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A treatise on NZ Pinot Noir
- suited to the 'terroir'

by Sue Courtney
(7 August 2000)

Is Pinot Noir fussy? Is Pinot Noir fickle? Is Pinot Noir pernickety? No way, Josť.

Someone coined the phrases and every wine writer across the globe seems to have picked them up. But let's blow that myth right now.

Pinot Noir is like any other grape. All that's required is the essential ingredients - clones that suit the soil, a cool temperate climate that is not too harsh in its extremes, a viticulturist who carefully tends the vines throughout their life cycle and a winemaker whose passion is to make great pinot noir.

And the place where the first two criteria are well satisfied is the South Island of New Zealand, where it is all go, go, go with the enthusiasm and quality of the human input.

Pinot Noir is most planted red grape variety in New Zealand and the growth of the variety is rising at an exponential rate. Statistics, for the year ended June 2000, show a 30.5% increase in the production of pinot noir over the previous year alone. And this figure will continue to rise as the frenzy of planting sees new vines bearing fruit in the years ahead.

Waipara (North Canterbury) Pinot Noir is amongst the best and especially that made by Pegasus Bay winemakers Matthew Donaldson and Lynette Hudson, whom I regard as the super rock stars of Pinot winemaking. Their Pegasus Bay Prima Donna Pinot Noir 1998 is one of the most superb I've ever tasted from this country - just think of every superlative and then add more.

But there are plenty of up and coming, soon to be super stars, eager to push the Pegasus Bay off the pedestal I have put it on.

And the push is coming from Central Otago, the new dream region of New Zealand winemaking, where Pinot Noir is the preferred grape of most, if not all, accounting for 65% of the region's planting.

Pinot Noir relishes Central and quality wines are emerging from every sub region. Take the middle point as the town of Cromwell and you find them close by in Bannockburn, as well as in Wanaka to the north, Alexandra to the south and towards Queenstown to the west.

Drive along any road to these locations as well as northeast to Bendigo and you will see kilometre after kilometre of new vineyards already planted or in the making. And with it being winter in New Zealand right now, there's likely to be as many people working with the vines as there are skiing on the slopes of Queenstown's Coronet Peak.

It's not surprising then, that Central Otago is the fastest growing wine area in New Zealand and, according to a HortResearch report, land planted in grapes has increased by 400% in the past two years. But the industry in Central is tiny. Otago Wine (www.otagowine.com) in newsletter 15, May 2000, reports 71 vineyards for 23 wineries covering only 520 hectares. That means the average site is a tiny 7 hectares.

As more and more come to chase Otago gold, predictions are that plantings will increase by more than 1000 hectares in the near forseeable future.

Felton Road was the first of the Central pinots to be noted by influential wine critic Robert Parker, which means the wines are now snapped up quickly on release. These wines are good, very good but expect to pay in the region of NZ$36 - $40 for the ordinary release and NZ$47 - $50 for the premium Block 3 and the new Block 5 to be released later this year.

Felton Road is not the only producer of top quality wines. And the others usually cost under $NZ35 except for 'reserve' bottlings.

Amongst my favourites are those of Gibbston Valley winemaker, Grant Taylor, who also produces his own label, Valli, and vints for several others including the Mt Edward wines of Central pioneer, Alan Brady.

Quartz Reef is the personal label of Rudi Bauer, who took the responsibility of several labels in 1998 at the Central Otago Wine Company based in Cromwell. Dean Shaw is the winemaker at COWCo now, with Sam Neill's Two Paddocks amongst the labels entrusted to his care. Shaw made the award winning Black Ridge Pinot Noir 1998 before moving to COWCo in 1999 to replace Bauer, who moved next door to concentrate on his own wines and those of Peregrine and Hays Lake.

And now there's Mt Difficulty Pinot Noir 1999, the latest sensation from Central to pass my lips. The name, like many others in the region, is taken from a geographical feature - a 1282m peak in the Carrick Ranges just west of the Bannockburn vineyards from where the pinot was grown. Mt Difficulty plans to build their winery in Felton Road, close by the established winery of the same name.

I love the expressions of Pinot produced from Central, from the rich velvety blockbusters mentioned above to the more reasonably priced delicate cherry and truffle flavoured wines of William Hill, Springvale and Leaning Rock in the Alexandra sub-region.

As the Pinot phenomenon takes off, it is not just Central Otago where the variety is taking hold. Further north, at the top of the South Island is Marlborough, the region known best for Sauvignon Blanc. Marlborough, a long time producer of Pinot for sparkling wines, is producing more and more quality Pinot Noir still red wines. And it is the factors mentioned earlier that are making the difference as viticulturists and winemakers hone their skills.

From Marlborough I've found wines that prove that prove Pinot doesn't have to be expensive. The debut Selaks Drylands Marlborough Pinot Noir 1999 is the classic example with rich, ripe fruit producing flavours to rival the best. Stoneleigh Pinot Noir 1999 is another tasty wine where the quality to price ratio excels for the variety. Both these wines retail for under NZ$20.

And then there are the Marlborough stars - Wither Hills, Cloudy Bay, Seresin and Fromm to name a few. But these wines are not cheap, ranging from NZ$30 to NZ$50 for the current release.

So what's happening in the lower North Island area of Wairarapa and in particular Martinborough, the wine growing region that astounded the Brits with its Burgundian-like Pinot, with established names like Ata Rangi, Dry River, Martinborough Vineyards, Palliser Estate and Te Kairanga alongside newer producers such as Margrain and Voss. I can't fathom must interest in this region right now. The wine is expensive for my income, much over NZ$30 and some over NZ$40. Much of the wine is exported to willing buyers overseas and what is left is quickly purchased by mail order customers or in retail at ridiculously high prices.

There's no new names coming out of the region either. That could be because most available land on the favoured Martinborough Terrace is already planted and new vineyards are being established in a valley further east, with the first vintage expected in 2002. That's something to look forward to with interest.

With this in mind, I am not surprised that Martinborough is facing stiff competition from the southern newcomers. And why not, when wines like the cult Dry River are sold out within moments of release. For years I bought Dry River Pinot Noir 'en primeur' at a pre-release price, then last year I missed out getting an allocation. So I thought, rather than pay NZ$50-plus for the normal release, I'd try something else.

That's when I discovered Pegasus Bay and the seductive pinot noirs of the South.

And what a taste sensation this discovery has been.

Footnote: Since this article was written, the 1999 pinot noirs have been released. This was a stunning vintage across the board and the Martinborough region in particular. Check out my top 12 wines of 2000, in which the Dry River Amaranth Pinot Noir 1999 features.


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