A World Apart - New Zealand Pinot Noir

POSTED ON 02/01/2008

When an adolescent ignores a role model, who can say that there isn’t an unspoken element of hero-worship at play. Comparisons are odious, to be sure, yet since Burgundy’s pinot noir is believed to have migrated from Romanée-Conti via an anonymous gumboot, it would be perverse in any account of New Zealand pinot to ignore the B-word altogether. To B or not to B? The 2007 Pinot Noir event in Wellington flew in various burgundian luminaries presumably to make comparisons more odorous than odious. Producers like Bell Hill even candidly admit that their vineyard is modelled on Burgundy. There probably isn’t a wine producer in all New Zealand who wouldn’t be flattered if it were suggested that his or her pinot noir was reminiscent of Vosne-Romanée. And yet the fact is that New Zealand sheds a different light on pinot noir, not because it wants to but because it has no alternative.

Not only are two different hemispheres involved, but New Zealand spans the latitudes of 34 to 47 degrees south (some 1,600 kilometres) and its pinot noir regions are far more geographically diverse than Burgundy’s largely north-to-south stretching, east-to-south-east-facing Côte d’Or. Alone on North Island, Martinborough is a pinot region apart. Marlborough is a sprawling series of valleys better known for its sauvignon blanc. Canterbury includes the warmer Waipara area. Nelson sits over to the north-west coast of North Island. And Central Otago boasts a variety of sub-districts and a continental climate that distinguishes it from the rest of the country’s mainly maritime climate. As Blair Hunt from Bald Hills, Decanter’s International Pinot Noir Trophy winner, points out, ‘it’s the differences in New Zealand’s pinot noir regions, not the similarities between regions that are celebrated by any true pinotfile, regardless of where they are from’.

The driest area in the north island as a result of its mountains to the west, Wairarapa, including Martinborough, tends to have low cropping levels in partly due to the strong north west winds sometimes present at flowering time. But there are other factors at work: lean, alluvial soils on stony, free-draining gravels, occasional frosts, broad day-night temperature differences. In this broadly south-facing region at the warmer end of the spectrum for New Zealand pinot in most years, vine (and winemaker) age is also a factor because Martinborough was the first region to plant suitable pinot clones for premium wine in 1980 (and now has 14 per cent of pinot plantings). The best pinot noirs, from Ata Rangi, Martinborough Vineyards, Escarpment and Dry River, tend to show fully ripe, earthy, structured and textured pinot noir with less acidity and less herbal character than the seductive fruit bomb style more common on South Island, particularly Central Otago. Jancis Robinson calls it ‘some of the most vivid Burgundian pinot noir’.

Across the water on South Island, Marlborough is perhaps New Zealand’s most amorphous pinot noir region, although Central Otago runs it close, partly because of its concentration on sauvignon blanc and because those making their mark with pinot noir such as Fromm, Churton and Villa Maria operate in very different areas of this huge region. It also has nearly half of all New Zealand’s pinot noir planted, but only the best is on slopes. While much of the pinot is planted on silt and clay-based stony soils, at Churton, Sam Weaver feels that a vineyard on a north-east facing slope for morning exposure, assisted by cooler night time temperatures is a crucial aspect of Marlborough terroir. He feels that Churton’s clay loess soils offer good protection from drought with good water retention having a direct bearing on obtaining silky tannins.

Fromm obtains a good expression of terroir from its Clayvin vineyard, making structured, ageworthy pinot noir, but winemaker Hätsch Kalberer concedes that while Martinborough is showing aspects of pinot noir terroir wines, Marlborough still has some way to go as a region. ‘If you grow pinot noir with a sauvignon blanc mentality, you will never make great pinot noir. The bulk of Marlborough pinot noir is good quality, easy drinking, industrially made wine at a fair price’. Villa Maria straddles the divide between commercial pinot noir and quality single vineyard wines like Seddon and Taylor’s Pass. In character, Villa’s Alastair Maling places Marlborough pinot noir somewhere between Martinborough’s deep colour, rich, meaty / savoury and powerfully structured characters and Central Otago with its more floral perfumed, exotically heady fruit character. Within Marlborough, he feels that ‘the Awatere Valley is more Central Otago like, the Wairau more like Martinborough’.

Nelson’s benign climate of high sunshine hours and light intensity with warm summers, cool nights and protection from rainfall by mountains to the east, west and south, helps the four per cent of New Zealand’s pinot noir to ripen well without good balance and without jamminess. The steady improvement in Neudorf’s pinot noir backs Tim Finn at Neudorf’s view that the Moutere clay gravels ‘enhance density, texture and minerality in the wine, and appear to promote characteristics that are more savoury than overtly sweet fruited’. The Waimea Plains are heavier, cooler soils, providing a contrast in soil type and mesoclimate possibly better suited to sauvignon blanc, although Andrew Greenhough claims that the warm, free-draining ancient river terrace of his Hope vineyard, located on a breezy, elevated south-east corner of the Waimea Plains, delivers effective conditions for a fragrant, textured pinot noir with an elegant, mineral spine.

