Great red hope: Pinot Noir

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Drinks: Wines
Location: Australia, New Zealand

Pinot is New Zealand’s undoubted star red grape, with a variety of styles and prices to suit every venue. Matt Walls makes the long trip south to check out regional differences and see who should be on our radar


If red Burgundy were a car, it would probably be a handsome vintage Jaguar. New Zealand Pinot, by contrast, would be a souped-up VW Golf: desirable yet affordable, built to perform – and it moves fast. Considering the quality of some wines, it’s hard to believe that the first commercial vintage of Pinot Noir in New Zealand was as recent as 1987.

Adam Willis at the Michelin-starred Bath Priory describes himself as a big fan of New Zealand Pinot Noir. After spending some time there, he returned to find that ‘an understanding of these styles hasn’t fully made its way to the UK yet’ – an impression shared by both Jess Kildetoft MS of London’s MASH and the Providores’ wine buyer, Mel Brown.

But for professionals, understanding the distinct characteristics of each main region is invaluable when choosing the right wines to suit your cuisine and your customers’ budget. After all, no other country outside France has the stylistic diversity of Pinot Noir across such a range of prices.

Which is why, as it becomes increasingly difficult to find serviceable Bourgogne Rouge for less than £15 ex-VAT, it’s worth keeping up-to-date on developments in Kiwi country to see which styles best suit your venue and who are the producers that need to be on your radar.

After all, many of these wines are coming from young vines, and as they mature, they will only improve.

Marlborough
‘We’re planting in smaller blocks and with better clones…’

With 2,590 hectares (ha), Marlborough has by far the most Pinot Noir of any region in New Zealand. Some would say too much. Following the explosion in popularity of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir was planted with abandon – and not always in the right places.

As a result, Marlborough acquired a reputation for making light and simple Pinots – but does this still hold?

‘It’s a valid statement on Marlborough of old,’ says Kurt Simcic, viticulturist at Giesen, ‘but we’re moving away from those sites. We’re planting smaller blocks with better clones. You’ll see a change.’

Producers such as Seresin, Fromm and Giesen are looking to the Southern Valleys rather than the plains that are Sauvignon’s heartland. Instead of alluvial deposits, the soils here are rich in clay which gives deeper fruit and firmer structure.

Marlborough winemakers are pushing towards a more candid, textured style, too, thanks to less new oak and more whole bunch. Mike Paterson, former winemaker at Jackson Estate, started micro-negociant label Corofin in 2012 and makes three single vineyard wines from the Southern Valleys. He uses 20% whole bunch and no new oak, and the results embody Marlborough’s new wave. Instead of ‘light and simple’, think ‘pure and fine’. Things are changing here, and changing fast.

Established names: Estates such as Dog Point (Fields, Morris & Verdin), Greywacke (Liberty Wines), Seresin (Louis Latour Agencies).

Under the radar: Clos Marguerite (Clark Foyster Wines), Corofin (Flint Wines).

Central Otago
‘Sweet fruit will be a thing of the past…’

By comparison, Central Otago only has 1,500ha of Pinot Noir but it has an enviable reputation for its wines. Certainly, they’re hard to ignore: high sunshine, low rainfall and hot summers make for powerful Pinots.

Kildetoft says, ‘We had a Central Otago Pinot by the glass over Christmas and it was spot-on with the steaks. The guests really loved it… I would generally recommend the bigger, more tannic styles from Otago or Nelson with meat and the simpler more feminine styles from Marlborough with poultry and fish.’

This boldness of style can lend itself to strongly flavoured dishes, but for all its vivid fruit it can sometimes lack the subtlety and savouriness that makes Pinot Noir such a food-friendly variety. Blair Walter, winemaker at Felton Road, explains that there’s a growing trend towards ‘toning things down’ in Central Otago.

‘That kick of sweet fruit in the wine will be a thing of the past as vines age,’ he says. ‘We’re starting to see wines with a lot more texture and subtlety; with more of a sense of place.’

There is considerable stylistic diversity in the wines from Central Otago, sometimes derived from winemaking, sometimes from sub-regional terroir, but overall the trend is away from oak and extraction towards a more hands-off approach. As vineyards reach maturity the differences between sub-regions of Central Otago is becoming clearer and the wines are increasing in sophistication.

Established names: Estates such as Felton Road (Cornish Point Wines), Two Paddocks (Negociants UK), Rippon (Lea & Sandeman).

Under the radar: Akitu (New Zealand Wine Cellar), Surveyor Thompson
(Berry Bros & Rudd).

Martinborough
‘Not cheap, but the quality can be exceptional…’

Compared to Marlborough and Central Otago, Martinborough is relatively steady – it has the feel of a region that knows where its considerable strengths lie. The collection of small, mostly family-owned producers that inhabit the tiny town that gives the wine region its name make highly-regarded, structured Pinots that work particularly well with food.

They’re not cheap – you’ll struggle to get one on a wine list for less than £50 – but quality can be exceptional, and they can still rival or beat Burgundy at the same price. That said, if it’s cheapness rather than pedigree you’re after, The Providores’ Brown suggests targeting Marlborough.

Most New Zealand Pinots are not built for longevity. This has the benefit that they tend to be approachable on release. But Martinborough wines are an exception: they are good when they first come out, but can age beautifully as well.

For Roger Jones at The Harrow at Little Bedwyn, ‘succulent Welsh lamb with an aged Martinborough Pinot’ is a classically great match.

Established names: Ata Rangi (Liberty Wines), Kusuda (Fields, Morris & Verdin), Martinborough Vineyard (Negociants UK).

Under the radar: Julicher (Berkmann Wine Cellars), Schubert (Berry Bros & Rudd).

North Canterbury
‘Less stylistic consistency when it comes to Pinot Noir…’

In comparison with Central Otago, Marlborough and Martinborough, North Canterbury has less stylistic consistency. Shaun and Marcel Giesen came here specifically for the limestone, and in 1997 established Bell Hill winery. They now produce some of the best, and most expensive, Pinot Noirs in New Zealand.

Biodynamic producer Pyramid Valley Vineyards is more ‘natural’ in style but also demonstrates the potential of North Canterbury. After working with some of Europe’s best winemakers (Vincent Dauvissat, Jean-Michel Deiss, Ernst Loosen…) Mike and Claudia Elze Weersing settled in the Pyramid Valley, near Waikari in North Canterbury, in 2000. Mike attributes the quality of their wines to the diverse soil types and to the vineyards being at ‘the cultivable limit’ of Pinot Noir production.

North Canterbury is a close-knit community of small growers, which Penelope Nash, owner of Black Estate, calls ‘a wine geek’s region, we’re free to do what we like, we’re a bit more experimental’. It might be less well-known that its neighbours, but it’s home to some innovative
Pinot producers.

Established Names: Pegasus Bay (New Generation McKinley), Bell Hill (H2Vin, Armit Wines), Pyramid Valley (Les Caves de Pyrene).

Under the radar: Black Estate (Indigo Wine), Waipara West (Waterloo Wines)

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With a core team that includes Chris Losh, Julie Sheppard, Laura Foster, Holly Motion and Isabella Sullivan, plus an impressive roster of columnist bartenders, sommeliers and specialist journalists, Imbibe collectively boasts hundreds of years of on-trade drinks industry experience and knowledge.

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