Pinot’s Promise

Searching for regional character in New Zealand Pinot Noir

From the Oct. 15, 2014, issue

New Zealand’s worldwide success in wine has been due primarily to its lively Sauvignon Blancs. The country’s Pinot Noir producers hope to earn the same acceptance, but they know that the path to great Pinot is an arduous one.

The distinctive style of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc is based more on varietal character than on vineyard origin; as a group, the wines offer expressive fruit flavors backed by tangy acidity, accessible and refreshing. But those who love Pinot Noir look for something more in their wineglass—a reflection of place, a compelling character based on terroir.

New Zealand is ready to deliver. In general, its Pinot Noirs show a hallmark freshness and intensity of fruit notes that both testifies to their kinship with the country’s Sauvignon Blancs and adds further dimension to the global Pinot Noir landscape. Beyond that, an emerging group of distinctive wines is showcasing the diversity of winegrowing regions that New Zealand winemakers can explore for the varietal, with offerings ranging from dark and fleshy versions from Central Otago to more muscular, savory wines from Martinborough.

“I think the big advantage for Pinot Noir now in New Zealand is that there isn’t a distinctive flavor profile. With Sauvignon Blanc, you’re somewhat boxed in. For Pinot, it’s kind of a clean slate,” says Robert Watkins, CEO of Mt. Beautiful in the Canterbury region. “We’re free to make the best of what the vineyard gave us.”

There are now four main Pinot regions, each with a unique history, trajectory and combination of soils and weather patterns. Each is fascinating on its own, but collectively—and along with producers’ ever-growing experience—they demonstrate how far New Zealand has come with Pinot Noir in a short time, and how much more potential there is.

From top to bottom, New Zealand’s two main islands are about 1,000 miles long—roughly the distance from Portland, Ore., to San Diego. But the population is only 4.5 million—just surpassing that of Los Angeles. There are seven times as many sheep as there are people. Population density is pretty sparse outside of the main cities; roughly a third of all New Zealanders live in Auckland, and two-thirds of the population resides on the North Island. Most of the wine production is on the South Island.

At the southern tip of the South Island is Central Otago. With its rugged mountains, stunning lakes and ski-town vibe, Central Otago can feel like Lake Tahoe or Aspen, though on a grander scale. Yet it is home to some of the country’s most successful Pinot Noirs.

New Zealand’s islands are narrow—there isn’t a point in the country more than 80 miles from an ocean, giving most wine regions a maritime climate. Central Otago is the sole exception; surrounded by mountains, it’s considered to have a continental climate. This translates to larger daily and seasonal temperature extremes.

There were early signs that the region was destined for Pinot Noir. A mid-1800s gold rush brought international settlers, among them a French miner who won a gold medal at a wine competition for a “Burgundy” bottling made from vines he planted in Central Otago in 1864. After that, the wine industry was put on pause until the modern era of winemaking began here, in the 1970s. Today, grapevines dominate where cherry and apricot orchards once stood.

Winemakers enjoy pointing out how difficult it is to grow grapes here—it’s a badge of honor. Frosts are an accepted hazard nearly year-round. Summers are short and hot. Rainfall is scant. Harvest begins about six weeks later than in other regions.

“Even in the early ’90s, with half a dozen vineyards around, our own wine media was writing that people were crazy in thinking they could grow and even ripen red grapes this far south,” says Jacqui Murphy, manager of Two Paddocks, one of Central Otago’s top Pinot producers.

The mountains here comprise rough-edged mica and other metamorphic schists in silt loams. The schist can have an iridescent quality, sparkling when the sun hits it right. It grows in layered bands that look like the sheets of a croissant you can pick apart, though most of what’s on the ground is reduced to a fine flour. These heat-reflecting soils are thought to concentrate the flavors in the grapes.

Central Otago Pinots tend to be the flashiest and most fruit-forward in New Zealand, with darker notes toward the black cherry and plum end of the spectrum. “Central Otago is very special, but these vineyards have so much to say, and we’re only just starting to understand what that conversation is,” says Terra Sancta winemaker Jen Parr.

