New Zealand's top Pinot Noirs
Jamie Goode's selection of the best New Zealand Pinot Noirs, a brief report

INTRODUCTION

I love New Zealand Pinot Noir.

In this abbreviated report, I'm not going to waste time discussing which country makes the best Pinot Noir, or trying to draw parallels with red Burgundy. Instead, I want to tell you about some of my favourite wines. Iím a huge Pinot fan, and New Zealand is a happy hunting ground for me. So this report is simply an expression of my enthusiasm for some very nice wines.

The bulk of the tasting notes here come from New Zealandís Pinot Noir celebration in January 2013, but they have been supplemented by notes from wines tasted elsewhere. Pinot Noir 2013 was a remarkable event. Four days of immersion into Pinot Noir, great food, good company, and a great city on its best behaviour, with almost unheard-of wall-to-wall sunshine for a week.

 
Wellington waterfront

Iíd been to the previous event, in 2010, and that was great. But 2013 was another level up. Instead of inviting foreign speakers to come and tell New Zealand that they were doing quite well with Pinot Noir, the organizers wisely decided that this time they would let the wines speak. The main thrust of the four days was on letting each of the regions tell their own story, and to give people time to taste, taste and taste some more.

From my perspective, as a visitor, this was just perfect. Iím not keen on sitting through long talks, and panel tastings where you have six glasses in front of you but it takes 90 minutes to get through them because of all the chat. But give me a glass and a chance to taste my way through a room full of Kiwi wine producers, and I'm very happy indeed.


Food time at Pinot Noir 2013

Some notes on my notes. Kiwi Pinot Noir is pretty consistent. I rarely taste a bad one, and the overall standard is high. This leads to a lot of very similar scores, for which I apologise. In part, this is because of the limitations of the 100 point scale, which gets horridly congested at the top end. So there is actually quite a bit of difference between 91 and 94 points, or even between 93 and 95. I would love for the scale to be used more fully, with an average wine getting 60, and a good one 70, and so on, but I can't unilaterally establish a scale of this breadth without confusing everyone who is used to the Parker/Wine Spectator usage. And the 20 point scale as used by Jancis Robinson and a few others suffers from similar clustering at the high end. This clustering, together with the consistently high quality of New Zealand Pinot Noir, does make the scores bunch a bit in the 92Ė94 point zone. In my tasting notes I have tried to indicate the style of the wine in words, but we suffer with a lack of effective ways of communicating our flavour perception in terms of language.

A philosophical point is in order here. Scores are not the property of a wine. It makes no sense to say, Ďthis is a 96-point wineí. A score is the result of an interaction between a taster and a wine, and the taster is an important part of the equation.

So no 100-point Pinots? I am wary of using scores that are too high.  I think New Zealand is making some great Pinot Noir, but I think that some even better Pinots will be made here in the future as vines get older and people learn more about what makes for a special vineyard site. If as a critic you are already dishing out 98/99/100 point scores on a regular basis, where do you go then? 

 
Some notable Pinot Noir 2013 attendees diving at the waterfront


What do I like in Pinot Noir? Questions of style

What do I like in Pinot Noir? I look for a few things in a great Pinot. First of all, that indefinable quality of elegance. I wish I could define elegance in a wine, but I can't. I know it when I see it, though.

I want to be charmed and seduced by a wine that has beauty. It can have power, but that power has to be reined in and balanced by subtlety, too.

I look for detail. I don't just want a wall of sweet fruit, but I want there to be details in the wine: points of interest. Complexity, I guess.

Texture is so important. Pinot Noir should have a smooth mouthfeel, and a bit of mid-palate weight.  I have heard it suggested that one of the effects of Brettanomyces (the spoilage yeast that affects too many red wines) is to use up the little bit of sugar left after fermentation that Saccharomyces cerevisiae (the main wine yeast) can't metabolize. This trace of sugar helps give texture, and when it is stripped out, Pinot Noir suffers. This is aside from the sensory impact of Brettanomyces. Brett is a disaster in Pinot Noir, and so I prefer not to have any, even though some people like the way it makes a wine more savoury.