There are significant day and night temperature swings too in Waipara / Canterbury, which has nine per cent of New Zealand pinot under vine. Cool nights mean that Pegasus Bay harvests later than Marlborough and Martinborough and a longer season thanks to proximity to the Pacific enables it to achieve ripeness without jammy fruit. Pegasus Bay’s vineyard is on the free-draining bed of a an ice-age glacier at the foot of a range of limestone hills, so, according to Matt Donaldson, ‘Waipara wines are not as immediately fruity as Central Otago, and do not show the crushed herb and thyme element that sometimes occurs there but generally they have a more savoury emphasis with greater structure and length’. According to Marcel Giesen at Bell Hill, which with Pyramid Valley is located on limestone soil, ‘this influences structure, minerality and acidity in our wines. The high elevation compared to Canterbury Plains and Waipara marginalises things and that is where high plant density and low yield per vine can contribute to fruit quality and potential for ripeness and concentration’.

Planted with 23 per cent of New Zealand’s pinot noir, Central Otago is the world’s southernmost wine region and yes, it couldn’t fail to be counted as one of the world’s most stunningly picturesque regions too. Given the varied nature of its significantly different sub-regions, it might be glib to suggest that it’s New Zealand’s Côte de Nuits compared to Martinborough’s Côte de Beaune, but its cool climate with long sunshine hours, intense light, broad diurnal temperature range and free-draining soils have all contributed to its trademark aromatic, seductively juicy, red-fruited pinot noirs. On the down side, New Zealand’s tendency to high alcohol before full ripeness can be exaggerated. Fromm’s Hätsch Kalberer feels that ‘Central Otago is still very young and very fruit driven, which gives it a regional identity but this is less the result of producers trying to express terroir than winemakers follow a proven recipe’. He’s not along in this view with Rudi Bauer from Quartz Reef also suggesting that ‘in general the influence of the human kind still overrides the true expression of the site’.

Yet Kalberer concedes there are exceptions and while Central Otago pinot may be easy to spot for its sheer hedonistic fruit intensity, there’s a feeling within the region that experience and good vineyard management are pointers to sub-regional characteristics such as the lean masculine structure, dark fruit purity and grainy tannins of Bendigo, the perfumed elegance of Lowburn, Bannockburn’s muscularity, Alexandra’s herbal, mineral undertones and the comparative finesse and power of Wanaka. According to Rippon’s Nick Mills, ‘the most dramatic difference that we see from fruit coming off different blocks is in vine age. Then in the older blocks, usually over the age of 15 years, the particle size (schist) of the soil substrate seems to push the wine into its particular genre: fine, rustic, effeminate, chunky. We can certainly expect to find more soil-derived character over fruit or aromatic exuberance in the well-grown and well-made Central Otago wines of the years to come’.

With a multitude of differences of site and climate, not to mention individual philosophies and commercial priorities, perhaps it’s not surprising that New Zealand pinot shows so many different facets. And just as the example of Burgundy also has a habit of reminding us, quality too can vary enormously, from commune to commune, from season to season and from one producer to the next. Given the Achilles heel of pinot noir’s notoriously fickle nature, it would be surprising if New Zealand suddenly started to produce a consistency of quality that has so far evaded Burgundy not just for decades but for centuries. And it hasn’t. According to Rosemary George, who chaired the New Zealand panel for the 2007 Decanter World Wine Awards: ‘our greatest expectations with red wines were concentrated on pinot noir and consequently our disappointment was greatest’. A flight of 10 Central Otago wines ‘barely scraped a bronze’, although they were a lot happier with the £20 plus flight of pinots.

Perhaps the panel weren’t tasting on a fruit day but New Zealand producers themselves would be the last to offer excuses for a worrying lack of consistency. With vineyard management pretty much a priority for producers, Duncan Forsyth at Mount Edward is candid enough to confess ‘we are still someway off from have an excellent overall understanding’. Nick Mills goes even further in his criticisms of the way vineyards are managed, pointing out that ‘although many people are paying increasing amounts of lip-service to the notion of terroir, the widespread use of irrigation, soluble nitrogenous fertilisers and other chemicals which ultimately break down the microflora of one’s soils, simply negates it’.

If the vineyard is the battleground for New Zealand’s producers, there is still much to be achieved despite the progress in increasing vine density for fruit concentration, matching rootstock to soil type, vine orientation and selection of clones, leaf plucking, crop thinning, irrigation technique and hedging at the right period during the growing season. Even assuming that the hardest work is done in the vineyard, pinot noir doesn’t make itself. ‘Pinot is very delicate, easy to over-work, easy to thrash the magic from if you are not careful’, says Ata Rangi’s Clive Paton. Progress in sorting and better handling of new oak can’t obscure the fact that issues of whether or not to de-stem before crushing and whether blending adds to complexity or detracts from terroir are hot potatoes.

