Marlborough New Zealand — pinot noir will have its day

Marlborough, New Zealand, rates amongst the world’s great wine growing regions even though it was first planted to vines just twenty five years ago.

Its great specialty — pungent, in-your-face whites made from the sauvignon blanc grape — enjoy an international following, shading even France’s Pouilly-sur-Loire and Sancerre, the wines on which they were modelled.

If you’ve seen the label of leading Marlborough producer, Cloudy Bay, then you already have some feeling for Marlborough’s Mountain-framed, broad Wairu Valley fanning north to the sea on the South Island’s northern tip.

The Wairu River cuts through the valley’s deep, basaltic gravels. These gravels, sometimes bursting to the surface, sometimes covered in river silt, host the area’s vines and in places resemble the Medoc in France’s Bordeaux region.

Looking across this huge valley and its subsidiaries, it’s staggering to envisage the massive glacier that must have ground mountains to rubble, in the process creating a unique, stony vineyard site at just the right latitude to make delicate, intensely-flavoured table wine.

According to Dr John Gladstones (Viticulture and Environment, Winetitles,1992) Marlborough’s heat-retaining, stony soils and cool, equable climate  ‘should theoretically result in outstanding delicacy and aroma retention in fruit and wines”.

Gladstones’ theoretical studies indicate a rosy future not just for Marlborough’s already proven sauvignon blanc and chardonnay but for “pinot noir (frost allowing) and pinot meunier …. for champagne-style wines in cool seasons, and for still dry red wines in warmer seasons”.

His theories tend to be supported by the experience of wine makers in the area. With twenty five years’ practice, collective wisdom says a definite yes to sauvignon blanc, chardonnay and pinot noir (for sparkling wine); no to cabernet sauvignon; yes, sometimes, to merlot and riesling; and yes to a bright future for pinot noir as a table wine, especially in warmer seasons.

As an example of the latter, compare pinot noir usage in cool 1997 and warm 1998: only 23 per cent of 1997’s 1522 tonnes went to table wine; in 1998 70 per cent of the 2262 tonnes made the grade, largely because warmer weather produced riper flavours and deeper colours.

On average, though, carefully managed pinot noir vineyards ought to produce fruit suited to table wine production in most years. The key, various makers tell me, are careful clonal selection and restricting yields to not more than 6 tonnes per hectare.

With sauvignon blanc yields sometimes double that (and selling for around $15 a bottle), we may safely assume that Marlborough pinot noir will never be cheap. But it could be very good, judging on some of the wines tasted there.

Selaks, Cloudy Bay, Hunters, Babich and Montana all make good pinots, ranging from the delicate and fine-grained Cloudy Bay to more sumptuous styles from the warmer 1998 vintage (Selaks and Babich). What these wines show is that Marlborough captures the elusive but lovely aroma and flavour of pinot as few other areas do.

The reason appears to lie in the climate more than in any other single factor. Pinot noir, they tell me, develops its best flavours under mild growing conditions and cool temperatures during ripening.

Using ‘summation of day degrees above 10 degrees’, a broad measure of solar energy available to vines during the growing season, we can see that Marlborough sits at the lower end of the spectrum at 1101. Compare this to Coonawarra’s 1337, Canberra’s 1424 and Bordeaux’s 1392.

In fact Dijon, in the heart of France’s Burgundy region and home of the pinot noir grape, has a heat summation not dissimilar to Marlborough’s at 1164. And it’s mean daily temperature of 16.1 degrees Celsius in September sits close to Marlborough’s March daily mean of 15.8.

This is vastly oversimplifying a complex subject, but it supports the view of Marlborough as a pinot noir region.

Montana, New Zealand’s largest wine maker, with around 800 hectares of vines in Marlborough, embraces this view, having recently planted 100 hectares of pinot noir in its new Kaituna Vineyard, at the foot of the Kaituna Hills in the Wairu Valley.

This vineyard alone is big enough to transform the pinot noir market in New Zealand. And we can look forward to increasing quantities of Marlborough pinot noir arriving in Australia as Montana, Corbans, Villa Maria, Selaks, Cloudy Bay and others expand production and hone their skills with this delightful variety.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 1998 & 2007

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