Marlborough Pinot: Work in Progress
Monday 4 February
Marlborough accounts for nearly half of all Pinot Noir plantings in New Zealand so why am I still unmoved by the majority of the wines that are emerging?
There was a lot of chatter from critics getting excited by Marlborough Pinot Noir at conference Pinot2013 in Wellington but I’m still not getting it.
Dog Point’s Ivan Sutherland admitted: “We are late starters” to the Pinot game and they “still have a long way to go.”
There are some encouraging wines from producers including Auntsfield and Fromm but they still haven’t yet managed to attain a level of complexity seen in Pinot Noirs from Martinborough, Waipara and Central Otago.
Hopefully, Marlborough will play catch up in the coming decade, as it takes the red variety increasingly seriously. The ambitious producers in the region have discarded the Pinot Noir clones that were planted for sparkling wine in favour of vine material better suited to decent red Pinot - and these vines are starting to reach some level of maturity.
Site selection is also playing a large part in Marlborough’s attempt to become serious Pinot Noir producers. The clay soils of the region’s Southern Valleys – including the Omaka, Brancott and Waihope Valleys - show promise. The wines from these clay soils show a greater density than Marlborough has ever achieved but Sutherland is right: The region still has a long way to go if it wants to become as well known for its Pinot Noir as its Sauvignon Blanc.
Local winemakers believe they are starting to get to grips with this demanding variety but on too many occasions, the fruit is overpowered by oak, not having the fruit weight to cope with the barrel treatment it receives.
I often prefer the lighter styles such as Jules Taylor’s 2010 Pinot Noir, which isn’t trying too hard to be something it’s not. It is an easygoing style, juicy and soft with lifted red cherry and bramble fruits. It’s one of those wines you could drink a lot of and would be delicious slightly chilled. I’d much rather have that than a Pinot Noir that tastes of toast.
However, I’d still much rather have a Central Otago, Martinborough or Waipara Pinot over Marlborough but patience might be all that’s required to change my mind.
2010 Fromm Clayvin Vineyard Pinot Noir
Attractively fragrant nose with attractuve herbal notes, lifted florals and black cherry. The fruit is pure, caresses the mouth and is focused on the mid palate. There’s only 10-15% new oak on this and it’s all the better for it – why can’t more producers in Marlborough follow their lead? Tannins are relatively abundant for Pinot but they are fine and mouthcoating. Long length. A very good effort 18/20
2010 Auntsfield Road Ridge Pinot Noir
Pure aromas reminiscent of damson and red cherry. Sweetly fruited on entry. Ripe and rich on the mid palate. Relatively firm tannin for Pinot with firm acidity providing a taut and linear finish. A well-made wine that is holding its 35% new French oak astoundingly well. 17.5+/20
The Waitaki Valley and why Central Otago is “turning wines into cartoons”
Friday 3 August
This week the producers of the Waitaki Valley have been on the road, touting their wares.
Despite two of its producers receiving the accolade of New Zealand’s best Pinot Noir at the International Wine Challenge and best Pinot Noir at the Shanghai International Wine Challenge in the past month, most people look perplexed when you mention its name.
It’s in North Otago, in case you were wondering, 160km northeast of Central Otago’s Cromwell. Consultant Jeff Sinnott, winemaker for Shanghai trophy winner Ostler has spent the past 11 years in Central Otago and now having a foot in both camps made a useful comparison.
“Waitaki is slightly warmer than the Gibbston Valley [the coolest part of Central Otago’s subregions] but Waitaki has warmer temperatures in the late autumn which equals longer hang time allowing the tannins to ripen.”
In the warmer regions of Central Otago, such as Bannockburn and Alexandra, the long hang time isn’t usually possible as autumn frosts often dictate harvest decisions. “In Central Otago I don’t think I have ever made a completely tannin ripe wine and I have been making Central wines for 10 years. You are getting two brix a week from veraison to picking the fruit and so it is picked within five weeks [although that is about normal for Burgundy].”
“Then you are tempted to add water to get the alcohol down.” I think this temptation might become too much to bear for some!
Central Otago’s reds are generally sweetly fruited and fuller-bodied than the rest of the country’s Pinots. Final alcohols of 14 or 14.5 percent are quite normal. I mention that I’ve seen a growing tendency for a powerful, log-fire like oak-derived char to become an element of Central Otago’s wines – almost becoming a hallmark of the region.
“One of the most successful Pinot producers in Central Otago is also a barrel importer,” he answered.
“Central Otago is in danger of becoming a parody. It’s turning wines into cartoons and we are trying to make oil paintings here.”.
