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Factors combine to help NZ Pinot Noir come of age

A combination of vine age, clonal selection and collaboration have all helped New Zealand Pinot Noir to come of age, writes Rupert Millar

Pinot Plantings in Central Otago

A few years ago, Martin Lam, of the now sadly closed Ransome’s Dock, declared that if New Zealand’s winemakers achieved in the next 30 years what they had already done in the previous 30, then they would be “rivalling the Côte d’Or for terroir complexity”. A few years is not 30, so perhaps they are still some way off, but how is New Zealand’s Pinot Noir offering evolving?

What regional differences and styles are coming to the fore? How does it fit into the global Pinot offering? This latter point is particularly intriguing when one considers the situation in Burgundy and, to a point, California.

With Burgundy attracting more attention in the world of fine wine collecting and investment, coupled with some painfully small recent vintages which are contributing to inexorable price rises, is now the time for New Zealand to assert itself as the Pinot-lover’s go-to nation? Firstly, Pinot’s position in New Zealand. Figures from the New Zealand Winegrowers show that in the past 10 years export sales by volume have rocketed by 743%. In the year ending June 2012 the total exports reached 10.5 million litres.

Plantings too are now substantial, around 11,925 acres, or 4,825 hectares (see box-out for regional breakdown). Chris Stroud, UK director of New Zealand Winegrowers, reports: “Pinot Noir is the most important red variety in New Zealand and represents 15% of total plantings and just over 9% of total production.” The forecast for Pinot is that it will maintain this acreage well into 2015 and presumably beyond, Sauvignon Blanc continuing to reign supreme probably forever.

Many producers will continue to say that there is still a “learning curve” to navigate, but a combination of vine age, clonal selection and collaboration has definitely brought the country’s Pinot production to what Amelia Jukes, director of Hallowed Ground calls a “very exciting time”.She continues: “At the Pinot conference (held in New Zealand earlier this year) it was overwhelming how impressive the wines were and how the producers were working together.

They have real camaraderie and are really striving to promote the wines.” Hätsch Kalberer, winemaker at Fromm in Marlborough, believes that a “cornerstone” of the development of the variety in New Zealand has been the annual workshops initiated by winemaker Larry McKenna.

He explains:“This created an extremely fast learning process with everyone benefiting from the combined understanding of all participants and you could see the quality improving within a few years to a point, where practically all winemakers producing commercially sound and often excellent wine.”

The early days of Pinot Noir in New Zealand, as Jukes points out, were at times rather difficult – Marlborough in particular was planted with clones better suited to sparkling production. Nonetheless, this is a problem that looks as though it has been overcome.

Speaking in the US on the subject in May this year, Bob Campbell MW stated that the most common clones now are 113, 115, 667 and 777 from Dijon, as well as “Abel” and UCD5 Pommard. One other important and possibly overlooked element in Pinot’s evolution in New Zealand is the prevalence of organic/biodynamic/sustainable viticulture which the country is such a big proponent of. Jukes considers the application of green viticulture “important for Pinot” because of its “capricious” nature.

Alastair Maling MW, general manager for winemaking and viticulture at Villa Maria, agrees that it’s enough to have producers thinking. “It’s not across the board but there is plenty of discussion around shifting to organic and biodynamic production and what does this deliver to the wines,” he says. Vine age is of course something one cannot rush. Although many point out that the average age of Pinot vines in New Zealand is 12 years old, they have at least entered double figures.

New Zealand Wine Growers

For Nigel Greening of Felton Road in Central Otago, this has led to “massive” changes in the wines. “We notice a massive change in wines once the vines get into their teens,” he says noting that in particular Marlborough is producing, “more structured, more grown up wines.” This in turn has led to a change in winemaking too.

Clive Jones, winemaker at Nautilus Estate, adds that the “less is more approach” is gaining ground too – especially with oak use. He says: “When you are dealing with young vines and new sites there is a tendency to try to ‘fill in the gaps’ of palate structure with tannin or oak.

Now the vines are starting to mature we have more confidence that the fruit will deliver all the elements we need without having to ‘interfere’, leaving the fruit to speak for itself. Oak plays a much more supporting role with a lot of the structure derived from fruit tannin.”

This may, in theory, lead to a greater expression of site and region although Todd Stevens, winemaker at Neudorf in Nelson, is one who argues that yet more vine age is necessary before “consistent [regional] characteristics develop”.

On the other hand he also states that, “the regions are distinct and the sub regions with in those are also distinct. The regions/sub-regions vary in soil and climate… and also people.”


