In a country that’s become famous for many things—rugby, bungee jumping, Sauvignon Blanc and Middle-earth’s film-fantastic scenery, among others—Pinot Noir probably isn’t top of mind. But it should be. New Zealand’s Pinot Noirs have come a long way in the 15 years since I first visited the country for Wine Enthusiast. According to trade group New Zealand Winegrowers, plantings have grown from approximately 2,695 acres in 2000 to 13,923 acres in 2014.
Today, the available clones are more varied, the existing vines have aged into maturity and site selection has improved. Viticulturists and winemakers have honed their skills. The result is a growing number of excellent wines and prices that haven’t always kept pace with the increasing quality. The 2013 vintage was excellent all across New Zealand and most likely to be on store shelves, so that’s a good place to start. Here’s a region-by-region scouting report of what to expect.
When Rolfe Mills first planted vines alongside Lake Wanaka in 1975, he was inspired by Portugal and its schist slopes, not Burgundy. Forty years later, his son, Nick, is a Burgundy fanatic, and Rippon’s biodynamic Pinot Noirs are among Central Otago’s best.
For decades—and not just in Central Otago—Burgundy has been the goal, the ultimate measuring stick for Pinot Noir producers. So it was with some trepidation that the organizers of the annual Central Otago Pinot Noir Celebration omitted a Burgundy session this year.
I found that not bearing the burden of comparison was a welcome sign of the region’s maturity. It signifies a coming of age, recognition that Central Otago wines need not be compared to an Old World ideal, but instead celebrated for what they are.
And what they are is evolving. At one time, it would’ve been safe to say that Central Otago Pinots are New Zealand’s brashest and boldest, with the biggest fruit and bountiful tannins. While many of the wines made from young vines are still in that general style, wines from mature vines, farmed organically or biodynamically, show more savory nuances and restraint.
Located in the far south of New Zealand and well inland, Central Otago has the closest thing to a continental climate you’ll find in this island nation. Summers are typically hot and dry, but the high elevation and proximity to the Southern Alps leads to cool nights and the possibility of frost at both ends of the growing season.
This diurnal temperature variation helps maintain acid levels in the grapes, which can also accentuate the impact of tannins in the mouth. Some wines can come across as edgy or angular, but the region’s best examples age into something silky and refined, with dark fruit notes accented by hints of dried thyme.
The warmest, most reliable subregions include Bannockburn, Bendigo, Lowburn and Pisa, but in the right vintages, wines from cooler sites like Alexandra, Gibbston and Wanaka can show greater aromatic complexity and more elegant textures.
Top-Rated Pinot Noirs from Central Otago
Akarua 2013 Rua Pinot Noir; $35, 92 points. The acids and tannins stick out a bit, but they’re cushioned by loads of ripe berry fruit. Hints of dried bracken and chocolate add complexity. Drink now–2018. Editors’ Choice. Seaview Imports.
Carrick 2013 Unravelled Pinot Noir; $30, 91 points. Carrick’s entry-level wine has turned out well, offering a robust mouthful of dark fruit. Plum, espresso and dark chocolate mingle on the nose and palate. Drink 2017–2025. Editors’ Choice. Pacific Prime Wines.
Etude 2013 Bannockburn Pinot Noir; $60, 91 points. This is a muscular wine, firm and structured. It’s grapy in its intensity, but also hints at coffee and cocoa along the way. Drink it, or hold through 2020. Treasury Wine Estates.
Two Paddocks 2013 Pinot Noir; $55, 91 points. This supple, silky Pinot will win friends for the variety. Bold plum and cherry fruit is sappy and spicy, with ample weight in the mouth and a long, mouthwatering finish. Negociants USA Inc.
Located near the north end of the South Island, Marlborough is the cornerstone of New Zealand’s wine production, accounting for approximately two-thirds of the country’s acreage. Most of that is the ubiquitous Sauvignon Blanc, but the region’s Pinot Noirs are rapidly improving.
For years, much of Marlborough’s Pinot Noir was planted side by side with Sauvignon Blanc on the valley floor. Those vineyards can produce wines with pretty aromas, but they often lack weight and texture.