Five hundred miles to the north, at the top of the South Island, is Marlborough, where three-fourths of the country’s grapes are grown. Marlborough is considered the most consistent growing region in New Zealand. It’s the sunniest, the driest, and has the most moderate temperatures. There’s plenty of sandy topsoil overlaying free-draining stony soils, such as greywacke, which mixes round sandstones with high clay content. Grapes ripen easily and grow vigorously here.

Marlborough Pinot Noirs tend to have ripe red fruit, succulent acidity and plenty of finesse. Most of the Pinot vineyards were replanted about a decade ago, and the vines are now coming into maturity. As they do, winemakers are learning about the sites they work with, refining their practices and improving the wines.

Halfway between Marlborough and Central Otago on the South Island is Canterbury, perhaps the least known and least defined of New Zealand’s Pinot Noir districts. It can be difficult to grow grapes in Canterbury. Hot, dry winds from the northwest can wreak havoc. Winemakers describe these “nor’westers” as if they were uninvited relatives blowing through town suddenly and sometimes staying for weeks at a time before disappearing. It doesn’t rain much here, the summers are warm, and spring frosts can be problematic. But the region has a secret weapon: its soils.

While the preponderance of sheep in New Zealand means that hillsides are often dotted with white flocks, in the Canterbury region white specks on the hillside can mean limestone. This soil is attracting the attention of winemakers who believe limestone to be the holy grail of Pinot Noir soils, reflecting its role in the great vineyards of Burgundy, with a reputation for creating aromatic, structured wines.

Canterbury is one of the fastest-growing wine areas, with a new wave of winemakers and vineyards. It stretches from the coastal town of Kaikoura in the north, known for its fur seal colony and rock lobster industry, to the city of Christchurch. The main concentration of winemaking is centered around the Waipara Valley, about an hour’s drive north of Christchurch, where a burgeoning wine tourism scene is attracting wine lovers from the city.

Canterbury Pinots can be quite aromatic, the limestone credited with evoking dried floral and a fresh herbaceous, tomato leaf note. The clay in the soils gives the wines density and structure.

But the modern story of New Zealand Pinot Noir begins in Martinborough, the only Pinot region on the North Island. A subregion of Wairarapa, it’s about an hour’s drive from the country’s capital of Wellington, a dramatic, narrow and winding route through the Rimutaka Mountain Range. Locals like to point out that much of the Lord of the Rings movies were filmed in these parts.

In the late 1970s, the government commissioned a study to identify where vinifera grapes would grow. Martinborough was identified as being most similar to Burgundy in terms of rainfall, growing days, soil types and structures. Mountain ranges create a rain shadow, making Martinborough the driest and windiest region on the North Island. The soils are free-draining alluvial gravels, about 80 feet deep, with flecks of limestone and clay. 
Even though Martinborough sits at similar latitude to Marlborough, their growing seasons are very different. Winds whipping through Martinborough from the south knock off flowers during the spring, resulting in fewer and looser grape bunches and thicker skins.

“If you were to line up bunches of Pinot from Marlborough and Martinborough of the same clone, the weights and the structures would be drastically different,” explains winemaker Helen Masters of Martinborough’s Ata Rangi. “We often get smaller berries, smaller bunches and a much smaller natural crop.”

Pinot Noirs grown here are known for their backbone and structure—more tannins than acidity—as well as savory nuances. These are some of the oldest Pinot Noir vines in New Zealand, most of them 20 or 30 years of age, and most of the vineyards are small and family-owned. The largest vineyard in the area is Craggy Range’s 220-acre Te Muna Road Vineyard (“te muna” means “secret place” in the native Maori language), a complex tapestry of 39 different parcels situated on a dramatic, steep terrace escarpment.

As the country’s Pinot Noir industry has evolved, one of the most significant advances has been in replanting and refining where the variety is grown.

This is most evident in Marlborough, where vintners openly struggled with the grape. “We come from a history of growing Pinot Noir on the wrong sites, with the wrong clones, the wrong density and the wrong soils,” says Simon Waghorn, of Astrolabe.