For Jukes, New Zealand Pinot exhibits, “quite distinct regional characteristics”. With 700 kilometres between the northernmost Pinot growing area, Martinborough, and Central Otago in the south, there should be no surprise at this.

As Paul Mason, winemaker for Martinborough Vineyard Estates, explains further, “we have quite distinct differences in climate combined with distinct soil type variations. As we move south. The summers get shorter but hotter and drier. This tends to show brighter fruit aromatics and more fruit-driven wines. Around Martinborough with our cooler summer and longer season I see more of the secondary spicy, savoury characters coming into the wine.”

Maling argues that Central Otago may have, “the strongest image, you can’t take anything away from the quality of Pinot’s coming from all the other New Zealand Pinot-producing regions. When you line up a bunch of New Zealand Pinots they do have a common character, but within regions there is distinct differences.” Although many agree that the differences exist, the volatile human element in winemaking is where arguments begin. Are winemakers stamping their personality on the wines or “channeling nature” as terroir demands? Can wine ever escape the imprint of its maker?

“When you add winemaker input into the equation the result becomes somewhat muddied and doesn’t always produce clear concise regional character definitions,” Mason continues. Kalberer is more forceful. He thinks that increased plantings have led to “mainstream” Pinots with bright fruit and a certain sweetness and this has become the “New Zealand style”, even if it is a style which has been created by winemakers, and one that is relatively easy to reproduce year after year rather than an authentic expression of the country’s terroirs and vintage specifics.”

The danger, as he relates, is: “Many New Zealand winemakers who work with vineyards that have the potential to take Pinot Noir onto the next level are forced to manipulate (at least some of) their wines to fit within this preconceived idea of what a typical NZ Pinot Noir should taste like.”

This though is a problem for many wines in many regions around the world and is a natural result of the commoditisation of a product. Then again, producers – particularly of younger regions – need a licence to experiment too. Jones says he has seen more, “judicious use of a whole bunch/stem component in some wines and again older vines is helping in this regard with the stem tannin more easily integrated. There is also a trend to try and pick earlier – perhaps this is also confidence the desired flavours are being achieved at lower brix.”


Burgundy is becoming more expensive and rarer with recent vintages. Some of the best North American Pinot is likewise spiralling upwards in value. Is New Zealand the natural home of the cash-strapped but love-struck Pinot fan?

With New World fruit, some stylistic Old World aspirations and a consistency that poor, hail-ridden Burgundy would be envious of, there’s no reason to see why not. “There’s no question now that, with the exception of the US, New Zealand sits as the connoisseur’s alternative to Burgundy,” announces Greening.

Jukes thinks so too, arguing that the country, “is perfectly pitched to fill the gap for quality and value.” She points out the growing number of single vineyard wines being identified and produced and declares further: “As more of the sites are identified and developed (including block wines) then this is a hugely exciting category and they are ideally positioned to sit alongside grand cru Burgundy at affordable price points.”

Stroud cautions that one shouldn’t draw comparisons between Burgundian and New Zealand Pinot and it is more important to focus on the fact that, “There are fantastic wines being produced across all price points and they offer excellent value for money.”

Of course, value for money can still mean expensive for many drinkers. Greening agrees that the wines are costly but counters, “This is Pinot. It’s always been the highest priced grape there is. You can’t make it in large volume and it costs NZ$10 to make a bottle, so it’ll cost £20 in a shop when all costs have been factored in.

I think it’s good value for money. That you can buy good Pinot for £20 I believe is something of a bargain personally.” Value for money, consistency, regional differences and styles to suit all tastes, from the silky Pinots of Marlborough to the spice and savoury characters Mason picked out in Martinborough; when added up, New Zealand seems to have a lot going for it. It may not have fully realised its potential yet but there’s every reason for producers to think big for the future and for the trade and consumers alike to await developments with great anticipation.

Stroud is right to say that, with expanding viticultural knowledge, fine tuning of site selection and vines ageing gracefully, “the best is yet to come.”


Feature Findings
  • There is a feeling among producers that New Zealand Pinot Noir is beginning to “come of age”
  • This has been achieved by proper clonal selction, working together and increasing vine age, which is helping to highlight regional differences and increased structure.
  • Some argue that increased plantings have led to a generic style which producers follow.
  • Others state that sub-regionality not only exists but is the next stage of New Zealand’s development.
  • With Burgundy becoming increasingly expensive, New Zealand is well placed to be the alternative for Pinot lovers.
  • In 2009 CL World Brands parent company CL Financial Limited comes under the management of the Trinidad and Tobago government following a bail out.

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