Burn Cottage Pinot Noir from Cromwell in Central Otago is delicately yummy with lashings of spices and herbs and a juicy mouthfeel. It comes from one of the bio-dynamic producers in the area.
Wairarapa Pinots tend to have darker fruit aromas and are slightly savoury. The tannins are long and fine. Wairarapa is a Maori word meaning glistening waters. The 2013 Paddy Borthwick Right Hand Pinot Noir from this region has a pretty and elegant nose of spices, with refined and slightly pronounced tannins and a mouthfeel that continues the spice theme. A delicious wine.
The wine’s name offers an interesting story. Two winemakers, one a right-hander and the other left-handed, decided to experiment to see if “handedness” influenced wine style. They each made a wine using the same grapes from the same vintage to see if the result was influenced by their “handedness”.
The Borthwick web site notes: “The Left Hand and Right Hand Pinot Noirs represent the different personalities of our winemaking team. Left-handed winemaker Braden Crosby (logical, creative and precise) and right-handed vigneron Paddy Borthwick (intuitive, impulsive and thoughtful) each selected a premium parcel of grapes they believe to be the finest expression of the Borthwick Estate Vineyard. Applying their own individual winemaking nuances, with much tasting, lively debate and careful barrel selection Braden and Paddy have made two distinct wines each of 840 bottles. Produced in only the best seasons, these wines display expressions of Pinot Noir as much as the winemakers themselves.”
Previous columns have extolled the virtues of Pinots from Pyramid Valley Vineyard, in the Waikari region north of Christchurch. The vineyard is bio-dynamic and the wines are divine.
All Kiwi Pinot Noirs tasted tended to have alcohol levels of 13.5 to 14 per cent. This level of alcohol suggests the wines should best be served with a range of foods, though lighter styles with lower alcohol could be drunk alone.
What is the future for Pinot Noir in New Zealand? McCombie believes that wines will improve as vines mature. “Better site selection and fine tuning of sites and winemaking will produce even better wines in the future,” he suggested. One trend worth noting was the planting of vines on clay soils to get more “substantial” pinots.