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New Zealand Pinot Noir: tasting 25 of the best 

Pinot Noir, the prima donna of red grape varieties, is doing rather well in New Zealand. So well, in fact, that you could argue that overall NZ makes the best Pinot Noirs outside of Burgundy. Now thatís a big claim, but one I feel is backed up from this tasting of 25 leading New Zealand Pinot Noirs. Yes, a handful of the leading names are missing, but still this was a rare opportunity to assess so many of these wines side-by-side.

Pinot Noir is a fussy grape. Itís difficult to grow, and tricky to vinify. This means that the wines it produces are invariably expensive, and the results are only sometimes worth the bother. But for some reason, Pinot Noir has a semi-mystical allure for those who have been bitten by the Pinot bug, and for many winemakers in the new world, getting Pinot Noir right has been sort of a holy grail of winemaking. 

New Zealand's wine regions. Click for larger image © www.aboutwine.com used with permission

The problem has been that most new world sites are too warm, resulting in over-ripe, jammy wines. And early attempts with cooler climates often had a streak of under-ripe, herbaceous character. Unpleasant. Then thereís the winemaking: one common fault has been to produce wines that are too big and extracted, with none of the finesse and subtlety that great Red Burgundies are well known for. Things have moved on, though, and there are many fine Pinots being produced in cooler regions in Australia and the USA. The big question, however, is whether their hit rate is as good as New Zealandís. I doubt it.

Pinot Noir is the most widely planted red variety in NZ with just under 1400 ha of vines. For purposes of comparison, this is about half the area occupied by Sauvignon Blanc, the current star of the NZ winemaking scene. Itís debatable whether NZ Pinot will ever eclipse NZ Sauvignon in the imagination of the wine drinking public, but it certainly has the potential to be bigger than Chardonnay, not in terms of quantity (Chardonnay is NZís most planted grape variety), but in quality and interest. Remember that NZ is still quite a young wine producing country Ė the number of vineyards has more than doubled over the last decade. With further growth and expansion likely over the next few years, itís likely that Pinot Noir will become increasingly important.

Now to the wines. Overall, the standard was very high. Three were rated very good, and 8 very good+. As many as 11 received the rating of 11 very good/excellent, with three attaining the rarely-awarded assessment of excellent. While there was plenty of stylistic variation, the winemaking stamp wasnít overpowering, and none of the wines was smothered in new oak. Personally, Iíd like to see wines with more earthiness and minerality, and perhaps a little less colour extraction: winemakers donít need to be quite so afraid of lighter-coloured wines. But Iím being picky, and it may well be that my preferences as a geek differ from those of many customers. These wines arenít cheap Ė Pinot Noir seldom is Ė but they offer pretty good value for money, with most hovering in the low to mid teens.

...to the wines

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May 2002