Pinot noir is a fickle mistress, when it’s great it’s a haunting miracle of poetry in a glass, when it’s something short of great it’s a frustrating lesson in expensive disappointment. The standard bearer for great pinot noir is of course France’s Burgundy region, where thousands of years of wine making history has carefully selected the ideal locations and methods for coaxing the best out of the delicate grape. Despite my love of a good Burgundy, I really don’t drink it very often, for a number of reasons. One is that it’s just really expensive (with entry level wines coming in around $30 and the better wines easily topping $100 or much higher). They’re also difficult to find, and when they don’t live up to their pedigree they frustrate me to no end. Are they worth it? Maybe, but ultimately they’re too rarefied and variable for me to really enjoy the experience. So, I’m always on the lookout for new regions where this difficult grape can excel that can offer more realistic value.
Of course California produces a large amount of Pinot noir, but too often for me California versions overemphasize power and richness while masking the inherent delicacy and mystery that’s so alluring in the grape (they’re sometimes the Real Housewives while Burgundies are the Parisian sophisticate). That’s a gross generalization of course, there are ridiculously fine pinot noir wines coming out of Sonoma County (especially the Russian River Valley) and Santa Barbera County (especially Santa Rita Hills), but again the best are often too pricy for my budget. When I do splurge, the wines of Williams Seylem, Au Bon Climat, Talbott and Saintsbury are some of my favorites.
Oregon has also shown great promise both because their climate is temperate and mild (which pinot needs to ripen properly) and because in the past decade many vineyards using Burgundian clones have developed enough to start producing in quantity. Wines from Oregon seem to capture the complex aromas and flavors pinot noir is capable of far more consistently at the lower price points than the wines coming out of California. I regularly buy the wines from Erath, A & Z Wineworks, St. Innocent and Van Duzer, all of which bring a complex flavors and Burgundian aromas along with a lovely sense of weightlessness (they also hover in the $18 to $25 range, which is my price sweet spot).
Obviously, finding great pinot noir at a reasonable price is much more difficult than it sounds! I became excited in the last few years about pinot noir from New Zealand after having tasted a few worthy examples. However, as I explored further I tasted just as many disappointing wines that were either over-manipulated (dominated by cloying fruit and obvious oak) or thin and weedy. In the past year things have changed. Nearly every pinot I’ve tried from New Zealand has been great, weird, complex, and subtle with just the right mix of county’s signature fresh fruit and the floral, mineral and perfumed qualities that are so familiar to lovers of Burgundy. So what gives, is it just a string of great vintages? Well, that’s part of the story. A little research revealed that New Zealand’s wine industry may have turned a corner on pinot noir production of late. A combination of factors has led to a huge jump in quality so dramatic that you would now be hard pressed to find bad pinot noir from New Zealand at any price point.
A little background on the New Zealand wine industry. Though a fledgling industry started in the 1970s it wasn’t until the late 1980s that New Zealand wines started to gain international attention. At that point it was the country’s distinctive sauvignon blancs that enthralled wine lovers throughout the world. Sauvignon blanc with mouth-watering acidity, pure, intense fruit and surprisingly complex mineral and herbaceous notes is still the calling card for the country, but pinot noir has emerged as the second most planted grape with production doubling in the last five years. The recent marked increase in quality is the product of winemakers moving pinot noir plantings to slightly higher elevations and also the maturation of vines planted in the late 1990s. They’re clearly doing something right, as the wines show the pleasing fleshy ripe fruit so prized in New Zealand wines with equally fascinating light textures and complex Burgundian aromas typically finishing off with supple silky tannin. It’s not an overly homogenous style though, there is a great range of variation between the areas where pinot noir is being grown, so the grape’s reputation for responding to the unique terroir of a site is allowed to shine. New Zealand has developed into an important exporter of wine, producing approximately 8 times more wine per capita than the United States, so you’re likely to see much more of these wines in the coming years.
All of that being said, currently you’ll have difficulty finding many New Zealand pinot noirs on wine shop shelves here in the Twin Cities, most will have only a handful to offer. You may have to do some searching, but the low prices ($15 to $30 for most) and uniformly high quality will reward your efforts. I recently snapped up a few bottles for an overview of what’s available locally, tasting notes for the wines are below.
Huia Marlborough Pinot Noir
2007 – $28
This wine is a strange cigar box of smoky, meaty and tobacco scents and flavors. The nose is meaty with a smoky stone element, flavors include black plum, autumn leaves, minerals and Asian spices. Did I neglect to mention that this wine is really odd. I dug it, but the finish just tasted like a street fair in Humboldt County, CA if you know what I mean.
Wairau River Pinot Noir
2008 – $18
There’s toast, mineral and raspberry on the nose with a minty eucalyptus note emerging as the wine opens up. Flavors of black cherry and thyme dominate the mid-palatte while the mint and earth flavors mingle with stewed strawberry and a floral quality on the finish.
Whitehaven Pinot Noir
2008 – $20
A rich, lush nose of earth, mushroom and red plum turns slightly yeasty as it airs. This is a more international style than most and seems a bit slick like many Californian Pinots. The distinctly herbal and mineral notes on the finish push this squarely back to New Zealand for me. This wine will have fans as it’s a plush crowd-pleaser.
Yealands Central Otago / Marlborough Pinot Noir
2009 – $17
Cherry and rhubarb dominate this very light dry wine. Toast and herbs emerge enhancing the tart and very Burgundian style, a hint of earth and mineral on the finish adds a welcome depth. I really loved this wine, but it may be a bit light and tart for many, though it should be a great food wine.
Kim Crawford Marlborough Pinot Noir
2010 – $20
Alluring smoke and red cherry on the nose with a tart raspberry flavor that’s accented by a black tea and herbal note. The fine grained tannin let the flavors sing and integrate on the long, detailed finish. Very clean and clear flavors draw you back to the glass.
Photo at top by New Zealand Winegrowers