Look out Burgundy, here comes New Zealand

In the eighties and nineties, New Zealand, led by the Marlborough region, carved a global niche for itself with sauvignon blanc. This century it’s set, I believe, to create a similar niche for pinot noir, the difficult-to-make but seductive red originating in France’s Burgundy region.

Already it’s New Zealand’s number one red variety in tonnes produced, ranking third behind the popular whites sauvignon blanc and chardonnay.

At present the hot money as to where New Zealand’s finest pinots might come from probably sits on Martinborough (north east of Wellington) and Central Otago, near Queenstown.

But a number of other areas, including Nelson, to the west of Marlborough on the north coast of the South Island, and Waipara, to the north of Christchurch, are also in the running.

Judged by international column centimetres devoted to New Zealand pinot noir, Central Otago ought to be favourite. But it’s early days in this amazingly diverse and viticulturally risky region.

Marlborough, typecast as a sauvignon blanc producer, doesn’t always rate a mention in pinot noir commentary. Yet it’s a major producer of the variety and it’s not all destined for sparkling wine production.

Marlborough’s big push into pinot began in the mid nineties as Montana, New Zealand’s largest wine producer (subsequently acquired by Pernod Ricard), established broad acres specifically for red table wine production.

From growing broad acres to making top pinot noir is a huge step, requiring great attention to detail in vineyard and winery. Even so, by 2003, Montana and its subsidiary Stoneleigh were producing attractive varietal pinots at several quality and price levels.

The last time I visited Montana, in winter 2003, the winemakers believed that the skills they were learning on a small scale could be scaled up to make large volumes of attractive pinot at a modest price. Wines tasted subsequently tend to support this confidence.

However, every region needs its flagship wines – products seen as benchmarks of a style, much as Ata Rangi and Martinborough Vineyards have done for Martinborough and Felton Road has done for Central Otago pinot noir.

While a couple of Marlborough producers – like Fromm – have gone close to that distinction, I believe that Wither Hills, part of the winemaking arm of brewer Lion Nathan, is about to get there.
And while production of Wither Hills Pinot Noir is not massive, it’s sufficient to take advantage of Lion

Nathan’s large distribution network. In other words, unlike the superb product of those boutique makers, at least you and I have some chance of finding Wither Hills pinot in a retail store.

Whatever, the volume available, Brent Marris’s achievement in making pinot of this quality is formidable. It’s been a long-term goal of his in a lifetime of growing grapes and making wine in Marlborough.

Today Brent tends extensive vineyards containing several pinot noir clones planted at a variety of sites along the base of the Wither Hills. He processes these in a winery purpose built to handle numerous small batches – each fermented and matured separately prior to final blending.

The resulting bright, fresh, complex wines give infinitely more drinking pleasure than the dirty, dull, expensive or just mediocre wine that too often poses as Burgundy.

The Burgundians still make the best pinot noirs. But unless they can lift the standard of average Burgundy, then New Zealand is going to have a field day. And Marlborough could be leading the pack.

Wither Hills Marlborough Pinot Noir 2004 $45-$50
At least one corner of Marlborough produces wine of a quality to challenge Martinborough and Central Otago in New Zealand’s pinot noir ratings.  On the cooler, southern side of the Wairau Valley, Wither Hills — run for Lion Nathan by long-time Marlborough vigneron Brent Marris – makes what I believe are some of the best commercial pinots in the world. It didn’t happen overnight. But with maturing vines, a diversity of clones, multiple sites and a purpose built winery, Brent now makes bright, pure, beautifully fragrant and intense pinot like this stunning 2004. I’ve yet to taste the $50 French Burgundy that could hold a light to it.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2006 & 2007