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New Zealand Pinot Noir

New Zealand has proven what it can do with young Pinot Noir vines, and things can only get better, says a patient Matthew Jukes

Next February, I will fly down to Wellington in New Zealand to attend Pinot Noir 2010, one of the most exciting celebrations of the most noble grape variety on the planet. More than 500 NZ Pinots will be on show from 100 wineries; my challenge will be to taste them all and release my annual classification of these estates. This is not the pressure job that it might seem – the wines are, on the whole, delicious and quality improves every year. But with only three at the top of my five-tier classification (Ata Rangi, Felton Road and Mt Difficulty) and five in the next rung down (Dry River, Peregrine, Bell Hill, Escarpment and Pyramid Valley), the questions are: who will get elevated, who may get demoted, and what else…

I felt driven to start this initiative because of the passion and unity of this Pinot-fanatic country, whose top winemakers understand every facet of their vineyards and wines. The world already knows New Zealand makes good Pinot Noir, but the question it is now posing is: ‘How far can it go?’. I talked to a dozen of the country’s finest proponents of this grape and they all agreed on the answer: ‘All the way’. But it is when and to what level that intrigues me.

Mike Weersing at Pyramid Valley says, ‘I believe New Zealand Pinot has emerged as a distinct animal, different from other Pinot styles: less densely tannic than Burgundy, with brighter fruit than Oregon, and more vibrancy and energy than is typical of California. For me, the greatest challenge is overcoming a sensibility that prizes, and too often prioritises, overt varietal character. Pinot’s raison d’être is its transparency; it is most profound when saying little or nothing about itself.’

There is a resonance to this mantra and it brings up a subject that was echoed by each of the pioneering winemakers I spoke with. It is not the grape, per se, which holds the key to the potential of the wine, but the vineyards themselves and their energies which the grapes bring to the finished wine. Matt Dicey from Mt Difficulty nails it: ‘We are starting to discern more and more individuality from our vineyards. This process will be the biggest focus in the future.’

Vine age is the key. Steve Smith MW at Craggy Range points out that ‘Greatness will come to all of these regions when the best sites have mature vines’ (see box, p61). And indeed some of the best sites are already seeing these results. ‘These wines show more texture, complexity and ageworthiness than ever before,’ says Smith. ‘What we need is perseverance, patience and a strong desire to think to the next generation, because they will inherit something really great.’

Mike Eaton at TerraVin reminds us that, for many producers, Pinot Noir is a very new skill. ‘Given the average vine age of four or six years in Central Otago and Marlborough, you can expect to see some huge leaps in complexity for those producers who choose to allow their wines to express it.’ Matt Donaldson at Pegasus Bay agrees: ‘The more vintages that you work in the same vineyard, the more feel you get for it and the more you can fine-tune things specific to that site.’

It is this sense that New Zealand Pinot Noir is within touching distance of making profound wines that captures our attention and imagination. Nigel Greening at Felton Road has vineyards that are already up to racing speed. ‘We have concentration, but we need more precision. New Zealand is sometimes limited by its competence. You’ll see far fewer bad wines than in Burgundy, because people know how not to make mistakes. But how many will dare to step outside the safe box to pursue an individual expression? We need a few more nutters.’

Producers face a tough choice between making safe, commercial, accessible wines and more individual, complex creations. But John Forrest of Forrest Wines sees a clear path. ‘I see New Zealand doing with Pinot what Australia did 20 years ago with Shiraz – making it accessible to the average drinker and perhaps becoming their red wine of choice.’ The idea being that consumer interest in more affordable wines will then drive them to the finer wines. After all, how many delicious Pinots are there in the world under a tenner? Australia’s troubles in achieving success with a similar formula show how hard this can be, though. Second labels are key and selection is fundamental to preserving the integrity and excellence of the estate wine.

Larry McKenna at Escarpment argues: ‘The consumer is increasingly accepting of our fresh, clean, ripe, accessible styles at the commercial end and this will drive the top end, allowing winemaking purists to explore and develop ultimate Pinot Noir expressions from this part of the world.’ But, warns Nick Mills at Rippon: ‘To push the evolution of Pinot Noir production any faster risks regressing and compromising integrity. With Pinot Noir, patience is one of the greatest virtues.’

An enormous amount of confidence goes a long way in the wine world, but when you have stunning terroir, glorious weather conditions, less obvious climate change dangers than many other countries, and an ingrained attitude to farming that goes a long way past the norm, it is possible to reach for the stars – even with Pinot. In the off season, kiwi Pinot aficionados head north to Burgundy, Oregon and California for their vinous enlightenment and then bring far more than their luggage allowance of passion back with them. If vine age is the only handbrake on this country’s winemakers moving into the top echelons of Pinot production – and I believe it is – then let them wait, work and develop a greater understanding of their soil.

One thing which may derail some of the faux Pinot start-ups is their desire for a fast return on their investment. There are already far too many of these bourgeois Pinot acolytes in Central Otago whose operations are up for sale as a consequence of the global recession. Red Sauvignon Blanc this isn’t. You can’t abuse vineyards, load yields as you (sadly) can with Sauvignon, and flash around expensive oak hoping to cover up viticultural failing with this sensitive variety.

Wine, and in particular Pinot, is a long game. The vineyards which are wrongly sited will soon be found out for the charlatans they are, and will no doubt be grafted over to Sauvignon or just fall fallow. In the meantime, the gurus will continue to put all of their hard-earned profits back into their operations, share their knowledge freely with their like-minded pals and edge ever closer to greatness. It will happen. And with a fair wind, I’ll be around when it does…

Written by Matthew Jukes

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