Earlier this year I was fortunate enough to spend two packed weeks racing around New Zealand and tasting wines. As could be expected, there was plenty of Pinot Noir among the wines presented at various events, and I have to say I am certainly impressed by the overall level of quality many of these wines exhibited.
There’s a fairly broad brersity of styles on offer from the north to the south of this long, skinny pair of islands, a long with some famous regions with identifiable styles as well.
Take for instance Martinborough in the southeast of the North Island. Martinborough is known for its rather funky style of Pinot, many would say it is almost Burgundian.
If you travel down to the south of the South Island you’ll end up in central Otago, home to a completely different style of Pinot: fruit forward and smooth and rich. Not that the wines from Martinborough lack richness, they just tend to be a bit more angular.
I like that angularity, so it is not surprising that some of my favorite wines, and particularly those from Central (as the Kiwi’s refer to Central Otago), featured plenty of obvious stem inclusion. All that green, both in tannin and flavor, offered a wonderful contrast to the rich, ripe fruit that most of the wines seem to effortlessly exhibit.
Before we bre into some tasting notes, and there are plenty, it’s worth mentioning some of the factors that play to New Zealand’s advantage when it comes to Pinot Noir, as well as some of the handicaps life down there offers up.
New Zealand as a whole is one of the windiest places on earth to grow grapes. Many vineyards have sustained winds over 20 miles an hour for extended periods of time. What does that mean for the vines?
For starters the wind helps cool the vines as it quickens respiration, which can be good if the vines are overheated or bad if the water supply available to the vines is inadequate to allow for this boost.
The wind also has a distinct effect on the structure of the vines. I spoke with viticulturalists and while I was not able to find any evidence to support my theory, it was meet with some approval. With this sort of wind, the plants have to provide stronger support for canes, shoots and cluster. More of the energy that might otherwise go into the growth of leaves and then grapes themselves must be devoted to the production of woody stems that can withstand the gusting winds.
This may be a marginal factor in what is already a big story in New Zealand, low yields, but it seems so basic to me that it shouldn’t be neglected. You see there is somewhat of an exponential effect here as less vegetation naturally supports a lower crop, then as the wind blows on swelling grape clusters, more energy needs to be brerted to help support the fruit. The wind on the vines is a ubiquitous season-long stress that is unique to New Zealand.
If you travel to New Zealand you find out pretty quickly about the sunshine down there - it is relentless and strong. UV light plays an important role in the grapes’ life cycle: quickening ripening, increasing the production of polyphenols (flavoring and coloring compounds) within the skins, and perhaps most importantly helping to degrade pyrazines, the compound that gives Cabernet and Sauvignon Blanc their green pepper and herbal characters.
Now anyone who has ever had a Kiwi Sauvignon Blanc can tell you that they are full of pyrazines, but that’s a character that the producers look for, so they simply make sure that the grapes remain well shaded from sunlight.
But there is more. New Zealand’s southern reaches are among the southernmost wine producing regions on the planet and with that comes a certain distinction: long hours of sunlight.
All of that sunlight is put to good use by the vines, building leafs and berries that are richer and riper in flavonoids and anthocyanins than one might typically expect from such a cool climate. Make no mistake about it, New Zealand is one cool climate region.
Speaking of climate, with the cooling influences of the Tasman Sea and the Antarctic never more than some 125 miles away (New Zealand is only 250 miles wide at its widest point!), you can count on moderate temperatures throughout the country, even in the middle of summer. Now this past year was particularly cool, but waking up in Central Otago to temperatures in the low 40s is simply unheard of in most growing regions.
It would be easy to argue that the only reason New Zealand is able to produce the wines it does is because of the long days of sunlight and high UV exposition. I for one have rarely felt unremitting coolness in any other wine region quite like that I encountered in New Zealand.
What that means is simply that acid will be preserved in the grapes on the vine as they ripen, and thus the wines which will eventually be made from those grapes. Freshness and crispness, abundantly illustrated by the character of the Sauvignon Blancs and Pinot Noirs from New Zealand, are typical under these conditions.
The land that vines grow in tends to be a point of much discussion. Wines derive their minerality from these soils, or so we are lead to believe. The type and quantity of rocks and minerals is always highlighted as a positive attribute in soil discussions, but of course there is the possibility of it being too much of a good thing.
Many of the soils in New Zealand are barely soils. They are very young and have quite low quantities of organic matter to them (dirt). In many cases, they are more akin to gravel beds due to the retreat of rivers powered by glacial melt waters that recently covered much of New Zealand.