Definition and freshness are important in Pinot. There needs to be a brightness to  the wine.

Non-fruit complexity is important. Fruit alone is not enough to make a truly compelling wine. But that non-fruit character needs to be appropriate: you don't want your Pinot to be angular or rustic.

I don't like noticeable new oak in Pinot Noir, especially when it gives that spicy, roast coffee character. It removes elegance.

In terms of fruit, I like fresh, bright fruit characters, not over-ripe jammy ones.

In terms of colour, I would rather not have a deep coloured Pinot. Pale colour can be a good thing. One of Pinots virtues is that it can be pale-coloured, light bodied, and yet complex, full, aromatic and ethereal.

I love perfumed Pinots, especially when fruit characters are joined by floral and even subtle meaty notes.

Although my preference is for more elegant, lighter Pinots, sometimes big ones can work well. So I am open-minded. Rich Pinot can taste like cool-climate Syrah, and I love cool-climate Syrah. Lighter, very cool-climate Syrah shares a resemblance with Pinot Noir. The two seem to have something in common.

It is all about balance. The wine is a whole. And it's really difficult to write tasting notes that are holistic rather than reductionist in nature. A list of exotic fruits and spices is no use at all. That's why the use of metaphor and even metonymy is important in describing wine.

 
Marlborough

Regionality?

One of the stories of New Zealand Pinot Noir is regionality. All regions in New Zealand are turning out seriously interesting Pinot Noir, with the possible exceptions of Hawkes Bay, Auckland and Waiheke Island. Can you spot Pinot Noir from the different regions blind? This is tricky. I donít think I can reliably, although this does depend on the wine. Some taste more of their region than others.

Marlborough is the really interesting story at the moment. It is the largest wine region in New Zealand, and more Pinot Noir comes from here than anywhere else. Yet until recently, it wasn't taken all that seriously. Some of the wines were pretty ordinary, but there's now a critical mass of serious Marlborough Pinot. The braided alluvial terraces that make up much of the region aren't great for Pinot, because you tend to get quite a bit of variation within the row. And ripeness and under-ripeness in the same batch of grapes may be quite interesting for Sauvignon Blanc, but it's bad news for Pinot Noir, resulting in wines with a cherry cola sort of character (some over-ripeness, some under-ripeness in the same wine). But the clay-rich soils of the southern valleys are more homogeneous and seem to be ideal for Pinot. The climate here is certainly ideal for Pinot.

 
Waipara

Martinborough and the wider Wairarapa area is a Pinot hot spot. This is home to some of the country's top examples, and it's a Pinot-dominated region. It typically makes Pinots that are quite big in size, with ripe dark cherry fruit. They can get a bit too rich sometimes, but overall there's a lot of Pinot fun to be had here.

Waipara is one of the leading Pinot areas in New Zealand. The climate here is cool and variable, but it's worth the risks incurred by growers, because when it's good it's brilliant. I'm including here the pioneering wineries of the north Canterbury hills.


Central Otago

Central Otago is rightly famous as a specialist Pinot Noir region. From a standing start just a couple of decades ago, it has grown rapidly into one of the country's top Pinot regions. The standard of Central Otago Pinot is remarkably high, and this is now home to some of the top examples of this super variety. It's a rugged, visually striking region, and I'm fascinated by how the place and the wines seem to share something in common. And I just love this quote, which Rob Hay of Chard farm attributes to a New Zealand wine writer, made in the early 1990s: ĎIf Central Otago wine producers think they can produce premium quality wine, they are seriously deluding themselves.í Classic.

Nelson is a small, friendly wine region, and seems to have a talent for quite a few different varieties. Pinot Noir is one of these. The quality varies a little, but the best ones are peers with New Zealandís best.

For tasting notes and scores, click below:
NEW ZEALAND'S TOP PINOT NOIRS

Wines tasted 01/13  
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