On September 20th I had the good fortune to get together with a few smart New Zealanders to chat about their country’s Pinot Noirs – and taste a few along the way. Not just casually; it was our small contribution to the 2009 StarChefs.com International Chefs Congress. With me were Simon Buck of RO Imports, vintner George Geris from Villa Maria Estates, and Fraser McKenzie of Pernod Ricard USA. Given that the focus of StarChefs.com is all things culinary, it was particularly exciting—and appropriate—to limit the talk to Pinot Noir, a brilliant wine with food when it’s done well—and the Kiwis are clearly on the right track there. Here are some of the main points we touched on while sampling a few of these top-notch wines.
Pinot Noir has become the signature red variety of New Zealand. Plantings were up 850% from 1996 to 2008, and it’s now the country’s second most-planted grape, after Chardonnay. Like the country’s best known white wine, Sauvignon Blanc, it has a characteristic style: more fruit-forward than many Burgundies, but not as full, lush, or high in alcohol as many Californian or Oregonian takes on the grape.
But there’s more to it than that. Kiwi Sauvignon Blanc is all about the Marlborough region, perched at the north end of the country’s south island; sure, other areas grow it, but their wines are variations on Marlborough’s theme. Pinot Noir, however, has several homes in the country, with none dominating and each distinct in its way.
Historically, the Wairarapa region is ground zero for Pinot Noir in New Zealand; it’s also the one Pinot Noir region on the north island. Its cool temperatures and low rainfall, especially in autumn, when rain is most dangerous to wine quality, drew many early pioneers like Larry McKenna and Neal McCallum to plant Pinot Noir here in the 1980s. The focus is on the town of Martinborough and the Martinborough Escarpment, which offers fantastic drainage for the vineyards.
Martinborough is a relatively small area, and these wines are not too prominent in the US market. However, in some ways they have a cachet that other regions are still trying to develop. On the whole, they represent a more Burgundian and powerful style of Pinot, with a balance of dark fruit and meaty tones and significant aging potential.
Wairarapa and Martinborough lie but a hop, skip, and a jump away from Marlborough, New Zealand’s largest wine growing region—a jump over the Cook Strait and Wellington, the nation’s capital, to the south island. Marlborough’s Sauvignon Blancs have a big place in the US market, and many of those same producers are producing Pinot Noir as their red wine of choice. Marlborough Pinots tend to a softer, more red fruit character; their gentle texture and generosity of fruit will seem familiar to fans of California Pinot, but they’re typically lighter in alcohol and body. Many of the area’s plantings are relatively new, so some experts expect that future vintages will become more focused and firm, with greater depth, as the vines mature.
New Zealand has one wine region with a continental, rather than maritime, climate: Central Otago. The world’s most southerly wine region, its summers are warm and sunny, if sometimes short (an early frost is a more likely danger at harvest than rain). Pinot Noir is the area’s flagship grape, often showing good fruit and structure, in some ways splitting the difference between Martinborough’s density and Marlborough’s fruity style; black cherry and wild herb notes are common. While a relatively young industry, certain sub-regions are beginning to demonstrate their own character within the broader Central Otago area; Gibbston Valley, for example, is yielding some intense wines from its cool but north-facing (and therefore sunny) slopes, and Bannockburn has become home to many of the area’s biggest names. In the north, the Waitiki Valley has become a hot ticket because of its limestone soils and their resemblance to those of Burgundy (the elegance and spice of the wines so far suggest the similarities may carry through as the vines mature).
Other hotspots for Pinot Noir include Nelson, Canterbury, and Waipara, the latter being the other region, after Otago’s Waitiki Valley, with those much coveted limestone soils. Look for more from these regions in the American market over the next few years. Beverage directors everywhere will be keeping their eyes open; few New World wines can claim such a food friendly character. Moderate alcohol, a backbone of acidity, and a smooth texture make these wines eminently suitable to all sorts of menus. And despite those common characteristics, they haven’t lost Pinot Noir’s ability to reflect its growing conditions and offer a deep variety of aromas and flavors.