New Zealand has long been touted as capable of producing top-notch Pinot Noir. Now is the time to deliver on the potential, says NORM ROBY. So which are the regions to look for, and how do their profiles compare to Burgundy?

About 10 years ago, when New Zealanders woke up and smelled the coffee, it was not a pleasant experience. So they made wimpy coffee a national issue. Today, everywhere you go, from major cities to remote outposts, Kiwis are serving up the finest coffee and espresso their side of Italy.

So it came as no surprise that when they turned their attention to a red wine with the potential to achieve the same international appeal as Sauvignon Blanc, they held nothing back. Before long, a few key people in both the North and South Islands had narrowed the red wine choice down to Pinot Noir.

Over the past 10 years, the entire country, with the exception of Gisborne and Hawke’s Bay, has been on a Pinot planting rampage. Currently totalling over 3,400ha (hectares), Pinot Noir is now the number-one red variety being planted, and may soon overtake Chardonnay as second only to Sauvignon.

Today, three regions are vying for Pinot supremacy: Martinborough, the oldest; Central Otago, the sexy star of the moment; and Marlborough, a dark horse coming on strong. Canterbury and Nelson are next in line.

A late start (most Pinot Noir vineyards have yet to celebrate their first decade) has actually been advantageous as New Zealanders have learned from the mistakes of others. To make up for lost time, many winemakers work the harvest in Oregon, France or California and soak up all the information and theory they can while they gain practical experience.

The recent vintages of 2002 and 2003 are so different as to provide a sturdy stepping stone for getting a fix on New Zealand’s regions, sub-regions, and the leading players within each. A ripe vintage, the 2002 yielded full-blown, big, velvety Pinots, especially from Central Otago. Suffering through a cool spring, 2003 was pegged as a relatively cool, difficult vintage that was tossed aside early on as a lightweight. But it was also a good test of winemaking skills and the 2003 Pinots indicate that the learning curve is extremely steep.

Martinborough: the veteran

On the North Island’s southeastern corner, Martinborough has been growing Pinot Noir since the mid-1970s and was the first region to earn international respect. In the late 1980s Martinborough Vineyard led the real charge, and today its former winemaker, Larry McKenna, has started his own winery, Escarpment. Today, Martinborough is alive with a mix of veteran names all on the Pinot trail, such as Ata Rangi, Dry River and Murdock James, and other Pinot fanatics like Te Hera, Palliser Estate and Vynfields.

Roger Fraser of Murdock James believes that what most distinguishes Martinborough is a combination of free-draining gravels on the valley floors and loam over calciferous subsoils on the slopes: put that together with a cool climate where days over 26?C are unusual, and a long warm, dry autumn, and ‘the ingredients are all there’.

Steve Smith, who established Craggy Range’s headquarters in Hawke’s Bay, decided to develop Pinot along the Martinborough Terraces because its ‘unique rocks, the free-draining soils and the clay particles of these soils play a significant part in the character of the wines of Martinborough’.

Matua Valley farms Pinot in Martinborough’s Wairarapa region and also in Marlborough. Simon Beck explains the differences between the two: ‘In Wairarapa, the climate is more exposed to cooler southerly winds, but has a longer, warmer summer ripening season than Marlborough. Wairarapa fruit develops a richness along with a classic earthy/mushroomy aroma and a fuller texture, with hints of rich cherries and spice.’

Fraser cites another reason for Martinborough’s distinct Pinots: ‘The fact that we started from scratch 25 years ago meant we had the luxury to experiment with different clones, many on their own roots, and this gives wines of great complexity.’

Central Otago: the charmer

Set deep in South Island, Central Otago knocks you dead with its beauty. A year-round destination, it is the hub for dozens of small wineries run by enthusiastic young winemakers. While it is easy to fall in love with the setting, the Pinot Noirs made here are some of New Zealand’s showiest, most voluptuous.

Central Otago is the world’s most southerly wine region, and is the only NZ region with a semi-continental climate. ‘Ours is a cool climate,’ notes Felton Road’s Blair Walter. ‘Before harvest we can get diurnal temperature shifts of up to 20–25?C, [daytime temperatures reach the high 20s and low 30s] with cool nights down to well below 10?C. It is not uncommon to be getting light ground frosts four to six weeks before harvest.’

Within Central Otago, there are two sub-regions, Gibbston and the Cromwell Basin. The former includes vineyards near Lake Hayes and contains 20% of Otago’s vineyards. Another 70% is planted in Cromwell, which includes Bannockburn, Felton, Lowburn and Bendigo. An hour’s drive away, the Cromwell Basin is drier and warmer. Cromwell ripens Pinot Noir 10–14 days earlier, according to John Wallace of Chard Farm who works with Pinot Noir from both locations.

