Years before the commercial success of Sideways and Pinot Noir’s attendant surge in popularity, the New Zealand wine industry had seen its future—and that future was Pinot Noir. When I first visited New Zealand in 2000, vast new plantings of Pinot Noir were already underway, in anticipation of the day when consumer interest in Sauvignon Blanc would wane. Analysts had identified Pinot Noir as a variety that would grow well in New Zealand’s generally cool climate, that fit consumer taste profiles and for which relatively little international competition existed.
As it turns out, the Kiwi pundits were partly correct. On the one hand, export market interest in Sauvignon Blanc has yet to crest; the U.S. imported over 1 million cases of "Savvy" last year, an annual increase of 73 percent. On the other, the U.S. market for NZ Pinot Noir is growing rapidly too, up 52 percent since last year. And although the numbers in absolute terms aren’t that large (not even 100,000 cases came to the U.S. last year), small amounts of New Zealand Pinot Noir can be found in virtually every state.
What to Expect
Now that it’s here, what can consumers expect? Much as with California Pinot Noir, it’s difficult to generalize about New Zealand’s. There’s a wide range of styles, price points and substantial regional variation that can trip up unwary consumers, but the overall quality level is high. Just like any other New Zealand wines destined for international markets, the wines must undergo an export certification process overseen by the New Zealand Winegrowers, which includes a sensory evaluation. The result is that I’ve tasted only a handful of New Zealand wines that couldn’t rate at least 80 points on the Wine Enthusiast 100-point scale. Even wines that score 80-82 points (Acceptable) are uncommon, with the vast majority ranging from Good (83-86) to Very Good (87-89). If there is any criticism on the quality front, it’s that so few wines rate Excellent (90-93) or higher, but expect that to change in the near future.
Visiting New Zealand’s Pinot Producers
Air New Zealand now offers nonstop service from LAX and SFO to Christchurch as well as Auckland, so travelers can start at either the north or south end of this picturesque island nation. If you can swing it, try to make the 14-hour flight in business class, which features new seats that recline fully, and a fine selection of New Zealand wines.
Although you’ll want to drive to get around most regions, the fastest and easiest way to get around Central Otago is by helicopter—the mode of transportation also favored by the region’s skiers and fly-fishers. Louisa "Choppy" Patterson’s Over the Top helicopters is just one of several outfits flying out of Queenstown that can organize half-day or day-long excursions to various wineries—just expect to be publicly weighed so the pilot can properly calculate fuel requirements.
Most wineries have "Cellar Doors," where you can taste the current releases, and many of them house restaurants as well. It’s best to call in advance, as hours vary seasonally.
Selected Cellar Door Dining
Keep in mind that New Zealand is a relative newcomer to the production of fine wine, so vintners there have had only a short time to experiment with different viticultural and winemaking techniques. With reference to Pinot Noir, this timeframe is even more compressed; the first Pinot plantings around Auckland (a relatively humid region not considered great Pinot country took place only 30 years ago.
Few wineries pursued Pinot back in those days, but one that did was Tim and Judy Finn’s Neudorf Vineyards, near Nelson on the South Island. "We were part of the ’60s group," says Tim, "the idea that going back to the land was a good thing," but they didn’t start their small vineyard in the Moutere Hills until 1978. Other early Pinot proponents included Neil McCallum at Dry River (1979) and Clive Paton at Ata Rangi (1980) in Martinborough, Rolfe and Lois Mills at Rippon (1981) and Alan Brady at Gibbston Valley (1981) in Central Otago.
New Zealand’s biggest wine company, Montana (known as Brancott in the U.S. and now part of Pernod Ricard), focused its early Pinot efforts on sparkling wines. Using fruit from Marlborough and Gisborne, it launched Lindauer Brut (a 50-50 blend of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay) in 1980, but the first release of its Terraces Estate Pinot wasn’t until 2002.
A major constraint on the quality of New Zealand’s Pinots —especially during the early days—was a lack of appropriate plant material. During the 1980s, the primary clones available to Pinot Noir growers were AM 10/5, AM 2/10 and UCD 5 (a k a Pommard). Under New Zealand’s draconian quarantine regulations, other clones have only slowly become available; the acclaimed Dijon clones (113, 114, 115, 667, 777) were only released from quarantine in the 1990s. Finally, New Zealand’s own suitcase clone—named Abel, after the customs agent who confiscated it, and allegedly originating from Burgundy’s Domaine de la Romanée-Conti —is becoming an important component of some vineyards.
