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New Zealand Pinot Noir: No Gooseberry Here
By Gerald D. Boyd
Aug 1, 2005
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I'm an admitted Pinot Noir lover.  There--I've said it.  After all, Pinot Noir is hard to dislike, so why fight it with claims for Cabernet Sauvignon's superiority?  Anyway, I suspect that many hard core promoters of Cabernet secretly have Pinot envy.

Luscious and lively, supple and silky, bursting with berry flavors, Pinot Noir is a sensual wine that invites drinkers to get personal.  It's not unusual to hear Pinot lovers describe themselves as "Pinot fanatics."  When was the last time you heard a Cabernet drinker get that emotional?

No matter where Pinot Noir is grown and made, it's good.  But one region that is attracting growing attention for its diverse styles of Pinot Noir is New Zealand, the other wine country Down Under that we're hearing more about every day.  For American Pinot fans there's the added intrigue that New Zealand winemakers don't agree where the best New Zealand Pinot Noir is made. 

* * *

At the close of 2003, New Zealand Winegrowers reported that Pinot Noir accounted for more than 6,400 acres, with Merlot, Pinot's closest red rival, accounting for just over 3,000 acres.  No question that New Zealand Pinot Noir plantings are on the rise, but the total still lags behind Sauvignon Blanc, the Kiwi's great white hope, which topped 11,000 acres in 2003.  

As the interest in Pinot Noir continues to grow, Kiwi winemakers grapple with the question of where in the two-island nation is the best Pinot Noir grown?  It's a friendly disagreement among wine professionals--not unlike the on-going search in California for the best Pinot Noir:  Carneros? Russian River?  Santa Barbara?  

While I enjoy and respect the elegance, depth and complexity of Martinborough Pinots and even admit that I've found a little of that elusive "Burgundian" character in a few Martinborough Pinots, my vote for quality and potential, at least for the present, goes first to Central Otago, followed by Marlborough, then Martinborough and Waipara.  Here's why. 

Central Otago, known locally as Central, is a breathtakingly scenic wine region that ranks as one of the loveliest.  Framed against the jaw-dropping beauty of the snow-capped Remarkables and Fiordland National Park, are five main vineyard sub regions of Central Otago: Alexandra, Bannockburn, Cromwell, Gibbston and Wanaka -- with a total of more than 1,400 acres of Pinot Noir.  Some 70 percent of the Pinot plantings are in the Cromwell basin, 20 percent in Gibbston Valley, with the remainder divided between Wanaka in the north and Alexandra in the south.

East of Queenstown, along the Kawarau River Gorge road is the Gibbston Valley, with schist-based loamy soils and settled dry weather during the growing season that promotes maximum hang time for grapes.  What is missing is limestone, that geological component that some say must be present for great Pinot Noir.  John Wallace, winemaker for Chard Farm, has a different view.  "I don't think the limestone soils in places like Waipara are essential to making good Pinot Noir.  Our vineyards are mostly on slopes and there is little threat of frost, which is often a problem in flatter areas."

Deeper into the valley the concentration of vineyards is denser, including those of former Napa Valley winemaker Gary Andrus and Kiwi actor Sam Neill.  Peregrine vineyard manager Greg Hay says it's the purity of the fruit in Central that attracted him to the region.  "Besides, if you were in Waipara, you wouldn't have all, this," he adds, pointing to the snow-capped mountains forming a dramatic backdrop to Peregrine's equally dramatic winery with its sweeping bird wing roof.

Beyond the Kawarau Gorge, the landscape changes to a gentle roll with well defined shallow ravines.  Between the small towns of Cromwell and Bannockburn is a cluster of nine wineries, led by Felton Road.  Winemaker Blair Walter says that Bannockburn is the driest part of New Zealand, but he produces dynamic berry-rich wines with a purity of flavor.  A close neighbor, standing in the shadow of the Carrick Mountain Range, is Carrick, where owner/winemaker Steve Green specializes in fruit-forward Pinot Noir. 

Other Central Otago Pinots to consider include Amisfield, Dry Gully, Gibbston Valley Wines, Leaning Rock, Olssens and Rippon Vineyard.

Marlborough, at the northern end of the South Island, is known mainly for its distinctive juicy Sauvignon Blancs.  But as of 2004, Marlborough had more than 3,000 acres of Pinot Noir, with growth estimates of at least 700 additional acres of Pinot Noir by 2006. 

Most of the Marlborough Pinot action is centered in the Wairau and Awatere river valleys, located only a few miles from stormy Cook Strait that separates the north and south islands and Cloudy Bay, the body of water that has become the icon image of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, for American wine drinkers. 