It’s a common refrain among Marlborough winemakers, though Clive Jones, of Nautilus, has a slightly different take. “We did have the right clones—for sparkling wine. We didn’t have the right clones for table wine. While Central Otago and Martinborough were focusing on Pinot Noir, we were riding the wave of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc. That’s where our focus was.”

The first Pinot Noir clones in New Zealand came from Switzerland, and while they were serviceable for sparkling wine production, they’ve been largely replaced throughout the country by Dijon clones, which originated in Burgundy and became available in the 1980s and 1990s. These clones are believed to give more complexity and structure. Another popular clone, the so-called “Abel” or “Gumboot” clone, which is rumored to have been smuggled in from Burgundy in a boot, is known for slower ripening and denser wines.

About a decade ago, impressed with the quality of Pinot Noir they were seeing from other regions, Marlborough winemakers started looking at their own Pinot plantings, most on the valley floor for sparkling wine production, and shifting them to the foothills, where there was a higher clay content and less vigorous growth. Clones and rootstocks were matched to sites and fine-tuned. The new vines went in at a higher density, to encourage lower yields and more intense fruit flavors. The Pinot now ripens more evenly, with more fruit intensity and structure.

The next step for winemakers is to break down this large region into more distinct subregions, and express those differences in the wines. The Wairau River bisects the valley west to east, with the Richmond Ranges to the north. There are two valleys within Marlborough: the Wairau Valley, an old riverbed, and the Awatere Valley, on the other side of the Kaikoura mountain ranges, closer to the sea, with cooler temperatures. Winemakers are beginning to differentiate between these valleys, and other nooks and crannies, with their bottlings.

“There’s a huge range of styles in Marlborough. We need to start telling that to make sure the Marlborough story doesn’t get stale,” warns Waghorn. “It has the same nuances and diversity that any classic wine region in the world has. And we need to tell that story so that people don’t think of Marlborough as a generic place.”

New producers and investments are also injecting energy into the Pinot scene. One of the grandest new projects in the entire country is Mt. Beautiful. Founder David Teece is a professor at the University of California at Berkeley Haas School of Business and one of the most cited economic and business scholars in the world. He considered entering the wine business in his home country, but instead decided to take a path less trodden. He found a site 70 miles outside of Christchurch, in North Canterbury, nowhere near any other vineyards. He now owns 40,000 acres in the area, with 200 planted to grapes. And he’s about to break ground on a $3.5 million winery.

“We have a new and distinct story,” says Teece, “We’ve been delighted that the wines we’re producing are interesting and distinctive, and let the terroir speak.”

Bell Hill is an ambitious project on a different scale, founded by Marcel Giesen (who also runs the Giesen brand in Marlborough with his brothers) and his wife, Sherwyn Veldhuizen. Drawn to the limestone in Canterbury, they planted their high-density, 6-acre vineyard in a former limestone quarry in 1997, the first in the area.

“We didn’t look at the volume of wine we could produce, but the quality. We wanted to push the boundaries of what we can do,” Giesen says. The Bell Hill Pinot Noirs are among the most sought-after in New Zealand, structured and complex, with mineral and earth accents.

Pyramid Valley, nearby, is another brand created on the basis of soil theory. California-born founder Mike Weersing spent years searching the globe for a specific set of vineyard characteristics, including a mix of clay and limestone. “I know there should be wine made from this property, because [it’s] special, and wine gives it an ability to speak,” says Weersing. To further protect the vineyard’s voice, Weersing cultures his own yeast by making a starter in the vineyard, keeping the purity of his “wild yeast” fermentations.

Wild yeast fermentations are popular among Pinot Noir producers, as is whole-bunch fermentation (where the stems remain with the grapes during fermentation). It’s a hot topic among winemakers in Burgundy and Italy, and the discussion has spread to New Zealand.

No one is more enthusiastic about it than winemaker Larry McKenna of Escarpment. Nicknamed the “Godfather of Pinot Noir,” McKenna has been making wine in Martinborough since 1986. He adds what he calls “serious amounts” of stems, attached to up to 40 percent of the grapes, and he is experimenting with even more. “New Zealand had been very nervous about whole bunch,” says McKenna, who believes the process adds aromatic and textural benefits. “I don’t get enough structure out of [grape] skins. They’re too soft, don’t have enough backbone.”