When Mike Eaton planted the Clayvin Vineyard in 1991 on a north-facing slope in the Brancott Valley, it marked a shift in site selection for Pinot Noir. Within several years, wines made from Clayvin-grown fruit garnered global praise. Other similar vineyard developments followed in rapid succession.
Marlborough’s southern valleys—Brancott, Omaka, Fairhall and Waihopai—have larger diurnal temperature differences and deeper soils than the main (Wairau) valley, according to Gus Struthers, vineyard general manager at Ara.
“More clay equals more fleshiness,” he says.
The vineyard expansion of the late 1990s and early 2000s coincided with the availability of the Dijon series of numbered Pinot Noir clones, which added another layer of complexity to the wines.
“We definitely see some significant variations in clones,” says Jeff Clarke, Ara’s chief winemaker. “Triple-seven is the most voluptuous, juicy and dark-colored. One-one-five is almost like a Cabernet clone of Pinot Noir,” he says, referring to its tiny berries and distinct perfume.
Most Marlborough winemakers take advantage of this new diversity of clones to blend them in varying proportions, depending on the vintage. Large-scale plantings in different sites help keep costs down and mitigate the impact of vintage variation.
Marlborough Pinots are typically fruit-forward and ready to drink on release, or after a year or two of cellaring at most. They’re also the least expensive, most widely available New Zealand Pinot Noirs, offering terrific value. Beside the top examples here, check out the list of $20-and-under bargains.
Top-Rated Pinot Noirs from Marlborough
Cloudy Bay 2013 Pinot Noir; $39, 91 points. This wine boasts subtle black cherries and plums, framed in a bed of toasty, mocha-tinged oak. It’s rich and silky, with a discreet dusting of cocoa on the long finish. Moët Hennessy USA.
Jules Taylor 2013 OTQ Pinot Noir; $30, 91 points. Purists might say this wine is too oaky, but there’s ample substance. Cedar and vanilla accent ripe fruit and a plush texture. Drink now–2020. Maritime Wine Trading Collective.
Framingham 2013 Pinot Noir; $30, 90 points. This is a smooth, supple, easy-to-drink wine. Gentle mushroom and damp moss shadings bring complexity to the cherry fruit, while the finish hints at dark chocolate. Drink now–2018. Evaton, Inc.
Saint Clair 2013 Pioneer Block 5 Pinot Noir; $32, 90 points. Cherries and button mushrooms mix easily in this wine, blending sweet and savory sensations. It’s silky, buoyed by crisp acids and bright fruit. Drink now–2020. Dreyfus, Ashby & Co.
$20 or less
A well-made, widely available Pinot Noir for under a Jackson is most wine drinkers’ idea of the Holy Grail. Here are the 2013s that have made the cut so far. Careful shoppers should be able to find most of these for a buck or two less than the listed prices.
Dashwood 2013 Marlborough; $18, 90 points.
Trinity Hill 2013 Hawke’s Bay $17, 90 points.
Sherwood Estate 2013 Waipara Valley $20, 89 points.
Brancott 2013 Marlborough $13, 88 points.
Kim Crawford 2013 South Island $19, 88 points.
Ribbonwood 2013 Marlborough $17, 88 points.
The Crossings 2013 Marlborough $19, 88 points.
Yealands 2013 Marlborough $19, 88 points.
Lagoon Hill 2013 Marlborough $20, 87 points.
Matua 2013 Marlborough $15, 87 points.
The Better Half 2013 Marlborough $14, 87 points.
If Pinot Noirs from Central Otago are bold and intense, and Marlborough’s are fruity and accessible, Martinborough provides their complex, savory counterparts. These are New Zealand’s most intriguing, ageworthy Pinots.
Some of that could be simply because of vine age and winemaking experience. Dry River is one of the region’s four “originals,” established in 1979. Martinborough Vineyard’s home block was planted in 1980, the same year that Ata Rangi and Chifney were established. The original Chifney holdings are now part of Margrain Vineyard. These core wineries have set a remarkable standard for consistency while serving as talent incubators and inspiration to others.
