Here’s an article that I wrote for Imbibe (drinks trade magazine) on New Zealand Pinot Noir…
If red Burgundy were a car, it would probably be a handsome vintage Jaguar. New Zealand Pinot, by contrast, would be a souped-up VW Golf: desirable yet affordable, built to perform – and it moves fast. Considering the quality of some of the wines, it’s hard to believe that the first commercial vintage of Pinot Noir in New Zealand was as recent as 1987.
Adam Willis at the Michelin-starred Bath Priory describes himself as a big fan of New Zealand Pinot Noir. After spending some time there, he returned to find that “an understanding of these styles hasn’t fully made its way to the UK yet” – an impression shared by both Jess Kildetoft MS from MASH and the Providores’ Mel Brown.
But for professionals, understanding the distinct characteristics of each main region is invaluable when choosing the right wines to suit your cuisine and your customers’ budget. After all, no other country outside France has the stylistic diversity of Pinot Noir across such a range of prices.
Which is why, as it becomes increasingly difficult to find serviceable Bourgogne Rouge for less than £15 ex VAT, it’s worth keeping up-to-date on developments in Kiwi country to see which styles best suit your venue and who are the producers that need to be on your radar. After all, many of these wines are coming from young vines, and as they mature, they will only improve.
With 2,590 hectares, Marlborough has by far the most Pinot Noir of any region in New Zealand. Some would say too much. Following the explosion in popularity of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir was planted with abandon – and not always in the right places.
As a result, Marlborough acquired a reputation for making light and simple Pinots – but does this still hold? “It’s a valid statement on Marlborough of old,” says Kurt Simcic, viticulturalist at Giesen, “but we’re moving away from those sites. We’re planting smaller blocks with better clones. You’ll see a change.”
Producers such as Seresin, Fromm and Giesen are looking to the Southern Valleys rather than the plains that are Sauvignon’s heartland. Instead of alluvial deposits, the soils here are rich in clay which gives deeper fruit and firmer structure.
Marlborough winemakers are pushing towards a more candid, textured style, too, thanks to less new oak and more whole bunch. Mike Paterson, former winemaker at Jackson Estate, started micro-negociant label Corofin in 2012 and makes three single vineyard wines from the Southern Valleys. He uses 20% whole bunch and no new oak, and the results embody Marlborough’s new wave. Instead of ‘light and simple’, think ‘pure and fine’. Things are changing here, and changing fast.
Established names: Dog Point (Fields, Morris & Verdin), Greywacke (Liberty Wines), Seresin (Louis Latour Agencies).
Under the radar: Clos Marguerite (Clark Foyster), Corofin (Flint Wines).
By comparison, Central Otago only has 1,500 hectares of Pinot Noir but it has an enviable reputation for its wines. Certainly, they’re hard to ignore: high sunshine, low rainfall and hot summers make for powerful Pinots.
Jess Kildetoft MS at MASH London says “We had a Central Otago Pinot by the glass over Christmas and it was spot on with the steaks and the guests really loved it… I would generally recommend the bigger more tannic styles from Otago or Nelson with meat and the simpler more feminine styles from Marlborough with poultry and fish.”
This boldness of style can lend itself to strongly flavoured dishes, but for all its vivid fruit it can sometimes lack the subtlety and savouriness that makes Pinot Noir such a food-friendly variety. Blair Walter, winemaker at Felton Road, explains that there’s a growing trend towards “toning things down” in Central Otago. “That kick of sweet fruit will be a thing of the past as vines age,” he says, “we’re starting to see wines with a lot more texture and subtlety, more of a sense of place.”
There is considerable stylistic diversity in Central Otago, sometimes derived from winemaking, sometimes from sub-regional terroir, but overall the trend is away from oak and extraction towards a more hands-off approach. As vineyards reach maturity the differences between sub-regions of Central Otago is becoming clearer and the wines are increasing in sophistication.
Established names: Felton Road (Cornish Point Wines), Two Paddocks (Negociants UK), Rippon (Lea & Sandeman).
Under the radar: Akitu (New Zealand Wine Cellar), Surveyor Thompson (Berry Bros. & Rudd).
Compared to Marlborough and Central Otago, Martinborough is relatively steady – it has the feel of a region that knows where its considerable strengths lie. The collection of small, mostly family-owned producers that inhabit the tiny town that gives the wine region its name make highly-regarded, structured Pinots that work particularly well with food.
They’re not cheap – you’ll struggle to get one on a wine list for less than £50 – but quality can be exceptional, and they can still rival or beat Burgundy at the same price. That said, if it’s cheapness rather than pedigree you’re after, Mel Brown, wine buyer at The Providores suggests targeting Marlborough.
Most New Zealand Pinots are not built for longevity. This has the benefit that they tend to be approachable on release. But Martinborough wines are an exception: they are good when they first come out, but can age beautifully as well. For Roger Jones at The Harrow at Little Bedwyn, “succulent Welsh lamb with an aged Martinborough Pinot” is a classic match.
Established names: Ata Rangi (Liberty Wines), Kusuda (Fields, Morris & Verdin), Martinborough Vineyard (Negociants UK).
Under the radar: Julicher (Berkmann), Schubert (Berry Bros. & Rudd).
Compared to Marlborough, Martinborough and Central Otago, North Canterbury has less stylistic consistency when it comes to Pinot Noir. Shaun and Marcel Giesen came here specifically for the limestone, and in 1997 established their Bell Hill winery. They now produce some of the best, and most expensive, Pinot Noirs in New Zealand.
Biodynamic producer Pyramid Valley Vineyards are more ‘natural’ in style but also demonstrate the potential of North Canterbury. After working with some of Europe’s best winemakers (Vincent Dauvissat, Jean-Michel Deiss, Ernie Loosen…) Mike and Claudia Elze Weersing settled in the Pyramid Valley, near Waikari in North Canterbury, in 2000. Mike attributes the quality of their wines to the diverse soil types and being at “the cultivable limit” of Pinot Noir production, meaning the vines struggle for ripeness.
North Canterbury is a close-knit community of small growers, which Penelope Nash, owner of Black Estate, calls “a wine geek’s region, we’re free to do what we like, we’re a bit more experimental”. It might be less well-known that its neighbours, but it’s home to some excellent Pinot producers who are pushing the boundaries.
Established Names: Pegasus Bay (New Generation McKinley), Bell Hill (H2Vin, Armit), Pyramid Valley (Caves de Pyrène).
Under the radar: Black Estate (Indigo), Waipara West (Waterloo Wines)
New Zealand red wine vintages at a glance
2010 Excellent quality, structured and ageworthy.
2011 Warm, damp year; large yields, average quality.
2012 One of the coolest years on record – some thin and green, some fine and fragrant.
2013 Excellent vintage, concentrated and structured wines.
2014 Very good to excellent vintage, particularly in Hawke’s Bay.
2015 Good warm vintage with concentrated wines, great in Canterbury.
2016 Good vintage, especially in Martinborough.
First published in Imbibe magazine.
Shortlisted for The Louis Roederer International Wine Writers' Awards 2017 Food and Wine Writer of the Year
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Matt Walls first got into wine working in an off-licence in Brighton. He has since worked for Bollinger Champagne and helped manage and buy wines for The Sampler, one of London's best wine shops. He now spends half his time writing about wine and the other half collaborating on various wine-related projects. His first book, Drink Me!, was recently published by Quadrille and has sold over 10,000 copies.
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