Marlborough's distinctive pungent fruit flavors and dense structure, in Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc, are attributed to the steady marine influence, plenty of warm days and cool nights and alluvial loam top soils over gravelly sub soils in the valleys.  A shortage of water, however, has caused growers and winemakers to look for new vineyard sites in side valleys. 

Because of New Zealand's relatively narrow land mass, there is no true continental climate.  Nevertheless, says Cloudy Bay's Kevin Judd, "Marlborough enjoys ample sunshine hours, moderate temperatures, low rainfall and cool nights during the growing season, allowing for more hang time.  The biggest challenge we have in Marlborough is maintaining consistency of style because of vintage variations and battling early botrytis."

Judd and his winemaking colleagues in Marlborough believe that Pinot has the potential to be the red wine equivalent of Sauvignon Blanc.  "We grow very good Pinot Noir in Marlborough, even though the buzz for Pinot is Central Otago." 

Brent Maris, winemaker for Wither Hills, has 800 acres under vine in the Brancott Valley and southern Wairau Valley.  "There's more pungency and fruit weight in the grapes of the Wairau Valley, especially for Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc."  Maris says that the stony silt and clay Brancott soils are ideal for good growing good Pinot. 

The dominance of the Marlborough region in New Zealand grape growing and winemaking is undeniable.  Marlborough Pinots are substantial and structured, with distinct Pinot-berry flavors and length.  Other Marlborough Pinot Noirs that showed characteristic structure and length of flavor included those from Allan Scott, Brancott, Drylands, Foxes Island Wines, Highfield,  Huia, Lake Chalice, Lawson's Dry Hills, Matua Marlborough, Mount Riley, Nautilus, Omaka Springs, Seresin Estate, Villa Maria-Marlborough, Wairau River Wines and Whitehaven.  
Across the Cook Strait is Wellington, arguably New Zealand's most enjoyable and cosmopolitan city.  To the northeast of the city is the Wairarapa wine region, of which Martinborough, town and wine district, is noted for Pinot Noir.  The so-called Martinborough Terraces, first planted in the mid-1980s, took its own identity separate from Waiarapa.  The latest area to be planted is Te Muna, separated from the Terraces by the Huangarua River, where Craggy Range has significant plantings.  Martinborough's Pinot Noir plantings are small (887 acres) but the quality and character of the Pinot Noirs is huge by any measurement. 

Some have suggested that if you're looking for the Burgundian character in New Zealand Pinot Noir, then Martinborough is your wine.  When Steve Smith, winemaker and general manager of Craggy Range in Hawke's Bay, wanted to add a Pinot to Craggy's line, he planted the 200-acre Te Muna Vineyard in Martinborough.  "I like the more reserved texture and flavors of Martinborough Pinots," he says. 

Additional rich plumy Martinborough Pinot Noirs to check out include Alana Estate, Ata Rangi, Craggy Range, Dry River Wines, Hidden Valley, Margrain Vineyard, Palliser Estate, Te Kairanga and Voss Estate.

Finally there's tiny Waipara, with 346 acres of Pinot Noir, little more than an hour's drive north of Christchurch.  Waipara is distinct from the larger Canterbury district, located mainly on the plains around the city.  The slopes of Waipara, especially behind Mountford winery, are known for their limeston--the component some believe necessary for producing the best Burgundian-style Pinot Noir.  Mountford is a small estate, specializing in high-end Pinot Noir.

Waipara's most noted wine estate, Pegasus Bay, is set back about five miles off the main highway, and a mere 10 miles from the ocean.  Pegasus Bay owns 85 acres of vineyards, mainly Pinot Noir.  Owner Ivan Donaldson first planted vines in 1985.  The Pinot Noir became an instant hit.  What distinguishes Pegasus Bay Pinot Noir--and by extension the Waipara style's firm structure and body, ripe berry flavors, and a subtle gamey note.  Other Waipara Pinot Noirs to watch for include those from Daniel Schuster, Alan McCorkindale and Canterbury House. 

New Zealand Pinot Noir is fast becoming an exciting addition to the growing collection of international Pinots.  Kiwi growers were pioneers in cool climate grape growing and their passion for making the world's best Pinot is unmatched anywhere in the world.  A growing collection of New Zealand Pinot Noir is waiting for you at your local store or restaurant.