Larry McKenna was Martinborough Vineyard’s first winemaker, hired in 1986. He’s now a co-owner of Escarpment (founded in 1998). Claire Mulholland, now at Burn Cottage in Central Otago, followed McKenna, succeeded for the 2007 vintage by current winemaker Paul Mason. That’s it—three winemakers in roughly 30 years.
Dry River and Ata Rangi have had similarly low turnover in their winemaking positions, giving each a chance to know the vineyards and achieve consistent results. Winemakers who’ve moved on to other ventures, like Olly Masters (Misha’s Vineyard) and Poppy Hammond (Poppies Martinborough), have helped broaden the pool of top-quality Pinot.
While “large” wineries like Craggy Range, Palliser Estate and Te Kairanga spread the gospel of Martinborough to the general public, tiny producers like Johner Estate (located in nearby Wairarapa), Kusuda and Schubert represent a cadre of budding international stars.
Seeking out Martinborough’s best Pinot Noirs is often part of the fun, as U.S. availability is limited. Yet, the top wines can easily sit alongside Pinots from anywhere in the world. Moreover, even some of the region’s widely distributed wines shine in top vintages.
“In ’13, it was hard to make bad wine,” says Martinborough Vineyard’s Mason.
I blind-tasted 21 Pinot Noirs from the 2013 vintage at a regional tasting in Martinborough and rated them all from 87 (Very Good) through 94 (Superb). So whether you’re just discovering these wines, or have followed them from the very start, I can’t think of a better time and place to jump in.
Top-Rated Pinot Noirs from Martinborough
Ata Rangi 2013 Pinot Noir, $55, 94 points. Power and grace combine in this tour de force from Helen Masters, Ata Rangi’s winemaker. Firm tannins provide ample structure. Drink 2018–25. Cellar Selection. Epic Wines.
Escarpment 2013 Kupe Single Vineyard Pinot Noir; $69, 94 points. Kupe (ku-pay) is floral, loaded with fruit and amazingly supple despite using 70% whole clusters and 50% new oak. Drink 2016–25. Cellar Selection. Empson USA Ltd.
Dry River 2013 Pinot Noir; $120, 91 points. As typical for Dry River Pinots, this one is pretty surly in its youth. Intense and astringent, it packs layers of dusty black-cherry fruit into a tightly coiled frame. Try after 2019. Terrell Wines.
Decibel 2013 Single Vineyard Pinot Noir; $28, 90 points. This wine delivers a savory blend of earth, meat and leather notes, all softened by hints of red fruit, a supple texture and silky finish. Enjoy it over the next several years. USA Wine West.
Pinot Noir isn’t restricted to just Central Otago, Marlborough and Martinborough. They’re just the best-known Pinot parts of New Zealand.
The Waitaki Valley, which borders North Otago and Canterbury, has some limestone deposits—otherwise rare in New Zealand. Valli, Forrest and Ostler are the labels most likely to be found in the U.S., and all are commendable.
On the eastern coast of the South Island, north of Christchurch, is the Waipara Valley, home to top producers like Black Estate, Greystone Wines, Muddy Water and Pegasus Bay. When Mountford Estate is on form, it can be great. Pyramid Valley Vineyards and Bell Hill Vineyard are tiny, Burgundy-inspired projects on limestone outcroppings in the nearby Weka Pass. They’re both expensive, but worth trying.
Nelson, a small region just north of Marlborough, is the Rodney Dangerfield of New Zealand’s winelands. Yet, the quality of the Pinot Noir coming from Neudorf Vineyards and Woollaston at Mahana demands respect. Seifried and Waimea, two large producers, are improving rapidly.
Even in the warm North Island region of Hawke’s Bay, not known for Pinot Noir, some producers persist. Trinity Hill’s Pinot Noir is planted in a cool upland mesoclimate, while Lime Rock’s vineyards are planted on—you guessed it—limestone-underlain soils.
In even-warmer, more humid Gisborne, Millton Vineyards & Winery produces a credible Pinot Noir from its biodynamic plantings.
- 1Central Otago’s Coming of Age
- 2Marlborough, New Zealand’s Powerhouse
- 3Martinborough’s Intriguing Pinot Noirs
- 4New Zealand’s Unsung Regions