John Saker: Dead-ringer pinot noirs from kilometres apart
Tasting New Zealand pinot noir blind and trying to ascertain region of origin is a fun but fraught sport. The curveballs come at you from all directions.
One is the fact that styles are constantly changing. Where, for example, have all those Central Otago dark fruit bombs of a decade ago gone?
Another is that the differences aren't that great in some cases. There are two regions in particular that for me are capable of producing dead ringers; I'm often thinking I'm tasting a pinot noir from one when, in fact, it's from the other. They are Wairarapa and Waipara.
The similarity comes through strongly in the aromatics. The pinots from both regions often have a lifted spiced floral scent of a particular sort – a cherry-like sweetness that is never rich or showy. Around that are coarser, more earthy smells.
Put them together and you have a sense of wholeness, of prettiness made more attractive by being presented with less refined elements. Beauty and the beast, if you like.
Why would this be so? You'd think Wairarapa pinots would be closer in style to their counterparts in Marlborough rather than to those of Waipara. Wairarapa and Marlborough are relatively close and almost share the same latitude, while Waipara is hundreds of kilometres further south in North Canterbury. There's too much diversity in soil types for that to supply an answer.
It's all about heat and wind. The vines of both Wairarapa and Waipara grow in river valleys that run approximately north to south. They each have an exposed southern flank that beckons in those glacial winds that whistle up the eastern side of the country from Antarctica. The same southerly that hits the Waipara will pass through the Wairarapa hours later. Marlborough is sheltered from all that.
The two Ws are also remarkably in sync with average growing degree days (days between October and April where the temperature exceeds 10 C). Their figures are almost the same, while Marlborough is much warmer than both.
Adding to the whole likeness thing, the two regions' names are quite similar. This has been known to confuse te reo-challenged US importers. It was a reason behind last year's decision by Wairarapa wine people to call their new combined marketing entity "Wellington Wine Region".
Silver Wing Reserve Pinot Noir 2014, $40
Waipara-grown, this Seville orange and maraschino cherry-infused wine is vibrant and complete. It has an elegant shape and a long, tapering finish.
Palliser Estate Pinot Noir 2015, $57
This Martinborough pinot is really coming into its own. Lifted red fruit and Campari flavours stretch across a taut, urgent palate. It's a light, svelte-textured wine with excellent length.