In the Waitaki, ripening is much slower – almost dangerously slow. The time between veraison and picking can be as much as 10 weeks! I imagine that the local producers must have very short fingernails.
“This is right on the edge of possibility,” adds Sinnott. “A lot of people will follow the line of least resistance but that isn’t available for Waitaki winemakers. I’d say in terms of difficulty, Central would be an 8 and the Waitaki would be a 9.5.”
You’re likely to see more vintage variation as a result. The 2010s are much warmer in profile, with sweeter fruit, lacking the tautness, elegance and minerality of the cooler years, like 2011.
Yields are low – in part due to hostile weather: rain, frost, wind and hungry birds make ripening rapes a risky business. Having experimented with yields as low as 2 tons to the hectare (around 14hl/ha), they’ve found that low yields doesn’t necessarily mean better fruit, as the abundant 1982 vintage in Bordeaux also demonstrated. “We are finding the sweet spot is 4t/ha and any lower you get strong tomato leaf-like character,” says Sinnott.
Black Stilt Pinot Noir 2011
Pure and elegant nose with fine pepper and black cherry fruit aromatics. Light bodied, fine grained, chalky-textured tannin - likely derived from limestone. Racy acidity leaves a clean palate. Not particularly complex but shows the Waitaki’s characteristics and cool climate Pinot Noir typicity. 17/20
Not so cheap but bloody delicious:
John Forrest Pinot Noir 2009
Pure, focused, with a plummy core of fruit overlaid with clove and cinnamon spice. It has fine grained tannins, a chalky texture on the finish with fine acidity and great linearity Complex and elegant. 18.5/20.
Otiake Gewurztraminer 2011
I don’t like Gewurz - it’s just that it’s usually over the top and a bit fat. But this is pure and tight without overt florals. Instead it shows fruit salad, lime, lemon and incredible freshness for a low acid variety. It’s dry and finishes clean. 18/20
Ostler Lakeside Vines Pinot Gris 2011
This is almost Alsatian in style with restrained savoury notes, spice and pear on the nose. It is medium in body, is richly fruited yet retains a tautness of structure. On the long finish there’s white flowers, bruised apple and lavender. Worthy of a 17.5/20 at the very least but shows potential to be as good as premium Alsatian Pinot Gris in the future with vine age.
Pasquale Riesling Shrivel 2011
I have partly fallen in love with this wine because of Pasquale’s owner Antonio, who told me that this was a good wine to have for a lovemaking session before breakfast Clean and pure with intense lemon, mandarin aromas. It is piquant, zesty and perfectly balanced despite 160g/l residual sugar - that’s probably thanks to a T/A of 9! Hearing that I was newly married, Antonio gave me a bottle to take home - I haven’t yet opened it.
Why does Waitaki deserve its win?
Monday 25 June
The Waitaki Valley in New Zealand’s North Otago region has come of age this week: a Pinot Noir from this marginal region has been named the International Wine Challenge’s best Kiwi Pinot.
The region’s first vineyard, Doctor’s Creek, was planted in 2001 on limestone soils not dissimilar to Burgundy, and the first wines showed a mineral streak that attracted international praise. Since the initial rave reviews, many vineyards have sprouted up on lesser sites funded by absentee landlords, which don’t show that lovingly-nurtured mineral streak, but all the wines have a leanness and restraint that make this region stand out.
Yet it is still a small area and is often overshadowed by Pinot-producing Martinborough and Central Otago. But this week, it is having its time in the sun: John Forrest’s 2009 Waitaki Valley Pinot Noir took the title of best New Zealand Pinot Noir.
It’s affirmation that the region’s pioneers needed. Most New Zealand wine producers wouldn’t plant in the Waitaki Valley if you paid them. The region is nail-bitingly marginal and many of the country’s most successful companies have decided the risks are too high. But others who are braver, or possibly slightly unhinged, have put their money and love into this remote area of the south island.
As I wrote in the New Zealand Herald last year, the region excels at both aromatic whites, which include Riesling, Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminer, as well as reds from Pinot Noir. Production is small scale - at the last count there were just 110ha of vines in the whole region compared to Marlborough’s - which means these wines don’t come cheap. What’s more, Waitaki producers have to contend with hostile weather: rain, frost, wind and hungry birds make ripening rapes a risky business. If the handful of producers in the Waitaki Valley make it to harvest unscathed, the resulting wines show a restrained perfume, elegance and palate-cleansing acidity.
I am an unashamed fan of the handful of producers that are battling adversity to make some interesting wines. It’s also a part of New Zealand that remains unspoilt. Off the beaten track, the former post office in the small town of Kurow has been transformed into a tasting centre for the region’s producers and is worth a detour off State Highway 1 next time you’re in North Otago.
