The rise of pinot noir

17:00, Jun 18 2011

The late Andre Tchelistcheff, the pint-sized dean of American winemakers, once declared: "God made cabernet sauvignon, the Devil made pinot noir" – the grape that is, not the wine.

And so it proved to be when in the 1960s and 70s this great red grape of Burgundy was given a go in New Zealand. It was what Jancis Robinson, a latter-day goddess of wine, says it is: "A minx of a vine."

Half the problem in this case was the quality and type of clones available at the time, which, thanks to the God who made cab sav, only delayed but did not destroy the desire of New Zealand winemakers to produce one of the world's most celebrated wines.

They were driven by the challenge of doing so rather than any great belief that this was a wine that would appeal to the masses.

But it would impress those who had already been seduced by what has variously been described as "sex in glass" or "the most romantic of wines", and could afford it.

How times have changed.


Pinot noir is now New Zealand's most planted red (some is used in sparkling wines) and it is so widely admired and enjoyed that it is now giving our distinctive sauvignon blanc a bit of a nudge in the international recognition stakes.

Let's take as an example the success of pinot noir at the recent world wine awards run by Decanter, the influential British wine magazine, which this year attracted a whopping 12,000 entries.

Of the 16 gold medals won by New Zealand wines, seven were for pinot noirs, with at least one each for wines produced in the regions where it does best – Central Otago, Waipara, Marlborough and Martinborough.

One of three from Bannockburn, in Central, also won a trophy for the best regional pinot and all seven were among the eight pinots (the eighth was French) that featured in the top 100 wines of show.

To put this in some sort of perspective, only three New Zealand sauvignon blancs, one of them a sticky, performed with any distinction.

Waimea Estate and Vavasour won gold and regional awards for their 2010s, and Marisco Vineyards' 2009 A Sticky End Noble Sauvignon Blanc was awarded gold.

None, however, was included in the top 10 sauvignon blancs, remembering that many recognised as our best are not shown.

And the same applies to pinot noirs, all wines in fact.

What was it then about the pinot noirs from New Zealand that the judges did reward, that appealed to them most?

Their fruitiness and friendliness; their substance and the silken texture that is the hallmark of pinots everywhere I'd suggest. Compared with many pinot noirs of similar quality they also represent excellent value for money, though this is not taken into account.

The gold medal and trophy-winning pinots chosen in the Decanter Top 100 are:

Domain Road Vineyard 2009 (about $38)
A big wine with a future to match from a relatively new Central Otago winery.

One to watch.Akarua 2010 Rua
A soft and savoury $25-a-bottle Bannockburn wine that was only recently released and at this price will quickly disappear.

Black Estate 2009
A powerful and extremely stylish cherried pinot from Waipara that sells for about $41 a bottle. Classy stuff.

Matua Valley 2010 Single Vineyard ($69.90)
Another beauty from Bannockburn. The first in a new premium range from Matua that's up front, round and succulent.

Villa Maria 2009 Cellar Selection (about $32)
A rich and elegant Marlborough wine that is typically layered with flavour. One of New Zealand's best-value pinots.

Vynfields 2009 Single Estate (about $39)
A charming organic Martinborough wine with an appealing savoury-truffle character. The 2008 is a good one too.

Waipara Hills 2009 Equinox
A silken mouthfiller from Canterbury that is great buying at about $30 a bottle. Drink now or later.

The eighth and last wine on the list was a Burgundy from Albert Bichot.

The Southland Times