Julie Harrison - New Zealand Pinot Noir

Publish Date
Thursday, 17 September 2015, 4:22PM
By Julie Harrison

Originating in Burgundy, Pinot Noir is one the worlds most prized and expensive wines. It is very much a cool climate variety so is ideally suited to New Zealand. It is however a tricky little grape to get right. As an early ripening grape, Pinot Noir is susceptible to spring frosts and with a thin skin and tight “pinecone like” bunches (Pinot Noir loosely translates to black pinecone) the variety is subject to mould in the vineyard. It is also genetically unstable so it could be said it is a bit of a challenge all round. You may hear winemakers talk about Pinot Noir clones and it is believed there is anywhere from 200 to 1000 genetic variants of this variety. Over time wineries have selected Pinot Noir clones that suit their particular region with wineries often planting a number of clones through a vineyard. All this along with the fact that Pinot Noir is very reactive to the “terroir” means that you can see a lot of variation between regions and even with sub regions.

New Zealand Pinot Noir first showed its potential in the early 1980’s with St Helena Pinot Noir from Canterbury demonstrating that we could make good Pinot Noir here. This early success was soon built upon in the Martinborough region with wineries such as Martinborough Vineyard, Ata Rangi and Dry River producing some wonderful Pinot Noir by the end of the 80’s. The 1990’s saw plantings in Central Otago, Marlborough, North Canterbury and Nelson and Pinot Noir is now only second to Sauvignon Blanc in production volume.

Martinborough is now considered to be one of the three Wairarapa sub regions, the other two being Gladstone and Masterton.   Martinborough wines are characterised by their complex savoury, earthy, dark plum characters with good tannin structure. The wines from Masterton are often softer than those from Martinborough with more red fruit characters.

Marlborough is the largest producer of New Zealand Pinot Noir, although it should be mentioned that a portion of this goes into sparkling wine production. Initially Pinot Noir was planted in typical light, free draining Marlborough soil which resulted in uneven ripening and average wines. It was found that Pinot thrived in the regions heavier, clay rich soils and as a result of this improved site and clone selection some very good Pinot Noir is now coming from Marlborough. Pinot from Marlborough is characterised by red cherry and fruit characters with good acidity and fine tannins.

Nelson can be divided into two regions the Waimea plains and the Moutere hills. Wines from the clay gravels of the Moutere hills have a wonderful minerality and complex earthy character. They are rich and concentrated with cherry and blackberry fruit.   If you are looking for a great example of a wine from this region you can’t go wrong with Neudorf Moutere Pinot Noir.   The larger Waimea plains area has more friable, free draining soils and produces perfumed, softer wines with fine tannins, floral and red fruit characters.

Canterbury has a diverse range of wine growing regions with Waipara to the North, the Canterbury plains, Banks Peninsular and the exciting new area of Waitaki on the North Otago border. Some of New Zealand’s best Pinot Noir comes from this region with great producers such as Pegasus Bay and Pyramid Valley as well as relative newcomers Pasquale and Ostler both producing great Pinot Noir from the Waitaki area.

Arguably the most popular New Zealand Pinot comes from Central Otago. Wines are typically fruit driven and have plump red fruit characters sometimes with hints of thyme. With all its rugged landscape not surprisingly there a number of sub regions. Wanaka and Gibbston have a cooler climate and a longer ripening period and wines from these cooler regions tend to be more delicate with more herb and spice characters than the warmer areas like Bannockburn, Bendigo, Cromwell, Pisa and Alexandra.

Whilst Central Otago Pinot Noirs are justifiably very popular, it is well worth looking at wines from some of the other areas, with my personal preference being the more savoury wines out of Martinborough. Pinot Noir is hard to grow and make which is why it is a bit more pricey than other reds. You do get what you pay for so spending a little bit more will reward you, keeping in mind that Marlborough wines are probably the best value.

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