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Decanter, November 2009 – New Zealand Pinot Noir Article and the top 12 wines

This February, I will fly down to Wellington in New Zealand to attend Pinot Noir 2010, one of the most exciting celebrations of the most noble grape variety on the planet.  I hear that over 500 NZPNs will be on show from over 100 wineries and my challenge will be to taste them all and release my annual ‘classification’ of these estates – the finest of whom will make it into one of my five hierarchical categories.  This is not the pressure job that it might seem – the wines are, on the whole, delicious and quality improves as every year passes.  But with only three in the top level (Ata Rangi, Felton Road and Mt Difficulty) and five in the next one down (Dry River, Peregrine, Bell Hill, Escarpment and Pyramid Valley), the question is who will get elevated and what other changes might happen this year.  I felt driven to start this initiative because of the passion and unity of this Pinot Noir-fanatic country, whose top winemakers understand every facet of their vineyards and their wines.  But the questions that the world is posing to New Zealand are ‘just how good is NZPN and how far can it go?’

I interviewed a dozen of the finest proponents of this grape and they all agreed that ‘all the way’ was the answer to the second question, but when and to what level is what intrigues me.

Mike Weersing at Pyramid Valley says, ‘I do believe that NZPN has emerged as a distinct animal, different from other world Pinot styles: less densely tannic than Burgundy, with brighter fruit than Oregon, and more vibrancy, and perhaps energy, than is typical of California. For me, the greatest challenge is overcoming a sensibility which prizes, and too often prioritizes, overt varietal character. The raison d’etre of Pinot Noir is its transparency; it is most profound when saying little or nothing about itself.’  There is a resonance to this mantra and it brings up a subject which was echoed in every one of the pioneering winemakers that I talked to.  It is not the grape, per se, which holds the key to the potential of the wine, but the vineyards themselves and their energies which the grapes bring to the finished wine.  Matt Dicey from Mt Difficulty nails it, ‘We are starting to discern more and more individuality from our vineyards. I foresee this process becoming the focus in the future more than anything else.’  Vine age is the key, Steve Smith at Craggy Range point out that, ‘Greatness will come to all of these regions when the best sites have mature vines’. And indeed some of the best sites already are seeing these results.  Steve continues, ‘These wines show more texture, complexity and age-worthiness than ever before. What we need is patience, perseverance and a strong desire to think to the next generation, because they will inherit something really great’.  Mike Eaton at TerraVin reminds us that for many producers Pinot Noir is a very new skill, ‘Given average vine age of 4-6 years (or less) in Marlborough and Central Otago, you can expect to see some huge leaps in complexity for those producers who choose to allow their wines to express it.’  Matt Donaldson at Pegasus Bay agrees, ‘Basically the more vintages that you work in the same vineyard, the more of a feel you get for it and the more you can fine tune things specific to that site.’   

It is this sense that NZPN is within touching distance of making profound wines that catches our attention.  Nigel Greening at Felton Road has vineyards that are already up to racing speed, ‘We have concentration, but we need more precision.  New Zealand is sometimes limited by its competence. You’ll see far fewer bad wines than in Burgundy, because people know how not to make mistakes. But how many will dare to step outside the safe box to pursue an individual expression? We need a few more nutters.’

John Forrest sets his sights high, ‘I see NZ doing with Pinot what Aussie did twenty years ago with Shiraz – making it accessible to the average drinker & perhaps the red wine of choice?’  At the more affordable end this will surely drive interest to the finer wines.  After all, how many downright delicious Pinots are there in the world under a tenner?  Second labels are key and selection is fundamental to preserving the integrity and excellence of the estate wine.  Larry McKenna at Escarpment agrees, ‘I feel that the consumer is increasingly accepting of our fresh, clean, ripe and accessible styles at the commercial end and this will drive the top end and allow the purists to explore and develop the ultimate expressions of PN from this part of the world.’ Nick Mills at Rippon sums up the current state of play very well, ‘To push the evolution of Pinot Noir production any faster risks regressing and compromising integrity. With Pinot Noir, it seems that patience is one of the greatest virtues.’