So what does that mean? It depends who you ask. For one thing, the soils provide exceptional drainage here, which is always a good thing since vines do not like to be sitting in water. On the flip side, with little organic matter the land doesn’t retain water, which coupled with the typically low rainfall in New Zealand means that virtually all vines are irrigated.
Some might argue that this is inherently a bad thing, a topic on which I am currently agnostic, but what you can’t argue is that it naturally has the power to lower yields, stimulate root growth and give growers quite a bit of control over the stress they can submit their vines to.
Vine stress is another point of contention, with many winemakers saying that it is bad. Others favor it in varying degrees. I won’t belabor this point, I’ll only say that the poor soils in New Zealand afford growers a certain level of control over that stress.
I pretty much covered the fact that New Zealand’s wine regions have minimal rainfall, and how that affects the vines. You might want to know why the country’s growing regions have such little rainfall when you know that those lush, green landscapes you saw in the “Lord of Rings” trilogy where in fact in New Zealand.
One look at the country and a bit of understanding about the weather patterns that surround offer a simple explanation. For the most part, New Zealand’s weather is dominated by what are known as Westerlies, winds from the southwest that carry up cool, moisture laden air from the Antarctic.
Those Westerlies come barreling along and slam into New Zealand’s west coast, hit the mountain range that stretches the length of the South Island, travel up the flanks of those mountains and dump copious amounts of rain from Fjordland in the south right up the western flank of the island. That leaves precious little rain for the other four-fifths of the country.
This low rainfall is yet another factor that keeps yields naturally low in New Zealand. All these factors paint a particularly challenging picture for grape growers and wine makers, but when one plays his cards right, the results can be wines of exceptional quality. Beyond that simple notion of quality, these conditions create a unique expression of terroir that really seems to mark these wines from north to south. It’s an exciting distinction to see in the glass and one that I found fascinating while tasting so many Pinot Noirs in such a short period of time.
So what did I think of the wines beyond the simple observation that they have the potential to be delicious and distinctive?
One of the first observations I noted was that stem inclusion is working its way into the scene, much to my delight. I can say that some of the wines that really struck me did so because of their masterful blending of opulent fruit and complexity from the stems. It’s a sign, at least to me, of an industry that is ready to move beyond the mastery of delicious, fruit-driven wines and graduate to something much more compelling.
Back to the discussion of terroir though. The obvious examples are those that are best known: The Burgundian funk of Martinborough or the explosive red cherry fruit of Central Otago; though that leaves plenty of country to try and decipher.
Wines from Canterbury and Waipara , of which I tasted many, offered up a blend of the two poles of the spectrum. There was plenty of fruit, often darker than that found in Central Otago’s Pinots. More black cherry and blackberry, but at the same time there was an earthy, lightly herbal complexity to the wines and a vivid sappiness in the best that really set them apart from the wines of other regions that I sampled.
This is the only region that sees considerable hillside plantings of Pinot Noir, which may help in contributing that sort of complexity to these wines, also making for a rather beautiful emerging wine region. In many ways, I was most excited by the wines of Waipara because of this complexity and the fact that most were new to me.
Nelson is a relatively small wine producing region in New Zealand with relatively few wineries, but the warm, sunny conditions that makes this the water sport capital of New Zealand also make for awfully good wine. Perhaps the closest in character to what might be considered a Californian style, though there is ample competition on that front from some producers in Martinborough
Marlborough is Sauvignon Blanc country in New Zealand, though there is plenty Pinot Noir produced here as well. The Pinot seemed to my palate to be, as a group, among the most straight forward of the wines I tasted. Solid to be sure but lacking the distinctiveness of other regions.
And finally, Gisborne, New Zealand. Most humid and perhaps most challenging region for grape growing and winemaking. While I only tasted Pinot Noir from Millton in Gisborne, which can in no way be deemed representative of the region, I did find a lot to like in the ripe, briary style of wines.
So that’s it for edumacation. Now I want to share my tasting notes with you. I have to qualify the notes that are to come. Many were taken on large, walk around tastings. They lack the detail of many of my notes and as such do not have point scoring associated with them. In these large-scale tastings I really can only break wines down into about five categories at these tastings, no, maybe, sure why not, yes please, and wow.
I’ve compiled lists of each and grouped them below, with the notes from both styles of tastings interspersed. In all honesty, I am more sure of the long form notes than the short hand notes, but I am pretty confidant in the groups themselves. Where the wines stand within those groupings is another matter entirely.
The list below are the wines that really stayed in my mind, the cream of the crop as it were!