Matt Dicey of Mt Difficulty says: ‘The defining feature of Central Otago Pinots is their fruit focus – we seem as a region to be able to get very pure expressions of “Pinot Noir fruit” without it being an excessive wine. The wines have an elegance which is very attractive.’

As the southernmost region, Otago’s vineyards may be influenced by the hole in the ozone layer that contributes UV intensity. ‘Even though we are a cool climate, we harvest with high sugars to achieve ripe fruit flavours and tannins – we have never seen the need to chaptalise,’ adds Walter. ‘Even in our colder years, we still see high sugars and excellent flavour ripeness.’

Although there are variations from site to site, Central Otago Pinot Noir has the capacity to be ultra-ripe yet retain its fundamentally pure Pinot character. Walter calls it simply, ‘Pinosity’.

Marlborough: the long haul

Nothing quite compares to what has been happening with Pinot Noir in Marlborough. In 1996, when most Pinot was planted in the plains for sparkling wine, Montana experimented with the variety here and made 600 cases.

By 2005, it had developed 400ha in several select sites and was offering 140,000 cases in 10 separate bottlings, including two remarkable single-vineyard Pinot Noirs, T (or Terraces Estate) and Tripebank, from Awatere Valley.

As winemakers analysed what contributed to the uniqueness of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, they kept coming back to the region’s unusually long growing season. After comparing growing seasons in major wine regions, Brian Bicknell of Seresin Estate concluded that when you zero in on places where the temperature is at least 10?C – the magic number when vines are active – Marlborough starts earlier and continues much later into the season than, say, Beaune or Dijon.

Throughout Marlborough, Pinot Noir has been located in regions once deemed too marginal or too expensive to farm. But last year, an irrigation scheme made an additional 5,000ha of potential vineyard sites available, ensuring the continued migration away from the plains and to the hillsides. Most of the new vineyards are plotted by GPS and are being densely planted. Such is the diligence with which winemakers are now plotting the Kiwi Pinot trail.

Norm’s top Pinots

 Felton Road, Block 5, Central Otago 2003 

Wonderful fruit with thyme; cherries, herbs, truffles, velvety texture, lovely rich finish. £36.25 (2004); BBR, CPW, CWi, Rae

 Mt Difficulty, Target Gully, Pinot Noir 2003 

Concentrated, ripe but supple; anise, thyme, voluptuous. £20; Bed, HvN, NZH, Swg

 Akarua, Central Otago 2003 

Forest floor and plums, rich flavours of cherry and herbs, long. £17.92; Loe

 Escarpment, Martinborough 2003 

Red cherries, earthy-gamey, rich, ripe fruit, light tannins, an ager. £14.95 (2002); L&W

 Murdoch James Estate, Blue Rock, Martinborough 2003 

Cherry, oak spice nose, medium bodied, mouthfilling, long finish. £14.99; Drj

 Seresin Estate, Marlborough 2003 

Bright red cherry fruit, soft, delicate, feminine style; light toasty oak. N/A; +64 3 572 9408

 Spy Valley, Marlborough 2003 

Expansive blackberry aroma, spicy and velvety, delicious. £10.16 (2004); Bib

 Valli Estate, Gibbston Vineyard, Central Otago 2003 

Ripe cherries, earthy, rich, chalky, powerful. £19.50 (2001); Rae

 Villa Maria, Taylor Pass Vineyards, Marlborough 2003 

Plum, ripe cherries, rich, satiny, deep black fruits; light oak. £19.99; HaM

 Wither Hills, Marlborough 2002 

Red cherry, dark plum, allspice, earthy, berry, concentrated. £12.76; NZH

norm’s best value pinots

 Brancott Terraces Vineyard T, Marlborough 2002 

Juicy black fruit, spicy, black cherry flavours, velvety and persistent. N/A UK; ADo

 Carricks, Unravelled, Central Otago 2003 

Engaging aroma of cherries and berries with balanced light oak. N/A UK; +64 3 445 3480

 Cloudy Bay, Marlborough 2003 

Ripe cherry fruit, some depth, earthy, balanced. £15.99 (2004); Maj, Sel

 Hunter’s Wines, Marlborough 2003 

Pretty plum-cherry fruit with light oak; rich, balanced. £9.70–10.45 (2004); Jer, Lay, NZD

 Matua Valley Vineyards, Wairarapa 2003 

Spiced Cherries, gamey, earthy notes; long. £7.99–11.99; BWE, CCl, Hmm

 The Crossings, Awatere Valley 2003 

Plum fruit with forest-earthy notes, ripe cherry flavor, long. N/A UK; HBJ

 Villa Maria Cellar Selection, Marlborough 2003 

Ripe plums, cherries, lightly smoky oak; medium–full bodied, intense.

£9.84–12; DBy, Evy, Luv, NZH, Wmb

Written by Norm Roby