My Conclusions

There is no doubt that an enormous amount of confidence goes a long way in the wine world, but when you have stunning terroir, glorious weather conditions, with less obvious climate change dangers than many other countries, and an ingrained attitude to farming that goes a long way past the norm, it is possible to reach for the stars – even with Pinot.  In the off season, the Pinot aficionados head north to Burgundy, Oregon and California for their vinous enlightenment and then bring far more than their luggage allowance of passion back with them.  If vine age is the only handbrake on this country moving into the top echelons of Pinot production (and I believe it is) then let them wait, work and develop a greater understanding of their soil in the meantime.  One thing which might derail some of the faux Pinot ‘start ups’ is their desire for a fast return on their investment.  There are already far too many of these bourgeois Pinot Noir acolytes in Central Otago whose operations are already on the market, as a direct consequence of the current global recession.  Red Sauvignon Blanc this isn’t.  You cannot abuse vineyards, load yields as you can (sadly) with SB, and flash around expensive oak hoping to cover up viticultural failing with this sensitive variety.  Wine, and in particular Pinot Noir, is a long game.  The vineyards which are wrongly situated will soon be found out for the charlatans that they are, and they will no doubt be grafted over to Sauvignon or just fall fallow.  In the meantime, the gurus will continue to put all of their hard-earned profits back into their operations, share their knowledge freely with their like-minded pals and edge ever closer to greatness. It will happen, and I will, with a fair wind, be alive when it does!


My Top 12 Wines

2007 Felton Road, Calvert Pinot Noir, Central Otago (Cornish Point Wine UK) 19 (now – 2017) With Blocks 3 and 5 firing on all cylinders it is nothing short of gripping to taste another incarnation (and plot of land) with Felton at the wheel.  Ethereal splendour is always a given, but it is the poise which takes the breath away with Calvert.


2005 Bell Hill, Pinot Noir, North Canterbury (Lay & Wheeler) 18.5 (now – 2015) The fervour surrounding Bell Hill’s mind-blowingly serious wines is infectious.  The ‘it’s all pre-allocated’ aura only serves to whip us all into various states of frenzy, too.  The question is, are these wines worth it?  The answer is simply – yes, yes, yes.  Gorgeous structure and a restraint which could turn the most fervent anti-NZPN drinker into a dribbling groupie make this the must own wine of the moment.  


2007 Ata Rangi, Pinot Noir, Martinborough (Liberty Wines) 18.5 (now – 2017) My first introduction to world class NZPN (well over 20 years ago) is still one of the wines to watch.  Beautifully dimensioned and incredibly confident in the glass, Ata Rangi is a joyous wine, sitting comfortably in the highest echelons of world PN.


2007 Mt Difficulty, Pipeclay Terrace Pinot Noir, Central Otago (Ellis of Richmond) 19 (now – 2017) Pipeclay and Long Gully are two very impressive Otago expressions, but don’t ignore the estate wine here, too – it is incredible value for money.  The structure and depth of palate on this wine capture all of the wildness of Bannockburn, but with such class and coolness of delivery.


2007 Dry River, Pinot Noir, Martinborough (Raeburn Fine Wines) 18.5 (now – 2017) There is a rawness of power and sheer fruit integrity in Dry River which boggles the mind and taste buds.  An acquired taste, this wine is for purists, fanatics and renegades – it is uncompromisingly built and the view from the glass is simply jaw-dropping.


2007 Peregrine, Pinot Noir, Central Otago (Fields, Morris & Verdin) 18 (now – 2015) Forward, juicy and seemingly relatively easy on the eye, this wine opens chasm-like for you the more you play with it in the glass.  The illusion is of a happy-go-lucky, jovial PN, but in reality it is a pioneering flavour with more than enough intricate build quality to fascinate a Pinot Hunter.


2006 Escarpment, Kupe Pinot Noir, Martinborough (Seckford) 18.5 (now – 2015) Technically challenging and moderately taxing to the wine side of the brain, Kupe is a thoughtful PN with shovelfuls of soil and more than a dollop of blood, sweat and tears in the glass. Soaringly aromatic and still just a baby, this is a wine that will prove that ageability is a certain component in the finest of NZPN.