The following are my tasting notes for a select group of New Zealand Pinot Noirs, tasted at the wineries late last year.  All of the wines are available in the U.S.  market.  The prices are approximate U.S.  retail, and wines are reviewed in alphabetical order.  I prefer to summarize my reviews with word ratings rather than points, but those wishing to see the point ranges to which my word ratings correspond may consult the following table:

Good = 80-84
Very Good = 85-89
Outstanding = 90-94
Superb = 95-100

Ata Rangi, Martinborough, Pinot Noir 2002 ($45, Epic Wines): Forward berry nose, boiled black tea and spice; rich texture, black cherry flavors; length in the finish.  Outstanding (90-94)

Brancott Vineyards, Marlborough, Pinot Noir 2003 ($11, Allied Domecq): Slightly muted nose, black cherry, plum and spice notes; structured with fresh berry flavors; good length.  Very Good (85-89)

Brancott Vineyards, Marlborough, Pinot Noir Reserve 2002 ($18, Allied Domecq): Bright dark fruit aromas with toasted oak and sweet spice back notes; richly textured, complex, smooth and silky cherry-berry flavors; good length.  Outstanding (90-94)

Carrick, Central Otago, Pinot Noir 2002 ($38, Sauvage Selections): Deep boiled tea nose with ginger notes; lush entry, layered berry-plum flavors; dry with good length.  Very Good (85-89)

Chard Farm, Central Otago, Pinot Noir "The Tiger" 2002 ($50): Forward black cherry aroma, boiled beet back note; textured berry flavors, mineral note.  Outstanding (90-94)

Cloudy Bay, Marlborough, Pinot Noir 2003 ($25, Moet Hennessy USA): Deep ruby color: Forward ripe cherry nose, smoked bacon and black tea notes, nicely integrated spicy oak; lasting finish.  Outstanding (90-94)

Craggy Range, Martinborough, Te Muna Vineyard Pinot Noir 2003 ($35, Kobrand): Deep black cherry nose, richly textured bright berry flavors; very good structure and length.  Outstanding (90-94)

Felton Road, Central Otago, Pinot Noir 2002 ($38, Wilson Daniels): Very deep color.  Refined spice and ripe cherry nose; richly textured fleshy flavors, firm tannins, cedar notes.  Outstanding (90-94)

Felton Road, Central Otago, Block 3 Pinot Noir 2002 ($53, Wilson Daniels): Very deep color.  Ripe blackberry and cedar nose, mineral notes; lovely lush berry flavors; long lingering finish.  Superb (95-100)

Highfield, 2002 Marlborough Pinot Noir 2002 ($27, Via Pacifica): Toasted oak and ripe cherry nose; bright berry flavors, boiled tea and spice notes; good texture and length.  Very Good (85-89)

Kumeu River, Kumeu, Pinot Noir 2003 ($30, Wilson Daniels): Deep ruby color: Forward ripe cherry-berry nose with elegant spicy oak notes, rich texture with a subtle oak note.  Outstanding (90-94)

Mountford, Hawke's Bay, Pinot Noir 2002 ($45, Southern Starz): Medium ruby color.  Deep boiled beet and spice nose; layered cedar and cherry-berry flavors; good structure.  Outstanding (90-94)

Mt.  Difficulty, Central Otago, Pinot Noir 2003 ($32, America Estates): Deep richly hued color.  Forward smoked bacon and black cherry nose; deep-set berry flavors, spicy notes; good length.  Superb (95-100)

Peregrine, Central Otago, Pinot Noir 2003 ($35, Meadowbank Estates): Delicate ripe cherry-berry nose, spicy note; layered flavors, spicy oak and berry notes; good finish.  Very Good (85-89)

Pegasus Bay, Hawke's Bay, Pinot Noir 2002 ($45, Meadowbank Estates): Aromatic berry and spice nose; richly textured flavors, ripe berry and cedar; long complex finish.  Outstanding (90-94)

Pegasus Bay, Hawke's Bay, Pinot Noir "Prima Donna" 2001 ($75, Meadowbank Estates): Deep ruby color.  Elegant spicy oak and ripe berry nose; mouth-filling complex berry flavors, excellent balance and length.  Superb (95-100)

Schubert, Wairarapa, Pinot Noir 2003 ($50, New Zealand Wine Imports): Deep color, ripe black berry aroma; richly textured cherry-berry flavors, spicy note; long complex finish.  Outstanding (90-94)

Vidal, Hawke's Bay, Pinot Noir "Stop Bank" 2002 ($35, New Zealand Pure): Richly textured berry and spicy oak nose; smooth and silky flavors, cherry-berry and spice accents; good length.  Outstanding (90-94)

Wither Hills, Marlborough, Pinot Noir 2003 ($50, Paterno): Brilliant ruby color.  Ripe black cherry and smoky-spicy oak notes; juicy berry flavors, excellent balance and finish.  Superb (95-100)