When tasting samples made from individual clones it’s easy to see the differences between them, but most winemakers choose to blend to achieve greater balance and complexity. Quantity and consistency are other good reasons for blending. Many of the newer clones aren’t yet producing in large enough quantities to warrant bottling as individual wines, nor do winemakers want to give up using fruit from their oldest vines, even if they favor the flavors obtained from the new clones.
Still, the very best Pinot Noirs I tasted during a recent trip to New Zealand were single-vineyard, single-clone wines. Neudorf’s 2003 Moutere Home Vineyard is made from 20- to 25-year-old Pommard-clone plantings, the 2003 Kupe by Escarpment is all Abel clone planted on its own roots, and Craggy Range’s 2003 homage to deceased winemaker Doug Wisor is almost entirely (95 percent) clone 115.
From these examples (and the reviews of top wines on page 32), it’s clear that no single clone or region of New Zealand has a lock on producing the country’s best Pinot Noirs, but some regional differences are emerging.
The broader region is known as Wairarapa, which appears on bottles that include fruit from outside Martinborough proper, although a precise definition of Martinborough’s extent is still being debated. This is the only important Pinot-growing region on New Zealand’s North Island, and where many of the oldest plantings may be found. Only about an hour’s drive from Wellington, proximity to the country’s capital was one of the reasons for its early success.
Summer weather is typically warm and dry with cool evenings, promoting ripe, plummy flavors balanced by crisp acidity, but the climate can be more challenging at the beginning and end of the season. "In 2004," says Gary Voss of Voss Estate, "we had half our average annual rainfall in the month leading up to harvest." Although several of the ’04s I tasted during my recent trip showed promise, consumers should look instead to wines from 2003, which, conveniently, is the current vintage in the States for most wineries. In 2003, spring frosts, followed by cool, wet weather at flowering naturally curtailed yields, leading to some impressively concentrated wines.
Pioneering wineries, such as Ata Rangi, Dry River and Martinborough Vineyards, continue to make excellent wines, but they have been challenged in recent years by ambitious newcomers. Terry Peabody, an Australian businessman, joined forces with Master of Wine Steve Smith in 1998 to launch Craggy Range; its Te Muna Road Vineyard produced its first wine in 2002. Densely planted with Dijon clones, this is a property with great potential. Right next door is The Escarpment Vineyard, a partnership between another Australian, Robert Kirby, and acclaimed winemaker Larry McKenna, who worked at Martinborough Vineyards for 15 years before leaving in 1999.
These are relatively large and well-financed ventures that will substantially increase the total output of the region once the vines mature, but for the most part, Martinborough is a region dominated by boutique wineries. The best sites for grape growing are limited, with little opportunity for economies of scale. Palliser Estate, the largest Martinborough winery, owns only around 200 acres, divided among Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir, Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc. No other wineries produce more than 25,000 cases, and most produce considerably less. Limited production and worldwide demand make for generally high prices, ranging from $20 up to $60.
As in Martinborough, this small wine-growing region at the north tip of the South Island boasts a wealth of tiny wineries. Even the largest wineries in the region, Seifried and Waimea Estates, are still family owned. Seifried was the first in the region, established by Austrian-born Hermann Seifried in the hills of the Upper Moutere in 1974. That site—and its original Riesling plantings—is now home to Kahurangi Estate, while the Seifrieds have moved the bulk of their operation down onto the flats of the Waimea Plain.
The Waimea Plain boasts growing conditions similar to those found in Marlborough, only a short car ride to the southeast. The silt and gravel soils are free draining and require irrigation; the annual number of sunshine hours is often the highest in New Zealand, rivaled only by Marlborough. Pinots off the Plain echo the characteristics of Marlborough wines, with bright aromatics and fresh, fruity flavors. Wines from the clay soils of the Moutere Hills are another animal, with dark, plummy, complex flavors and impressive weight and structure.
Neudorf is the region’s undisputed quality leader, producing exemplary Riesling and Chardonnay in addition to chart-topping Pinot Noir.
Marlborough is the commercial center of the New Zealand wine industry—and better known for its Sauvignon Blanc—but it also grows almost half of all the Pinot Noir in New Zealand. It is the home of broad, flat vineyard expanses, relatively large companies and Pinot Noirs that often deliver excellent value rather than mind-bending quality.
Part of this is a matter of choice. Pinot Noir grown on the flat, alluvial expanses of the Wairau Valley offers perfumed aromas, bright, fruit-driven flavors and supple tannins. These vineyards deliver what many consumers want, at prices that many consumers can afford. Yields up to 4.5 tons per acre, mechanical harvesting and winery economies of scale make the $15 Pinot Noir possible, while maintaining a good level of quality (e.g., Kim Crawford, Brancott, Drylands). Whether prices this low are sustainable remains to be seen; despite higher per bottle prices for Pinot Noir, demand for Sauvignon Blanc is so fierce that growers can make more by planting it instead and cropping it at twice the yields that Pinot can handle.
