pinot noir

Beyond Sauvignon Blanc – Prime Pinot Noir Time in New Zealand

sauvignon blanc - pinot noirI love former West End actor Oz Clarke’s description of New Zealand’s brash, pungent Sauvignon Blanc, an iconic style created by Cloudy Bay winemaker Kevin Judd. He calls it a “cloudburst, thrilling, shocking, lime zest, capsicum, love me or leave me” style of Sauvignon Blanc. Kevin Judd, who produced Cloudy Bay’s first 25 vintages and who now has his own winery, Greywacke, had no idea this blend of green and tropical flavors would take the world by storm. He had the idea of blending in the green, tart early picked wine his crew loved so much with fruit picked just ripe, as well as some that was overripe and tropical. Now, some winemakers are dialing back on these opulent flavors, both the tropical passion fruit and pineapple, and pyrazines, Sauvignon Blancs’s signature zesty green and herbaceous notes.

pinot noir

Villa Maria

These days higher tier producers are focusing on textural elements they can manipulate using winemaking techniques such as stirring the lees/yeast sediment, and ageing in barrel. Most large production New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc is not aged in oak. Pyrazines and oak are very antagonistic – the oak elevates the pungent greenness to a point where flavors clash. But, if riper fruit is used without the green, time in barrel softens and elevates the wine to a new, if different, stylistic level.


Single vineyard sites along with specific soil types and clones are being more closely explored, as well. A new Bordeaux clone that ripens earlier, allowing for full flavor development at lower alcohol level is on the rise. Winemakers are also picking early in warmer vintages, such as 2015, because they don’t want acid to blow out. Who says brash and ripe and forward can’t have balance and restraint?

This sense of restraint is at the forefront of the reds, both with the Bordeaux inspired
Cabernet/Merlot blends, and in particular with Pinot Noir. The Pinot Noir grape is an industry-wide focus now, and is particularly sensitive to its environment. For me and most of my fellow wine experts, Pinot Noir begins and ends with Burgundy. That is the bar. It is a very high one, with expectations dashed continually. Pinot Noir is called the most sensuous of wines because of its enticing, sometimes earthy perfume and soft, round, silky, but still structured texture.

pinot noir

Pernod Ricard

Raising the Bar

Oz Clarke says. “New Zealand has absolutely thrown the gauntlet down with Pinot Noir.” New
Zealand’s only Master Sommelier, Cameron Douglas, says, “Pinot Noir is New Zealand’s jewel. Sauvignon Blanc led the way, giving us the top ten hit we needed, and for over 25 years we have basked in its glory. Pinot Noir is getting us dangerously close to Rock Star status.”

“New Zealand is very young” said local Master of Wine Emma Jenkins at Pinot Noir New Zealand 2017, which took place in Wellington earlier this year. She chaired a session entitled, “The Future – what will our evolution look like in search of Turangawaewae.” Turangawaewae, we had learned earlier in the conference, was the Maori word for the place or places we feel especially empowered and connected to, our foundation, our place in the world. When applied to wine, the word is terroir, which I like to explain as the place where the grapes grow up.

Jenkins said, “Explore, know yourself, get out of your head, look in the mirror. Look at conservative Christchurch with their pearls and cardigans, but underneath they have fishnets. We have an All Black (national rugby team member) that wears mascara, and a transgender mayor, and we were the first country to give women the vote. This is part of understanding our Pinot Noir.”

pinot noir

Fromm Winery

Exploration of Greatness

The conference, with 80 international delegates from around the world, along with 600 consumers, collectors and trade, explored New Zealand Pinot Noir in great detail, on its own, as well as on the world stage with an international tasting, an “Exploration of Greatness.” Japan’s only Master of Wine, Kenichi Ohashi, provided a snapshot into his culture with his presentation. He joined well-known and very engaging Australian critic Mike Bennie, local producer Marcel Giesen, and Jancis Robinson OBE MW in an exploration of greatness as shown through the lens of Pinot Noir.

Kenichi Ohashi stunned the 600 attendees to silence with his statement, “Great Pinot Noir is transparent, with the best qualities of premium water. What I mean is that it is pure, lustrous, and smooth, with a completely pure aroma and taste.” He showed a stunning photo of the majestic golden temple, Ginkaku-ji in Kyoto, and then prompted us to lower our gaze to see the reflection of it in the surface of the pond before it. He explained, “This image captures the key element of Pinot. The still transparent pond water reflects the image above. Transparent is more complex than the traditional English meaning of the word. For me, it means wine has three things. An unadulterated pure aroma and palate. A finish suited to the wine with a focus on harmonious aroma and palate. And silence and understatement,” a perfect way to sum up the ethereal beauty of Pinot Noir.

pinot noir

The New Kid in the Wine Industry

Conference chair Ben Glover stated, “We are young Kiwi winemakers learning to make Pinot Noir.” Trinity Hill CEO Michael Henley added, “We are new. We are still first generation. We are just starting to get second generation winemakers. Our modern day wine industry began in 1973.” For a new industry, they are doing quite well. New Zealand recently became the third largest exporter of wines by value to the USA, impressively trailing France and Italy.

New Zealand also has the highest per bottle price of any country in the world. But don’t let this fool you into thinking the wines are expensive. What this reflects is the concentration of production on every day affordable wines with friendly prices and styles, not bottom market manufactured commercial plonk.

For Sauvignon Blancs, Planet Grape Wine Review recognizes their diversity, quality, and good value. A few of our favorites are:

For Pinot Noirs, Planet Grape Wine Review recognizes their quality, uniqueness, value and finesse.

Typical Regional Styles of Pinot Noir

Provided by New Zealand Wines

Climate is the major factor in the distinction of regional styles.

HAWKE’S BAY: Varietal aromatics of cherry, berry fruits, plum, florals and spice, through to more savoury and earthy examples, all with beautifully soft and supple tannins and great richness of flavour.

WAIRARAPA: Darker fruit aromas, often with a savoury component. Rich, full, sweet fruit on the entry with flavours in the dark plum and chocolate spectrum. The structure of the wines are based around long, fine tannins.

NELSON: Fragrant, complex, earthy and savoury textured wines with rich, spicy, cherry and plum flavours. These wines are concentrated, balanced and supple with fine lingering tannin.

MARLBOROUGH: Red fruit spectrum aromatically and bright raspberry, cherry and plums on the palate. Wines typically have a freshness from subtle acidity that is complemented by their linear structure and even tannin backbone. The Southern Valleys tend to produce fuller bodied wines.

CANTERBURY & WAIPARA VALLEY: Red and dark berry fruit with spicy notes. Firm structure and acidity. Savoury earthy characteristics.

CENTRAL OTAGO: Gibbston Valley district has sweet, soft, upfront fruitiness with flavours of raspberry, strawberries and fresh herbs and spicy notes. The warmer Bannockburn and Lowburn areas produce fuller, more tannic wines with cherries and dark fruit. Undertones of dried thyme is most prevalent in Pinots from Alexandra.

Learn more about New Zealand wines here:

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