Say “Down Under” to almost anyone, and one word comes to mind - Australia. That huge continent/country dominates the Southern Hemisphere wine world too, thanks not only to its size, but also to the size of its wines. Big, bold, ripe, extrovert, much like its people, Australian wines have achieved a popularity and market penetration around the world that no other New World (i.e., non-European) winemaking country can match with its wines, not even the U.S.
But there’s another country “down under” that is challenging Australia for the wine world’s attention. And although New Zealand lacks Australia’s sheer size and audacity, its wines are beginning to make themselves heard. New Zealand sauvignon blanc has already established itself as one of the wine world’s best and most unique renditions of that versatile grape. And now pinot noir is getting increasing attention, as quality improves and New Zealand begins to establish its own unique voice with this most fascinating and challenging varietal.
Although wine has been grown in New Zealand since the mid-19th century, and pinot noir has been known to exist here by the early 20th, the growth of pinot as an important varietal in New Zealand really dates only from the early 1980’s. Even as late as 1995, there was only 415 hectares of pinot planted in New Zealand; by 2004, there were over 2700 hectares. It is now the 3rd most planted varietal, after sauvignon blanc and chardonnay, and it is gaining ground rapidly. The focus now is to distinguish the particular characteristics of the various terroirs in New Zealand that have proven capable of producing quality pinot.
New Zealand’s Pinot Places Click Here for New Zealand Wine Map
Wine is grown in most areas of New Zealand, except for the wet west coast, and the cold extreme south (remember that down under, south = cold, north = tropics). Most of the North Island is given over to warm-climate varietals, such as cabernet, merlot, and increasingly, syrah. Although there may be occasional plantings of pinot, the northerly wine regions of Northland, Waikato/Bay of Plenty, Gisborne, and Hawke’s Bay are mostly devoted to other varietals that benefit from warmer temperatures and a longer growing season.
Most of the pinot-growing regions are in the South Island, and in the southern extremity of the North Island. From north to south, the following are the five principal pinot places in New Zealand:
Wairarapa: This is the North Island’s main pinot growing region, located at the south-eastern extremity of the island, just north of the capitol, Wellington. Included in this region is the sub-region of Martinborough, which is arguably New Zealand’s best-known and most highly regarded terroir for pinot noir. Pinot is the most important varietal in Wairarapa, representing over 40% of the planted acreage.
Nelson: This region is just to the west of the town of Nelson in the north central portion of the South Island. Included in the Nelson region are two sub-regions, the Waimea Plains to the southwest of Nelson, and Upper Moutere to the northwest. Pinot represents about 25% of the planted acreage, about the same as chardonnay and sauvignon blanc.
Marlborough: This region, located in the northeast corner of the South Island, is the home of much of New Zealand’s sauvignon blanc, and the largest and most well-known producers are located here. However, most of these producers also make pinot noir, and it is becoming increasingly important in the region, with about 15% of the acreage planted to pinot (sauvignon represents over 50% of the acreage in Marlborough).
Canterbury: This region stretches down the east coast of the South Island, from just south of Marlborough, to southwest of Christchurch, the South Island’s largest city. Pinot is the most significant varietal in this region, with over 30% of the producing area. The northern portion of this region, about an hour north of Christchurch, is the sub-region of Waipara, home to most of the best-regarded wineries in this region. South of the Waipara is the Canterbury Plains, west and southwest of Christchurch.
Central Otago: Just as the movie “Sideways” put the California Central Coast (and pinot) on the map, New Zealand native Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” made this picturesque region famous. Located in the south central portion of the South Island and the only inland wine region in New Zealand, Central Otago is truly pinot noir country, with over 60% of the vineyards planted to the varietal. Although it is one of the newest regions to be planted to pinot, already some sub-regions have been identified and are being marketed as distinct terroirs within the Central Otago region: Wanaka to the north; Gibbston to the west (and closest to Queenstown, the largest city in the region); the Cromwell Basin, east of Gibbston, which includes the even smaller sub-regions of Bendigo and Bannockburn; and Alexandra, to the southeast.
The wine industry in New Zealand is very much aware of the importance of pinot noir, not only economically, but also to the global image of the wine industry here. Pinot generates passion and commands the kind of prestige in the international wine community that sauvignon blanc never will. Accordingly, there is a tremendous focus on Pinot Noir in New Zealand, not only to increase sales and exports, but also to encourage the study and improvement of pinot in New Zealand—to understand the nature of the various terroirs, improve quality, and justify the placement of New Zealand pinot noir on the same playing field as Burgundy and the best from California and Oregon.
Six years ago, the first country-wide Pinot Noir conference was held, and subsequently it was decided to hold a similar event every three years. It was designed to be primarily an opportunity for the various elements of the New Zealand wine industry to network, but is also open to the public to promote pinot noir in New Zealand and the world. [In the “off” years, there is a pinot festival held in Central Otago that focuses mainly on the wines from that region.] I first learned of this event around the time of the second one, Pinot Noir 2004. I filed it away as one of those “it would be fun to attend that” events. Well, a few years later the opportunity presented itself, so from January 29 to February 1, 2007, I was immersed in the world of New Zealand Pinot Noir, in Wellington, New Zealand’s capitol.
The Pinot Noir 2007 is an event that virtually the entire country goes all-out to support. Not only is nearly every pinot-producing winery of note represented, but some of the finest restaurateurs and chefs in New Zealand (and a couple from the U.S.) provide the food for the numerous meals included in the program. 500 participants from around the world went through 9000 bottles of wine, using over 12,000 Zerrutti stems in 5 separate seminars; 3 grand tastings; 6 specialized concurrent seminars focusing on the making, marketing and tasting of pinot; 2 long lunches; and 3 dinners, including a closing gala that featured a performance by the World of Wearable Art (kind of a Cirque du Soleil for fashion).
An international panel of wine writers, makers, sellers and sommeliers acted as panelists for the various seminars, including the following:
background and build-up.
Let’s drink some wine!
© April 2007