2007 Pyramid Valley, Vineyard Grower’s Collection Calvert Vineyard Pinot Noir, Central Otago (SWIG) 18.5 (now – 2017) There is more drama here than in a caseful of Vosne, because the tempo and passion in this wine is there to witness in every molecule of its being.  This interpretation of Calvert is sensational and moving in that it pulls you into its vortex in a trice and leaves you ravaged and panting for more when it’s gone.


2006 Pegasus Bay, Prima Donna Pinot Noir, Waipara (New Generation Wines) 18.5 (now – 2016) The depth of fruit and lashings of Waipara dirt in this wine mark it (like Dry River) as one of the most obviously terroir-reflecting wines in this list.  Dark and brooding, this is a mighty wine that draws it energies from the vineyard as opposed to the barrel.  It is, just so you know, not a Prima Donna!


2007 Mountford Vineyard, Gradient Block Pinot Noir, Marlborough (Fields, Morris & Verdin) 18.5 (now – 2017) I think that there was only one barrel of this wine made, so best of luck finding any, but if you do, you will experience a rare glimpse at what I think the future of the old vine (very well situated) vineyards in Marlborough might make one day.  This wine is well named – the gradient of achievement here is staggering.


2006 Rippon, Pinot Noir, Central Otago (Lea & Sandeman) 18 (now – 2016) With a radically different flavour palette and trail-blazing approach to authenticity and sustainability, Rippon does what few can manage by making a thoroughly fascinating recipe actually taste really bloody good.  Thunderous fruit is matched by infinitesimal terroir detail – mesmerising and uncompromising in equal measure.


2007 Dog Point, Pinot Noir, Marlborough (Fields, Morris & Verdin) 18 (now – 2015) Perhaps the purest and most accessible of wines in this line up this is a heavenly PN which will hypnotise beginners and experts in equal numbers thanks to its sheer deliciousness.  Do not underestimate just how difficult it is to make drop dead gorgeous wine which drink early but will also stand the test of time.


The ageability of NZ Pinot

There is no doubt that NZ Pinot Noir ages gracefully and with considerable beauty.  I tasted a twelve year vertical of Wither Hills the other day and was enchanted and impressed with the evolution of the wines.  Closures aside, there was no doubt that vintage variation was in evidence (as it should be) and this backed up the integrity of the offering and it also brought vine age and technique into play, too.  Wine maker Ben Glover was justifiably proud of this range, ‘We were crafting marvellous wines from young vines back then, and we drank them too young’. In tasting other older Pinots the 10 to 15-year mark seems to be the standard – after all there are not many which go back further.  Bear this age vector in mind and this fits well with smart ‘village’ and good level ‘Premier Cru’ red Burgundy.  This makes sense to me.  Ageability is not necessarily the mark of a great Pinot, but it helps to unravel and decode some of this grape’s unique messages so NZ will certainly be looking to build it into the fabric of their finest wines.  There is no doubt that increasing vine age will bring more complexity to NZPN and with it will come the ageing gene, ‘Longevity of the wine is bottle is key. NZ has sets itself up as being fruit-driven, which is appropriate at mid-price points, but we need to get past this to make more truly classic and complex Pinot that deliver magic with age ‘, says Phyll Pattie at Ata Rangi.  But why do we all want to cellar these wines forever and will they be any ‘better’ if we do?  I am a huge fan of youthful red Burgundies, bristling with refreshing tannins and if anything, these wines are occluded in the fruit department in the first few years and age is fundamental to their appeal.  NZ Pinot doesn’t suffer from this impediment – these are immediately appealing wines at all levels, which is vital for the consumer.  Age, in theory, should develop more complex flavours in an already sumptuous wine, thus adding to its appeal in a subtle way.  This again is an already existing NZ Pinot hallmark.  Of course, these flavours must be there in the first place for them to appear later on, and in more detail, and this ingredient stems directly from vine age.  So, from someone who already makes seriously ageable wines, Neil McCallum at Dry River, the last words, ‘Serious wines come from older vines and these include ageing potential…there are hints of promise and time will tell’.