It's the high fashion, high volume, high maintenance grape and right now, everyone wants a piece of the pinot pie. Ben Calvert takes a look at the rising stars of New Zealand's greatest grape.
There's a dark secret lurking behind the skirts of New Zealand's world-renowned white wines. It has been developing for more than a decade and is gathering strength, only now emerging as a powerhouse of the Kiwi wine industry. One of the most exciting varieties emerging from this temperate maritime climate is a red... pinot noir.
Pinot has long been considered the domain of the austere winemakers of France and efforts to grow it in bulk in other parts of the world have generally ended poorly. But now a new generation of winemakers has unlocked the mysteries of its propagation, realised the gentle handling it requires and are now bottling the magic.
The noble grape of Burgundy has only become firmly rooted in New Zealand in the past 20 years. Perhaps the notable vintages have evolved only in the past 10 or 15 years. Even though parts of New Zealand were identified as being ideal for growing pinot noir late last century, other styles found more favour for their relative ease to produce. Muller thurgau, sauvignon blanc and chardonnay paved the way for NZ internationally. Now pinot noir, pinot gris, cabernet and merlot are reaping the rewards.
Pinot noir is the high fashion grape. Its growth is exponential and vine plantings are projected to increase by 85 percent over the next three years. Only pinot gris' growth is faster and sauvignon blanc's quantity is larger.
It was first planted in New Zealand by a core of enthusiasts who believed that the notoriously fickle and difficult to grow variety could make its mark here. Bolstered by courage and naivete, the first vines were planted in the Auckland region in the mid-1970s. And they would have done well, had it not been for a series of minor hurdles -- those being inexperience, the general difficulty of growing pinot at the best of times and the fact that the location, climate and soil types were unsuited.
Soon after, the viticulturists of Martinborough, north of Wellington, took pinot by the short and curlies and started cranking out some remarkable wines which had the world sitting up and taking notice.
The other main pinot-growing areas are Marlborough, at the top of the south island, Canterbury/Waipara along the east coast and Central Otago, which boasts a remarkable microclimate in the deep south.
Martinborough is currently recognised as the premier region for pinot noir in New Zealand. Although it's a compact area and its production is relatively small, the area produces consistently superior wines which have been recognised around the world for many years.
Hedonists would be well advised to wallow in the Toast Martinborough wine, food and music festival each November. But you need to be quick or well connected -- 8,000 tickets usually sell out within an hour of release each October. Fifteen wineries do their thing, all accompanied by seasonal delicacies such as whitebait, salmon, venison, lamb, freshly picked asparagus and strawberries.
If you're going to taste one or two vintages, go for 1999 or 2000. Both years basked in ideal conditions and this, combined with the age of the vines and burgeoning experience of the winemakers, may be the best there have ever been.
The first vineyards to appear in the Martinborough area utilised the localised, free-draining shingle soil and the lowest rainfall records of anywhere in the north island.
Ata Rangi winemaker, Clive Paton, is an ex-dairy farmer who made a sharp u-turn in life and bought a scrappy paddock which he has developed into one of New Zealand's pinot stars. He is passionate about pinot and the way it impacts on its lovers.
"Pinot has a sensuality that the other styles don't have," he enthuses. "It's the forest floor and animal undertones and the fact that it can vary from glass to glass depending on the mood, the food or even the surroundings."
Clive says the Ata Rangi 2000 pinot will be a corker. "It wasn't too hot and there is a lovely expression of fruit which has enough structure to allow us to put in complexity."
Just down the track is Martinborough Vineyard, which is one of the four pioneer vineyards in the region and has been operating for more than 20 years. These winemakers have made their mission "the compelling hunt for great pinot noir".
Two other wineries in Martinborough to delight your palate are Palliser Estate, where Allan Johnson has been churning out vintages of elegance and distinction for a decade, and Dry River.
Across the ditch at the top of the south island lies Marlborough, which boasts the highest number of sunshine hours in the country.
Brent Marris from Wither Hills is one of the country's premier winemakers and follows Burgundian processes as he gently nurses each vintage through. Wither Hills produced a major award-winning wine in 1998, which was equaled or bettered the following year.
Brent says there is more of a house style than regional style in Marlborough, but that there are some distinct variations from Martinborough.
"Martinborough fruit is fleshy, full and voluptuous, with ripe tannins which are very soft," he says. "We have a different focus, with more fruit tannins and thus structure which will help us achieve more longevity."
Isabel Estate argues that size does matter by planting twice as many vines as most other vineyards in order to increase concentration and depth.
Two other wineries leading the Marlborough pinot charge are the internationally-famous Cloudy Bay, which is owned by French champagne house Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin and is a sister winery to Cape Mentelle in Western Australia, and also Fromm, which is a Swiss family business.
This area has a strong reputation and solid track record for producing big, ballsy pinots. In fact, St Helena Wines' 1982 vintage was the first locally produced wine to attract serious international acclaim.
Matt Donaldson, at Pegasus Bay, says his 1999 vintage is already sweet, succulent and sexy and hinted that, with time, there's even better to come.
"It gives instant gratification with good tannins that will see its peak drinking pleasure in about five or six years," he said. "It follows the style of this area with black plum, dark cherry and tamarillo spiciness which will evolve into forest floor and mushroom complexities."
No visit to this region is complete without dropping in to the multi-award winning Giesen Wine Estate, run by a triumvirate of talented brothers. Low yielding vines grown in a cool climate create complex fruit aromas with acidity to give the wine legs in the bottle.
The second gold-rush to Central Otago is on in earnest and carpets of vines now cover the countryside which was, until recently, stomped only by hardy sheep, goats, deer and the occasional tramper. The explosion of viticultural activity makes it the fastest-growing region in New Zealand. This vacuum has swept some of the country's most talented winemakers into its vortex. Everyone loves the challenge of breaking new ground and having cut their teeth as "flying winemakers" around the globe, many have joined the revolution around Queenstown, Cromwell, Wanaka and Alexandra.
It would come as no surprise to one long-dead Italian consultant, who told the government in 1895 that "...there was no country on the face of the earth which produced better Burgundy grapes than were produced in Central Otago and in portions of the north island". Naturally, he was dismissed as an idiot.
Central boasts some fine pinots from the likes of Felton Road, Chard Farm, Gibbston Valley, Rippon and Quartz Reef.
Matt Douglas, general manager at Mt Difficulty, said his 1999 pinot had plenty of grunt and that the 2000 was shaping up even bigger.
"Central Otago produces power, not sweetness," he said. "It's the intensity of the fruit which makes the difference. The wine has high tannins, but it is very smooth."
Matt even had a theory on the sexy nature of pinot. "It's a very delicate little number," he laughed. "And when it's good, it's very good."