Pinot noir to follow sauv blanc as New Zealand’s specialty

When I first toured New Zealand’s wine regions in 1984, viticultural Marlborough was just eleven years old, yet its unique, pungent sauvignon blancs were already on the way to international success; crook wines were easy to find; and dozens of enthusiasts, reflecting the trend in California and Australia, were spreading the vine into every likely site on both Islands.

Visiting there two weeks back — as the biggest and one of the best vintages ever settled in bottle, tank and cask – Marlborough had overtaken Hawkes Bay and Gisborne as the largest and most important wine region; crook wines had been shoved aside by a broadening palette of exciting flavours; small makers continued their pioneering efforts (numbers are up from 131 in 1990 to 284 in 1998); and makers of all sizes prepared ambitious plans to take New Zealand wines to the world.

As New Zealand’s wine industry matures, the palate of flavours it offers continues to diverge from that offered by Australia’s wine makers. While we work largely with the same grape varieties, dramatically different climates, based largely on New Zealand more southerly latitudes, dictate a dramatically different mix of those varieties.

Hence, Australia’s wine makers work predominantly with chardonnay, semillon, riesling in whites and with shiraz, cabernet sauvignon and grenache in reds. Reds ripen and thrive in all but the most marginal of our wine-growing regions. Conversely, pinot noir, which needs a cool ripening period to bring out its best flavours, shines only in our most southerly or highest vineyards.

In New Zealand the pattern is different. Yes, the ubiquitous chardonnay sits comfortably just about anywhere. But shiraz and grenache perform poorly and cabernet shines only in a few select, carefully-managed locations.

Sauvignon blanc from Marlborough is arguably the best in the world. And pinot noir appears not only well suited to the climate but, in my opinion, may emerge as New Zealand’s second specialty after sauvignon blanc.

In fact it may well eclipse sauvignon blanc given the universally more appealing flavour of good pinot and the poor quality and high price of its main competitor, the red wine of France’s Burgundy region.

Gisborne, the ‘warmest’ of New Zealand’s big growing regions and source of its budget wines, lies at a latitude of about 39 degrees – placing it well south of Melbourne.

The region focuses almost exclusively on white wine production. Chardonnay, at 6,065 tonnes nosed ahead of hybrid muller thurgau’s 5,677 tonnes in 1998, followed by  various muscat varieties totalling 3,610 tonnes,  sauvignon blanc at 1,169 tonnes and semillon at 1,137 tonnes. Gisborne’s future probably remains tied to the fortunes of the small local market given the generally pedestrian nature of its wines.

Just south of the 39th parallel , Hawkes Bay, home of the vine since 1851, produces marginally less wine grapes than Gisborne (22,751 tonnes versus 23,649 in 1998) including the majority of New Zealand’s cabernet sauvignon (2,881 of 4,220 tonnes), most of which probably confirms Australians’ worst fears of New Zealand cabernet.

However, within a shale-soil area known as the Ngatarawa triangle, superb cabernets (Villa Maria was the best I tasted) are emerging. If it’s not the new Coonawarra or Bordeaux, Hawke’s Bay does have some similarity to those two regions in terms of solar heat available to vines during the growing season.

Time will tell if anything world class is to emerge from Hawkes Bay, but at this stage there’s outstanding drinking to be had from Villa Maria, Vidal, Trinity Hill and Te Mata reds.

South of Hawke’s Bay, around the Martinborough area (north east of Wellington, just below 41 degrees south) pinot noir (246 tonnes) and chardonnay (201 tonnes) dominated a local harvest of 804 tonnes of wine grapes in 1998.

Here, thanks largely to cooler ripening temperatures and wine-maker passion, we begin to see marvellous flavours from the notoriously difficult pinot grape. Hand-made products like Ata Rangi and Martinborough Vineyard pinot now attract high prices and sell out instantly in New Zealand, Australia and the United Kingdom. Dry River and Mulberry Hills appear to be building similar reputations.

A quick hop across the water to Blenheim on the south island takes us to one of the most exciting wine areas in the world – Marlborough, noted to date mainly for its sauvignon blanc (accounting for 10,286 tonnes of the 25,558 tonnes of wine grapes crushed there this year) but with tremendous potential, I believe, for pinot noir.

To be continued next week.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 1998 & 2007