Winemaker Nick Mills, of Rippon, has a different take, which begins with him chewing on grape stems after harvest. “If the material is something you can digest, actually chew and get saliva and bring it into your body, I want all of that going into the wine,” explains Mills. “If there are elements that your body can’t digest, I’ll be more careful.”

Mills harvests dozens of lots and each is chewed and analyzed separately. His Pinots can include 25 percent to 40 percent whole bunch. “I don’t believe in adding 15 percent stems just because [Domaine] Dujac does,” says Mills. “Why would you put any indigestible phenolics in your wine?” Winemakers all over the country quote Mills on his stem-eating philosophy.

There are a lot of spirited discussions about issues such as whole bunch, wild fermentation and vine-growing practices among Pinot Noir producers—both informally and through seminars and workshops the vintners hold. Rather than jealous competition, there’s a collective sense of learning about how to make the wines better.

“It doesn’t really matter what we tell each other, or what we’re sharing, because we are never in direct competition with each other—our wines will always be different,” explains Rudi Bauer, of Quartz Reef. “We can openly communicate, because if it works for you, it doesn’t mean it will work for me. That is really handy that Pinot Noir allows us to do that. And it consistently progresses the definition of quality in Pinot Noir.”

Improving the wines means both sharing ideas and striking out on their own. Greystone winemaker Dominic Maxwell points to New Zealand winemakers’ growing confidence. “I think there’s been a 10-year shift from where we felt we really had to make our mark on the world, because no one knew about New Zealand Pinot Noir,” says Maxwell. “Now we really don’t care. We just want to do what’s best for every site. It’s not important that you have the greatest wines in the world. You just want to make the best from your site.”

New Zealand Facts & Figures

Comparative data below was provided by New Zealand Wine Council; information on soil types, wine styles and leading producers is based on Worobiec’s research, blind tastings and recent visit to the country. For a map of New Zealand’s major growing regions, see Worobiec’s tasting report.

Number of wineries: 65
Vineyard acreage: 2,401; 48 percent planted to Pinot Noir
Average hours of sunshine annually: 1,915
Average annual rainfall: 38.5 inches
Soils: Predominantly silt loam over free-draining gravels, with some clay, loam and limestone
Style: Savory, earthy notes, known for tannin structure
Leading producers: Ata Rangi, Craggy Range, Escarpment, Murdoch James, Palliser, Te Kairanga

Number of wineries: 152
Vineyard acreage: 57,407; 10 percent planted to Pinot Noir
Average hours of sunshine annually: 2,409
Average annual rainfall: 25.7 inches
Soils: Riverbed, deep, free-draining, stony, clay as you move into the hillsides
Style: Bright red fruit flavors, refined tannins, fresh acidity
Leading producers: Astrolabe, Cloudy Bay, Dog Point, Framingham, Greywacke, Matua, Nautilus, Nobilo, Saint Clair, Spy Valley, Tohu, Villa Maria

Number of wineries: 70
Vineyard acreage: 3,592; 23 percent planted to Pinot Noir
Average hours of sunshine annually: 2,100
Average annual rainfall: 25.5 inches
Soils: Diverse mix, plenty of clay and limestone
Style: Aromatic and perfumed, with supple tannins
Leading producers: Bell Hill, Black Estate, Mountford, Mt. Beautiful, Muddy Water, Pegasus Bay, Pyramid Valley

Number of wineries: 124
Vineyard acreage: 4,714; 71 percent planted to Pinot Noir
Average hours of sunshine annually: 1,973
Average annual rainfall: 25 inches
Soils: Heavy deposits of rough-edged mica and schists in silt loams
Style: Darker, intense fruit flavors, fleshier texture, more spice
Leading producers: Amisfield, Burn Cottage, Cloudy Bay, Craggy Range, Felton Road, Mt. Difficulty, Peregrine, Quartz Reef, Rippon, Terra Sancta, Two Paddocks, Valli