New Zealand Medal Makers
Thursday 24 May
Can Valerie Adams continue NZ's gold rush in London?
If the New Zealand Olympic team performs as well as its wine industry did at the 2012 International Wine Challenge (IWC), there will be plenty of happy Kiwis.
New Zealand wineries took 26 gold medals this year, an increase of almost 25% year on year, which placed New Zealand as the 6th most-awarded wine producing country in the world.
Trans-Tasman rival Australia won 69 golds but let’s remember how small New Zealand is - it has 37,000 hectares of vines in total while Australia has almost five times as many vineyards, covering 172,000 hectares.
Delegat’s Wine Estate and Mills Reef Winery led the way for New Zealand wineries each picking up two of the highly coveted gold medals. New Zealand wines were also awarded 100 silver medals and 166 bronze medals.
New Zealand wines were also rated as the ‘cleanest’ wines in the world – Kiwi entries had the lowest incidence of wine faults such as cork taint or oxidation compared with entries from 49 other countries. With more than nine out of ten bottles of New Zealand wine sealed under screwcap, the aluminium closure industry will surely be claiming victory over their natural cork rivals.
The 29th IWC saw 425 gold medals awarded (the highest gold medal tally in the history of the IWC) with winning wines selected from a record 50 countries. For the first time, there were entries from Colombia and Bosnia and Herzegovina with the latter awarded one silver and two bronze, establishing them as emerging contenders for quality wine production.
Here are some of the highlights from this year’s results:
- The top three gold medal-winning nations for 2012 are reigning champions France with 120, Australia 69 and Portugal 55
- France topped the medal board overall with a total of 1,136 medals, while Australia came second with 673 and Portugal third with 444
- There were entries from 50 countries
Monday 23 April
New Zealand has held a Pinot workshop in the spa town of Hanmer for more than 20 years. Following Pinot 2010 in Wellington, Marlborough producers decided to set up their own workshop to get serious about this fickle grape.
While Hanmer has sumptuous hot pools, Marlborough producers hold their get-together at a school campground! Whoever thought it would be a good idea to hold wine tastings at a centre with an adventure playground was asking for trouble. I am reliably informed injuries have been sustained in the name of Marlborough Pinot Noir.
Ben Glover, winemaker at Wither Hills, says: “This is modelled on the Hanmer experience but we really need to encourage our own region to take Pinot seriously.”
Indeed, Marlborough Pinot Noir has an image as simple and juicy. Serious Pinot drinkers have looked to Martinborough or Central Otago for complex, structured Pinot Noir. But Marlborough producers aren’t content with the status quo.
Anna Flowerday, co-owner of Te Whare Ra, says: “Marlborough gets accused of being too fruity and not complex but that’s a vine age thing. Now we have really good clones and really good sites and that’s why I think Marlborough Pinot has improved.”
Certainly older vines and sites, particulary in the southern Wairau Valley such as Benmorvan and Clayvin vineyard, are showing promising results but this year’s campground convention concentrated on stems in Marlborough Pinot Noir.
Flowerday explains: “We have a whole day when people bring trial wines. This year everyone brought stem trials from the 2011 vintage. We did some really great flights with no stems, 20% stems vs 50%. We found some interesting stuff.”
“Some people swore blue murder that they would never used stems and now they are considering it,” she adds. “Stems is more of a finesse thing giving wines an extra layer. You get secondary characteristics. The stems give the palate width and a floral perfumed character.”
Across the road at Wither Hills, Glover has also been experimenting with grape stems. He was cautious at first, worried that stems would bring green flavours and astringency. Today, the winery’s standard Pinot generally has 5-12% stems in the ferment. He has also done barrel trials with up to 100% stems. “It was pretty cool. It really swung the pendulum, giving the wines white pepper, lifted notes…It kept the bright fruit at bay.”
While I personally love stems in my New Zealand Pinot Noir, providing structure and line to the soft fruit, it doesn’t always work. Let’s face it, no-one wants astringency in a Kiwi Pinot. Flowerday adds: “We need to do it very cautiously on younger vines because they don’t have the concentration of fruit.”
In addition to vine age, the weather also appears to play a part. “Lignification is seasonal; a Frenchman would say it’s terroir. Personally, I think longer hang time is conducive to lignification,” says Glover. He also notes that some blocks tend to lignify early while others don’t. Clay soils, in his opinion, inhibit lignification too.
With the 2012 harvest now in full swing, those “serious” Pinot producers will again be doing stem trials to take back to the 2013 edition of Marlborough’s campground convention. Let’s hope someone packs the first aid kit.
This blog has also been published on Pinot NZ 2013