Looking back at New Zealand and Burgundy in the round, the more you look, the more you see such a wide divergence in soils, location, climate, clones and vine age that it becomes hard to feel that the two much in common beyond the grape itself. Factor in the human element with its different personalities and priorities and there’s another shake of the kaleidoscope. For all that, those of us who’ve followed the progress of New Zealand pinot noir in the last decade continue to be encouraged by the incredible rate at which that progress has been achieved. Yes, there are still huge challenges, in particular in the vineyard and the market, but the evidence suggests that the true pioneers will do their utmost to unlock the secrets of the complexity and ageing power achieved by truly great red burgundy. Rudi Bauer says: ‘I will know much more in 50 years’. Those of us who would like to be able to say the same can take some comfort from the fact that at least the next generation will indeed know a lot more than we do.

New Zealand Pinot Noir - Wines

*** 2005 Delta Pinot Noir, Marlborough, around £10, Liberty Wines. In a short space of time, Delta, the second label of Hatters Hill in Marlborough, has garnered a deserved reputation for affordable pinot noir for its perfumed fruit quality, its succulently juicy strawberryish flavours and freshness.

*** 2006 Martinborough Vineyard Te Tera Pinot Noir, £13.99, or buy two - £11.99, Majestic Wine. You’ll struggle to find a pinot noir of the quality of this example from Martinborough on New Zealand’s North Island anywhere in the world. Fragrant with raspberryish fruitiness, it combines red berry fruit opulence with the typical delicacy and freshness of fine pinot noir.

*** 2006 Ata Rangi Crimson Pinot Noir, £14.95, Green & Blue Fine Wines
Halifax Wine Company, Noel Young Wines, Philglas & Swiggot. The second label of Martinborough’s Ata Rangi is a beguiling pinot noir made from young vines, full of succulent mulberry fruit quality with a veneer of subtle oak and a nudge of tannin.

*** 2005 Two Paddocks Pinot Noir, Central Otago, £15.80, or £14.05 bottle / case. , Haynes, Hanson & Clark. This wine made from low yields from actor Sam Neill’s three vineyards at Gibbston, Earnscleugh and Alexandra is fragrantly strawberryish and delightfully red-fruited with a light touch of spicy vanillan oak and refreshing nip of acidity.

**** 2006 Churton Pinot Noir, Marlborough, around £14, Tanners of Shrewsbury. Seamless raspberry pinot noir with velvety tannins and fresh balancing acidity all add up to a finely-crafted pinot that really shows Sam Weaver’s work on the terroir, not unlike a good Savigny-lès-Beaune in Marlborough, but with an added splash of opulent fruitiness.

**** 2006 Mount Difficulty Pinot Noir, Central Otago, around £19.99, Waitrose, The Cellar Door, Philglas & Swiggot. This central Otago pinot has the richness of mulberry and dark cherry fruit displayed by its good value sibling, Roaring Meg (£15.99 Harrods), but a little more concentration, extraction and backbone; still youthful and needing six months to a year although will benefit from decanting.

**** 2006 Felton Road Pinot Noir, £250.00 per case, Avery’s, Berry Bros., Jeroboams, Goedhuis, Philglas & Swiggot. This consistently stylish pinot from Nigel Greening displays aromatic dark cherry fruitiness with herbaceous borders, spicy dark berry and raspberry fruit ripeness and seductively juicy tannins which should develop in complexity over the next five years.

**** 2004 Bell Hill Old Weka Pass Road, £24.50 / bottle, £132.50 per case of 6, Lay & Wheeler. Strikingly labelled with white Maori drawings on a black background, this exceptional Canterbury pinot noir from Marcel Giesen and Sherwyn Veldhuizen displays a fine raspberry-like pinot noir fragrance with seductive wild fraises du bois fruitiness tinged by cola spiciness with juicily dry, elegant tannins.

Pinot Noir Facts

• Clones are Dijon clones 113, 115, 667 and 777, along with UCD clone 5 (Pommard) and the ‘Abel’ clone. The latter was supposedly named after the customs officer who confiscated it, then planted it out.

• Roostocks: planted to 3309C, 101-14, Schwarzmann or Riparia Gloire.

• Plantings were up 843% from 431 hectares in 1996 to 4,063 in 2006.

• In 2006, pinot noir became the second most planted varietal behind sauvignon blanc with 8,860 hectares.

• For vintage 2006, pinot noir was the most widely-produced red varietal with 22,062 tonnes – a 9% increase on 2004.

• Exports to the UK have grown 282% since 2002 from 305,000 litres to 1.1 million. In January 2007, they were up over the year by 19 per cent.

Top NZ Pinot Noir Producers

Martinborough / Wairarapa
Ata Rangi
Dry River
Martinborough Vineyards

Fromm Clayvin / Fromm
Villa Maria Reserve / Seddon
Cloudy Bay
Dog Point

Greenhough Hope

Canterbury / Waipara
Pegasus Bay
Bell Hill Weka Pass
Pyramid Valley
Alan McCorkindale

Central Otago
Felton Road
Mount Difficulty
Quartz Reef
Bald Hills
Gibbston Valley Reserve
Valli Gibbston
Mount Edward

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