By Charles B. Rubinstein
New Zealand made a name in the wine world back in the 1960s when its sauvignon blanc came on to the market and was a hit with consumers, particularly in the United States.
The zesty mouth-watering acidity and pungent gooseberry, grapefruit and fresh-cut grass characteristics attracted a wide following that has continued to this day. But sauvignon blanc now has to share the spotlight with another wine from New Zealand, pinot noir, which is a relative newcomer in our market. It made its first small foray here about a dozen years ago. Imports, along with favorable recognition, have risen appreciably since then. James Halliday, Australian writer, wine critic, vigneron and winemaker has said of Kiwi pinot noir, “I have long been writing about the potential of New Zealand to supplant all other competitors of Burgundy and I see no reason to change my mind.”
The reference to Burgundy was appropriate because that is where pinot noir earned its fame as the sole grape in all red Burgundies. Its thin skin and sensitivity to frost, soil types and wind contribute to its reputation as a fussy grape that is difficult to grow. Difficulties continue in the winery where it is sensitive to the yeast strain and the fermentation method. Andre Tchelistcheff, the famous winemaker of Beaulieu Vineyards in the Napa Valley, described pinot noir best when he said, “God made cabernet sauvignon whereas the devil made pinot noir.” But the difficulties associated with pinot noir have not deterred wineries and winemakers around the world from attempting to grow and make pinot noir. California, Oregon, Australia and New Zealand are relatively new to the game.
On its home turf in Burgundy the wine is lighter colored than most other red wines and oftentimes has a pronounced black or red cherry bouquet with a farmyard overtone followed by rich fruit flavors accented by leather. That combination of aromas and flavors is hard to find outside of Burgundy. New Zealand, which has a cool climate favored by pinot noir, produces a much darker, bigger wine, with lots of fruit. It is now the most widely planted red wine grape in New Zealand, but it is only half the planting of the flag-bearing sauvignon blanc. Kiwi pinot noir does have a lot going for it. At the top of the list of plusses is its reasonable price and good quality. Most are in the range from $20 to $35 with only a few of the top wines above $50. At my last survey, a three-figure price tag is not to be found. The only rap against the wine is that it lacks a sense of place. The French word connoting sense of place is terroir. There is no question in my mind that the wines are enjoyable, but it takes a while for a wine region to produce wines that reflect its terroir. I have no doubt that will happen. Think of how long grapes have been grown and wine has been made in Burgundy.
Pinot noir grapes existed as early as 1897 in New Zealand, but it wasn’t until the mid-1980s that the plantings and winemaking began in earnest. The country’s wine regions enjoy a favorable cool climate and the right type of soils for growing pinot noir. There are five important regions for pinot noir; four in South Island – Marlborough, Central Otago, Waipara/ Canterbury and Nelson, and one in North Island – Wairarapa/ Martinborough. The wine from the latter at the southern tip of North Island exhibits plumy ripe fruit, sometimes with a meaty component. Marlborough at one of the northern tips of the South Island produces wine dominated by red fruit aromas and flavors of raspberries and plums.
Central Otago at the southern end of South Island, contrary to what you might guess from its name, produces two wine styles. One shows forward red berry fruit flavors and the other exhibits pronounced cherry flavors with more tannin. Wine from Waipara/Canterbury, toward the center of South Island, has pronounced sweet red fruit flavors with good acidity. Nelson at the other tip of the fork on the north side of South Island produces wine of great fragrance with cherry and plum flavors.
New Zealand’s vineyards are the southernmost in the world. Keep in mind when looking at the vintage on a wine label that the grape harvest is six months earlier than in the United States. The 2009 and 2010 vintages currently in wine stores are excellent vintages to try.
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Pick of the Bunch
2010 Spy Valley Pinot Noir, Marlborough ($23)
2009 Nautilus Pinot Noir, Marlborough ($25)
2009 Ata Rangi Pinot Noir, Martinborough ($44)
2009 Wairau River Pinot Noir, Marlborough ($17)
2009 Villa Maria Pinot Noir Cellar Selection, Marlborough ($20)
2009 Momo Pinot Noir, Marlborough ($22)