With its fascinating regional diversity, New Zealand’s most popular red has evolved into a wine that’s making the world sit up and take notice.
Pinot noir is a fickle friend. It’s one of the most difficult grapes to grow and wines to make. It requires a sunny, cool climate; its tightly clustered bunches are particularly susceptible to rot and disease; its thin skins give the grapes little protection from the weather and produce low-tannin wines that can be unpredictable in the winemaking and ageing processes.
It is also one of the most difficult wines to buy. A bad pinot noir is one of wine drinking’s greatest disappointments – fruity, but dull, like over-sugared cherry juice. A great pinot noir, on the other hand, is perhaps the wine most likely to elicit a religious metaphor – an ‘epiphany’ of elegance and complexity.
All of which is exacerbated by pinot noir’s price. Due to a combination of its difficulty to produce and its popularity (it’s the most popular red wine in New Zealand and Fine Wine Delivery Co’s top-selling variety overall), it can be difficult to find dependable bargains on the lower shelves, and risky to reach up to the top shelves where a tough vintage or a winemaking misstep can lead to expensive, disappointing wines. There is no wine purchase that benefits more from guidance than pinot noir, no wine where mediocrity might sit so close on the shelf to a revelation.
The first pinot noir was planted in Otago, Martinborough and Canterbury in the early 60s with clones from Switzerland. It wasn’t an immediate success, but over the next 30 years, more clones were imported – mostly from Burgundy, France, the traditional home of pinot noir.
It took until the 80s for a pinot noir, made by Danny Schuster in Waipara, north Canterbury, to win a gold medal. In 1990, Rippon in Central Otago produced what is considered one of the first great New Zealand pinot noirs, made by Rudi Bauer, who is now the winemaker at Quartz Reef.
Other pioneers included Martinborough Vineyard, whose winemaker Larry McKenna (now at Escarpment) is known as the “prince of pinot”, Dr Neil and Dawn McCallum at Dry River, and Clive Paton at Ata Rangi, also in Martinborough. “Even in those early days, all of those early adopters – they were the ones who showed that pinot noir had a serious future in New Zealand,” says Fine Wine Delivery Co founder Jeff Poole.
Despite these leading lights, most early pinot noir in New Zealand was made from pinot noir planted to make méthode traditionnelle (i.e. sparkling wine made like Champagne but not from Champagne). “There wasn’t enough to go around so there was lots of mediocre wine commanding a lot of money,” Poole says.
In 1997, Poole started Fine Wine Delivery Co with his wife Virginia. In 1998 they moved the business out of their spare room on Auckland’s North Shore, which is when local pinot noir really caught his attention.
Three years later, in 2001, Fine Wine Delivery Co was the retail sponsor for the first New Zealand international pinot noir conference in Wellington, which showcased pinot noirs from around the country with a week of workshops, lectures and tastings. One of the most famous wine writers in the world, Jancis Robinson, was there. New Zealand pinot noir was truly on the world stage.
“With all that early promise,” says Poole, “all that was needed was to identify the sites where pinot noir would do best, identify the clones to see which had the best suitability to the local climates, the experience of the winemakers – going to the northern hemisphere to work vintages in Burgundy, the home of pinot noir, learning how they’ve traditionally done things – and most importantly, vine age. Vines don’t really give those better structures and characters until they’re at least 10 to 12 years old, and they really come into their own at 15 to 20 and beyond.”
Fairly early on, five regions developed: Martinborough, Marlborough, Nelson, Waipara, Central Otago, each with their own style and expression. Martinborough tends to red fruit and a herby spiciness; Marlborough is typically sweet red fruit – plum, cherry – but less herbaceous; Nelson is similar but with a little darker fruit; Waipara tends towards spicy, not herby, darker fruit; Central Otago is darker cherries and plums with stronger, deeper fruit characters – charming, fuller wines.
In 2003, Fine Wine started its annual pinot noir roadshows, tasking through a whole vintage of pinot noirs, narrowing it down to 90 to 100 out of about 400 from the entry level to the top end. After 14 years of roadshows, Fine Wine Delivery Co’s Passion for Pinot is now down to a more manageable – and carefully selected – 30 wines, showing not only the main regions but the diverse expression of the sub-regions that have developed their own distinctive characteristics as New Zealand pinot noir continues to develop.
“Pinot noir has come so far in terms of vine age and experience of the winemakers,” says Poole. “Now we’re really starting to sing and make great pinot noirs, even at the entry level. You’re seeing what the French call terroir – the soil, the air, the clones, the management of the vineyard, the people, but significantly driven by the site itself. What we’re seeing now is not just regional differences, which we’ve always seen, but distinct sub-regional differences within those regions. So it’s not just Central Otago, it’s Gibbston Valley, Bannockburn, Bendigo, Lowburn Terraces, Waitaki, Wanaka. They’re all different.”
Next week in Auckland, Fine Wine Delivery Co is hosting three special tastings that explore New Zealand’s unique pinot noir, including a four-course dinner matched to four different wines (pinot noir of course) at Cibo in Parnell. Guests will be guided through the nuances of this famous grape by legendary winemakers Kevin Judd from Greywacke in Marlborough, Helen Masters from Ata Rangi in Martinborough, Jen Parr of Valli Wines in Central Otago and Dom Maxwell of Greystone in North Canterbury, who will be showcasing their wines alongside the acclaimed food of chef Kate Fay on Tuesday 14 August.
Poole mentions Prophet’s Rock as an example of a New Zealand pinot noir with a modern yet traditional expression of place. Winemaker Paul Pujol has made wine around the world before settling in Bendigo, Central Otago, to make pinot noir and aromatic whites, which have been lauded by some of the most renowned winemakers in the world.
A few years ago, Burgundy winemaker François Millet, from Comte Georges de Vogüé in Musigny, was invited to a Central Otago pinot noir celebration and identified Prophet’s Rock as a wine with a wonderful expression of site. He invited Pujol to go to Burgundy to work a vintage and then, two years ago, returned to Bendigo to make a wine for Prophet’s Rock with his pick of Pujol’s grapes, which became the Prophet’s Rock Cuvée Aux Antipodes.
“It was absolutely stunning,” says Poole. “And it showed that the more traditional touch of the winemaker produced a sublime expression of the tannins, the acidity, the texture were all very fine and elegant. There’s a Frenchman telling us that we have it all here to be as good as anything that comes out of Burgundy. And in the next 10 years, it will be exponentially further again.”
Our soils and climates are perfect for growing pinot noir. Our vines have come of age, our winemakers are experienced and pinot noir is now a major factor in New Zealand’s reputation as a producer of world-class wine. “We’ve come so far in such a short time,” says Poole. “And there are still things we can learn.”
The Spinoff’s beverage content is brought to you by Fine Wine Delivery Co, which is completely and utterly devoted to good taste, whether it’s wine, food, craft beer, whisky, rum… Check out their website or pop into one of the two Auckland superstores.
The Spinoff Daily gets you all the day's best reading in one handy package, fresh to your inbox Monday-Friday at 5pm.