Over the past 30 years, New Zealand’s Pinot Noir has gone from strength to strength and become a serious player on the world stage. Here, Bob Campbell MW highlights the stylistic differences between each of the country’s five main regions, and the key estates and wines to watch...

Amisfield’s estate vineyards, at the food of the Pisa mountain range in Central Otago

The rapid and sustained growth of Pinot Noir quality has been the most exciting development during my 40-year involvement in the New Zealand wine industry. Thirty years ago, New Zealand Pinot Noir was a curiosity; a mixed bag of experimental wines that were mostly a bit thin, green and acidic. Today, it is our second-most planted variety; an international brand that has found a place on the wine lists of many famous restaurants in Europe, America and Asia.

At first, winemakers tried to reproduce the Burgundy benchmark before chasing the charm of greater fruit and alcohol ripeness as they began to get a sense of regional, and in many cases sub-regional, style. As the number of Pinot Noir vineyards grew, winemakers began to understand which combination of soil type, aspect and climatic conditions were best suited to this fickle red variety. Pinot Noir winemakers gathered once a year at a Pinot Noir workshop to taste samples and compare methods. That annual event probably contributed more to Pinot Noir quality in New Zealand than any other single factor.

Regional styles are now well accepted and understood despite the blurring effect of winemaking methods and vintage variation. An experienced taster should have a fighting chance of correctly identifying wines from the main five regions.

Since the moderately challenging 2008 vintage, the seasons have been kind to Pinot Noir growers in the top five regions: Wairarapa/ Martinborough, Nelson, Marlborough, Waipara and Central Otago. 2010 and (provisionally) 2013 are the strongest overall vintages, with 2009 and 2012 in Central Otago also worthy of special mention. Recent trends include the addition of greater quantities of whole bunches to provide more tannic structure, longevity and ultimately complexity, though sometimes at the cost of early drinkability. New Zealand Pinot is, like the men and women who make it, exuding greater confidence than ever before.

The big five

Martinborough was the country’s Pinot Noir capital for many years until the accessibility and seductive fruitiness of the Central Otago wines allowed the world’s most southerly wine region to snatch the crown. Waipara and Nelson showed they could also produce outstanding wines, though a lack of critical mass prevented them from mounting a serious challenge to Central Otago’s increasing lead.

Marlborough got off to a late start after early Pinot vineyards were planted on soils that were too light to produce wines of intensity and complexity. A move to heavier, clay-rich soils and occasionally onto sloping hillsides has since proven Marlborough can make very serious wines indeed. Pioneering planting in the cool climate and limestone-laced soils of the Waitaki Valley (Ostler) and North Canterbury (Bell Hill and Pyramid Valley) have produced wines with truly exciting promise.

Marlborough (2,367 ha)

In its early years of Pinot Noir production, Marlborough produced fairly lacklustre wines. Over-cropping was often cited as the prime reason for poor performance, although it now appears that the first vineyards were simply planted in soils that were too light and free-draining to produce noteworthy wines. Fromm’s close-planted and rigorously managed hillside Clayvin vineyard demonstrated that Marlborough could indeed make great Pinot Noir and that the clay-rich southern side of the Wairau valley offered some of the region’s very best sites. Fromm, Villa Maria, Dog Point, Cloudy Bay, Greywacke, Wither Hills, Giesen vineyard, Auntsfield (pictured left) and Seresin are some of my favourite producers. The wines tend to be quite aromatic with an array of red fruits, particularly red cherry, with firm tannic structures that help promote good cellaring potential. These wines can often be under-valued and, in my view, offer some of New Zealand’s best Pinot Noir bargains.

Central Otago (1,366 ha)

Viticulture dates back to the gold rush days of the 1860s, although the modern industry really only began in the early 1990s. Pinot Noir has grown dramatically in size and stature since then. Central Otago is the only New Zealand wine region with a continental influence. It has a climate of extremes, with cold winters and short, hot summers. Wine production in Central Otago has been described as ‘making wine on the edge of an abyss’. The region doesn’t suffer massive vintage variation, but frost is an ever-present risk and it doesn’t take much of a drop in temperature during the ripening season to make life difficult for winemakers in cool regions such as Gibbston and Wanaka. Warmer sub-regions, such as Bannockburn (Felton Road, Mt Difficulty, Akarua, Doctor’s Flat, Terra Sancta and Carrick), Bendigo (Quartz Reef, Mud House, Misha’s Vineyard (pictured right) and the Cromwell Basin (Burn Cottage, Pisa Range, Amisfield, Lowburn Ferry, Rockburn, Wooing Tree) typically produce wines that are often described as ‘classically Central Otago’ with strong, sweet plum and cherry flavours, together with a seasoning of thyme character in some cases. Gibbston (Gibbston Valley) and Wanaka (Rippon Vineyards) tend to make cooler, edgier wines with red cherry, fresh herb, spice and often a pronounced mineral character. Alexandra (Grasshopper Rock, Judge Rock, Two Paddocks) boasts the region’s hottest summer temperatures, making tight, mineral-laced wines.

Wairarapa/Martinborough (478ha)

Dry River was the earliest of the current producers to plant vines in Martinborough when it established a vineyard in 1979. The gravelly soils of an old riverbed proved ideal for the production of dense, rich and often complex wines with the flavour of dark-fleshed plums, often with a subtle savoury influence. Wairarapa is the geographic name of a large area including Martinborough but is used locally to describe a vineyard area just north of Martinborough planted on a series of river terraces. The Wairarapa sub-region tends to produce lighter, softer and suppler Pinot Noir, with cherry and plum flavours. Top producers include Ata Rangi, Dry River, Kusuda, Martinborough Vineyards and Shubert.

Waipara (267ha)

Waipara is an hour’s drive north of Christchurch. It has a range of limestone-laced hills sheltering it from coastal breezes, producing drier conditions during the grape ripening period. Waipara can be broadly divided into two areas: the plains, which are made up of free-draining gravel and alluvial deposits; and the hills, with their heavier limestone-derived clay soils. Hillside vineyards tend to produce more concentrated and richly textured wines with dark fruit flavours and occasionally a chalk/mineral influence. Pinot Noir from the plains is usually lighter and more supple with flavours that have a bias toward red fruits. Top producers in Waipara include Black Estate, Glasnevin, Greystone (pictured left), Mountford, Muddy Water, Omihi Hills and Pegasus Bay.

Nelson (185ha)

Nelson, like Waipara, can be divided into two distinct sub-regions, each producing different styles of Pinot. The friable, free-draining soils of the Waimea Plains feature silty, sandy or stony clay soils over a gravel base. This moderately large area produces a range of Pinot Noir styles, which can be generally described as having pronounced soft red fruit flavours. They are usually accessible wines often featuring vibrant acidity. Brightwater, Greenhough and Waimea are my favourite producers. The Moutere Hills features sandy top soils with clay and gravel sub-soils and occasional limestone deposits. The best vineyard sites are on north-facing slopes. The area produces richer, more concentrated and more structured wines than the plains.

See Bob Campbell MW’s pick of his favourite 20 New Zealand Pinot Noirs

Written by Bob Campbell MW