The Expanding World of Pinot Noir

Paul Blow

Pinot Noir is called a fickle grape. In the entire world there are only a handful of places that can consistently produce good Pinot in quantity: Oregon, California’s north and central coasts, and a few small pockets in Australia. And Burgundy, of course, though it can even be surprising when Pinot performs well there. For a grape with Pinot’s current popularity, that’s just not a lot of wine. Which makes the arrival of New Zealand Pinot especially welcome.

Having recently returned from a conference there, I have New Zealand on the brain. Pinot Noir has been produced in small amounts in New Zealand for several decades. About 10 years ago, the wines were hard to find, expensive, and not better than more widely available American versions. That has changed, and today it’s no stretch to say that New Zealand now produces some of the most exciting Pinot Noirs in the world.

There are two reasons why Pinot from New Zealand can be especially wonderful. One is the marginality of the climate—the best wine tends to be made from grapes that are grown in places where they only just get ripe. Of course, this leaves little margin for error; a slightly-cooler-than-average year can be devastating. A couple of New Zealand’s top Pinot areas will have very small harvests this year because of frost problems.

The other reason for the upswing in Kiwi Pinot is the maturing of its winemakers. For years, New Zealand produced textbook wines; they were technically pure and clinically accurate, but never really interesting. That’s changed now—the winemakers have grown more worldly, more confident, and they’re employing techniques that make the wines more complex and interesting, such as using stems and indigenous yeast fermentations.

Martinborough, Marlborough, Waipara, and Central Otago are New Zealand’s major Pinot regions. They’re still in the midst of defining their own regional qualities. Martinborough and Waipara make lovely, savory wines with some characteristic earth and spice. Marlborough, which everyone associates with Sauvignon Blanc, makes more delicate Pinots with sprightly acidity. And Central Otago seems to generate complex wines with a real forward purity of fruit. In each place there are a handful of top producers, but look specifically in Martinborough for the Ata Rangi, Te Kairanga, Escarpment, Craggy Range, and Martinborough vineyards. In Marlborough, I’m a fan of Dog Point and Cloudy Bay. The Waipara region, with its limestone soils, gives us the excellent Pegasus Bay wines, as well as those from Muddy Water and Waipara Springs. (And just a few minutes outside Waipara in an undesignated region is Bell Hill, which on pure chalk soils is one of the most remarkable vineyards in the country and produces small amounts of excellent Pinot.) Central Otago, so spectacularly scenic with its mountains and gorges, has Carrick, Felton Road, Olssens, Mt. Difficulty, Rippon, Peregrine, Two Paddocks, and Akarua, to name a few.

Jordan Mackay is a San Francisco–based wine and spirits specialist whose work has appeared in publications such as Gourmet, the Los Angeles Times, Food & Wine, and Decanter. Follow him on Twitter. Follow CHOW too, and become a fan on Facebook.