By Rose Murray Brown MW Published in The Scotsman 26 February 2022
It is incredible to think that the first commercial bottlings of New Zealand Pinot Noir were as recent as 1987.
Pinot Noir was in fact first planted on North Island’s east coast at Mission Vineyards in Hawkes Bay and in South Island’s Central Otago over a hundred years before this in 1860’s and 1870s - but it was not until the 1980s when the modern Kiwi wine industry was gathering pace that the first commercial Kiwi Pinot successes appeared, as growers became more confident in getting to grips with this tricky Burgundian grape.
Today Kiwi Pinot Noir is a growing force of quality. Now New Zealand’s most planted red grape with 5,642 hectares, but still dwarfed by Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir is becoming widespread across the southern regions. Here it benefits from the cool climate and diurnal temperatures, creating a unique succulent zesty wine style which is on everyone’s wine list despite the small quantities available.
What is particularly fascinating about Kiwi Pinot Noir is the diversity of styles emerging from Wairarapa, Hawkes Bay, Marlborough, Nelson, Canterbury and down to Central Otago. Although New Zealand soils are geologically young, they are extremely varied which is being reflected in the wines.
“Pinot Noir responds specifically to the environment it is in”, explained New Zealand wine expert Cameron Douglas MS, who led us through a selection of Kiwi Pinots to celebrate New Zealand Wine Week demonstrating how soil and climate has created the variety of styles.
Growers here never struggle to get ripeness and colour in their Pinots, but it is still a work in progress as growers learn which soils and microclimates work best. Mistakes have been made in Marlborough, for example, with too many plantings on flat lands, but now winemakers realise clay-based soils at higher elevation work best here (see above Dog Point vineyards in Marlborough) – although vines are still young.
According to Douglas the best Kiwi Pinot vintages to hunt for are 2013, 2014, 2018, 2019 and 2021. “Most are drunk in their youth, but New Zealand Pinots can age - give them five years, they will reward you”, he says.
Kiwi Pinots are so opulent with bright fruits, benefitting from the new trend moving away from the use of new oak. “Ten years ago it was common to have 30% new oak in New Zealand Pinot – now it is usually below 15%”, commented Douglas. This move away from new oak (and small oak barrels) is common across the wine world – as drinkers demand more elegant brighter fruit styles which are not swamped in oak.
With small quantities and high demand, prices of Kiwi Pinots are never cheap. Inexpensive supermarket own label examples are available under £10, but they show little varietal character. If you want to experience the distinction between the regional styles from earthy savoury Martinborough, herby Nelson, sweet-candied Marlborough to plummy cassis-fruited Central Otago, you need to spend over £20 to see the regional diversity and quality.
NEW ZEALAND PINOT NOIR TASTE TEST:
Hawkes Bay: TE MATA ALMA PINOT NOIR 2020 (13.5%)
£44 Specialist Cellars; Ministry of Drinks
Only the second vintage of Alma - it shows Hawkes Bay’s signature pure fruit. Elegant Pinot from vines grown on sandy loam over marine gravel. Loved its rich dark cherry and raspberry fruit, soft silky tannins and touch of minerality. The only one in our tasting under cork, the rest were screwcapped.
Martinborough: ESCARPMENT KUPE SINGLE VINEYARD PINOT NOIR 2019 (13.5%)
£39 NZ House of Wine; Waitrose
From 20+ year old vines in Pinot pioneer Larry McKenna’s high-density plantings. Smoky nose, red cherry fruits, earthy dusty notes with velvety silky tannins and hints of cinnamon & spice. Unusually 50% new oak used, but the older vines seem to handle this and oak not too obvious.
Nelson: NEUDORF TOM’S BLOCK PINOT NOIR 2019 (13.5%) ***STAR BUY***
£25 Waitrose Cellar; Field & Fawcett
Lovely fragrant aromas of dark cherry, underlying savoury spice with super fine tannins, intense minerality, so characterful and intense for the price – made by Judy & Tim Finn in Nelson’s Moutere valley. Sensible restrained oak – just 15% new oak used.
Marlborough: NAUTILUS SOUTHERN VALLEYS PINOT NOIR 2017 (13.5%)
£24.99 NZ House of Wine
More maturity here from cool 2017 vintage Pinot showing fragrant plummy herby aromas, soft mouthfeel, sweet fruits, finishing with big structured tannins – powerful spicy wine ageing well.
North Canterbury: PEGASUS BAY PINOT NOIR 2019 (13%)
£33 NZ House of Wine; Oxford Wine
Lightest colour in the tasting - cherry & raspberry fruits, fine savouriness, prominent minerality finishing with sweet spicy oak – made by 40+ year old vines planted on wind blown silts.
Central Otago: VALLI BANNOCKBURN PINOT NOIR 2017 (13.5%)
£42.50-£50 Vinvm; Hic Wine; The Vinorium
Another mature beauty with briary perfumed open nose, real mountain fruit character, bay-leaf herby notes, whole bunch spiciness, smoky with gorgeous long length.
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