Consumers who step up to the $20 level or beyond will find Marlborough Pinots that offer additional layers of flavor and complexity thanks to lower yields, more manual labor, indigenous ferments and more French oak, among other things. As more vineyards are planted on the north-facing slopes of the southern side valleys, soils richer in clay, expect to see more texture and weight in the wines. Some examples of wines derived from hillside plantings include Brancott’s Terraces Estate, Fromm’s Clayvin Vineyard and Mike and Jo Eaton’s TerraVin, but for the moment, most Marlborough Pinots are blends of lighter, more aromatic wines from the plains with smaller portions of richer wines off clay sites.
Just over the Wither Hills, but still considered part of Marlborough, lies the Awatere Valley, an increasingly important fruit source. The Crossings and Vavasour are the main Pinot producers in the valley, but Villa Maria, Kim Crawford and Tohu all have major plantings in the Awatere.
Marlborough vintages are among the least variable in New Zealand, but weather still plays an important role in shaping each year’s harvest. Poor weather at flowering led to a small, concentrated crop in 2003, while yields in 2004 were substantially higher at estates that didn’t aggressively crop thin. Barrel samples of 2005 Pinots show great concentration.
The media darling of New Zealand’s Pinot-growing regions is this remote section of the South Island. The scenery is dramatic, and it is the world’s southernmost wine region, reaching as far as latitude 45Â° south. But to call it a single region is misleading. In its rugged, mountainous terrain, only several small pockets are ideally suited to viticulture.
"Central," as its known among the locals, differs from New Zealand’s other wine regions in that it has a more continental climate, with hot summer days and cool nights. Frosts—both early in the season, and late—are an annual concern, with helicopters on call to help with frost fighting. In 2004, many wineries were caught with fruit still hanging when the autumn frosts hit. As Mt. Difficulty winemaker Matt Dicey told me, "It  was a really nice vintage for the whites." In contrast, 2002 yielded powerful, concentrated wines that should age well, with 2003 Pinots being more classic and balanced.
The coolest subregion is the Gibbston Valley near Queenstown, where in some vintages Pinot can struggle to ripen. Yet the best wines from this area, in the best vintages, boast silky textures and complex aromatics. Bannockburn, just through the Kawarau Gorge (famous for bungee-jumping), is substantially warmer. Olssen’s, Felton Road and Mt. Difficulty cluster together along one stretch of road, while Akarua and Carrick lie a little further east. Bannockburn may be the most consistent of the Otago subregions, though one wonders whether that is because of climate or the quality of the viticulture and winemaking.
Alexandra, to the south, has some wider spaces that would be suitable for viticulture if they weren’t so frost-prone. William Hill, marketed as Shaky Bridge in the U.S., was one of the earliest wineries here; founder William Hill Grant planted his first vines in 1973, relying on overhead sprinklers for frost protection. Wanaka, to the north, has very little acreage; Rippon is one of only two wineries in the area.
The hottest (literally and figuratively) subregion of Central Otago is the area around Bendigo at the north end of Lake Dunstan. Windier and more frost-prone than the vineyards at the southern end of the lake near Bannockburn, the warm summer temperatures and quartz-laden soils result in creamy-textured tannins and crisp cherry flavors, epitomized in Rudi Bauer’s Quartz Reef wines.
With its relatively small vineyards and wildly variable vintages, making Pinot Noir in Central Otago’s mountains is not for the fainthearted—nor for the large multinationals. But life on the edge comes with a price. Few Central Pinots sell for as little as $20, with many more in the $40-60 range.
The one—some would say crucial—element common to Burgundy that all of these New Zealand regions lack is limestone. Not so in Waipara, where a limestone ridge forms the backbone of the Omihi Hills. Only six miles or so from the coast, Waipara is protected from cold southerlies by these hills, and relatively open to the north, allowing for plenty of sun exposure.
This is a relatively young viticultural region, with stalwarts Daniel Schuster and Pegasus Bay only dating back to the mid 1980s. Still, early successes have spawned a number of other small wineries, and now the big companies have moved in. Montana (Brancott) has planted 200 acres to Pinot Noir, and barrel samples of Senior Winemaker Patrick Materman’s 2004 show promise, from only the vineyard’s second harvest. For the most part, Waipara Pinots show excellent structure and aging potential to go along with bright fruit flavors. Sounds like the best of both worlds.