In focus: New Zealand Pinot Noir

While New Zealand may only produce a small amount of Pinot Noir, it punches well above its weight when it comes to quality, finds Lucy Shaw, with North Canterbury emerging as the region to watch.

Known as the heartbreak grape, Pinot Noir has long been the Holy Grail of winemakers keen to prove their mettle by mastering this most finicky of varieties, and, ideally, creating something magical from it. For better or worse the temperamental grape is only able to thrive in certain places where all the elements are right and stars are aligned, as Miles, the Pinot Noir-obsessed protagonist of the 2004 sleeper hit Sideways, points out to his love interest Maya over a glass of California Pinot one night: “Pinot needs constant care and attention. It can only grow in these really specific little tucked-away corners of the world. And only the most patient and nurturing of growers can do it. Only somebody who really takes the time to understand Pinot’s potential can coax it into its fullest expression.”

One such tucked away corner of the world where the thin-skinned grape is thriving is New Zealand. And not only in one region – the grape has found a happy home throughout NZ, from Martinborough on the North Island to Central Otago down south, via Marlborough and North Canterbury.

Patrick Materman of Brancott Estate

While the grape accounts for just 8% of all wine produced in New Zealand, both plantings and production of Pinot have increased by over 40% in the past 15 years, according to New Zealand Winegrowers, while exports have surged by 90% over the same period. The future of New Zealand Pinot looks very rosy indeed, as winemakers become increasingly savvy about which clones and rootstocks to use in which sites to produce complex, terroir-driven expressions that let the land do the talking.

“With younger vines it’s all about the fruit. As the vines and resulting wines get older we see a lot more acid, tannin, texture and togetherness in the wine,” says Ben Glover of The Coterie in Marlborough. “In 2005 I was using up to 40% new oak to support the fruit and provide structure, now I use 15% new oak because the wines and vines are carrying their own power and grace.”

Wind the clock back 20 years and the picture was very different. Unsure of themselves, Kiwi winemakers largely looked to Burgundy for guidance, making textbook wines that were often overworked and underwhelming, as Burgundy expert Jasper Morris MW points out:

“I first came to Central Otago in the late 1990s. Back then there used to be too much shepherding in winemaking – acidifying at the beginning so as not to risk bacterial spoilage, then de-acidifying at the end, which I was slightly shocked by,” he says.

“It was all terribly technical – they were stirring the vats with a recipe book open rather than a natural cook who just lets it happen. Now there is a move towards letting the Pinot speak for itself. The wines used to fade fast, which had a lot to do with the young age of the vines.

It’s less the case now. Central Otago is making Pinots capable of ageing for longer, including some I wouldn’t want to drink for at least four years, until everything is in place. It’s not about emulating Burgundy; it’s about exciting new ideas and an understanding of the land.”

Jane Skilton MW believes the evolution of NZ Pinot has gone hand in hand with local winemakers growing in confidence and knowledge. “The best have realised that they can make Pinot Noir in their own unique style – we don’t have to chase after Burgundy lookalikes. A respect for the vineyard, gentler fermentation techniques and a less obvious use of new oak have all played their part in the stylistic progression of New Zealand Pinot,” she says. Felton Road’s chief winemaker, Blair Walter, thinks a swing towards organic and biodynamic viticulture in Central Otago is helping to create more subtle and nuanced Pinots.

“Earlier picking, less extraction from reduced punchdowns and more moderate use of new oak is leading to more harmonious, site expressive wines,” he says. In the vineyard, more mature vines, increased planting density and the use of better clones, such as Dijon 828 and 945, are helping to improve quality. In the winery, a “less is more” approach is being adopted.

“Winemakers are more aware of balance, purity and freshness now when it comes to Pinot. Whole bunch is being used by some producers to great effect, while new oak seems more balanced than in the past. The best winemakers are doing less to get more out of their Pinots,” says Sam Harrop MW, who points out that grape growers are managing to achieve higher levels of ripeness and concentration from Pinot Noir at lower potential alcohol levels.

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