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New Zealand Pinot Noir: Balance, Complexity & Great Value

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mountains and vineyard in NZ's Central Otago region (image courtesy New Zealand Wine)

Even though a lot of Pinot Noir was planted in California, Oregon, South America and elsewhere following the big sales spike sparked by the 2004 movie Sideways, demand has remained high and Pinot is still a hot commodity. It is very hard to find good Pinot Noir from the U.S. in the $15 to $25 range, and red Burgundies from France remain far above that level. So where can you go to get complex and balanced Pinot Noir at prices that won't break the bank? Try New Zealand.

New Zealand is a relatively new player on the world wine stage, having first gotten wine lovers' attention with their intense and flavorful Sauvignon Blancs starting in the 1980s. Sauvignon Blanc is still, far and away, the most planted grape in Kiwi Country at 20,083 hectares, but Pinot Noir is coming on strong as the second most planted variety with 5,125 hectares.

There were fits and starts to the planting of Pinot Noir in NZ. It was originally thought the country's cool climates and relatively low aggregate hours of sunshine would not allow the grape to fully ripen. The clonal selections available for planting in the 1980s were also very limited. Nonetheless, Pinot Noir proved itself in the cool and dry climate of the South Island's Canterbury region, an appellation that now specializes in Chardonnay and Pinot. Pinots from good producers in this region, such as Mt. Beautiful and Pyramid Valley, exhibit ripe red fruit and a sense of spice.

Now good Pinot is coming from several different regions in this 1,000 mile long country -- i.e., about the same distance as from Germany's Mosel to Oporto, Portugal.

Another area where Pinot has done particularly well, becoming the dominant grape, is Central Otago. This is the world's most southerly wine growing region, and it is unique in New Zealand for its continental microclimate, thanks to being sheltered by mountains. The hot summers and cool autumns permit long hang time and full ripening, producing delicious Pinots with rich, ripe fruit, and good balancing acidity. Many of my favorite producers are in this region, including Felton Road, Rippon, Mt. Difficulty and Loveblock (the latter being the new project of Kim and Erica Crawford).

Somewhat cooler regions in which Pinot is performing well are Martinborough on the North Island and NZ's biggest wine region, Marlborough, on the South Island. Top producers in Marlborough include Cloudy Bay, Nautilus Estate, Saint Clair, Villa Maria and Wither Hills. Strong producers in the smaller Martinborough region include Escarpment and Te Kairanga.

Another region that is starting to shine for Pinot Noir is Nelson, with lighter styled wines, due to a climate that is a little cooler and wetter than Marlborough. Good producers here are Neudorf and Woollaston.

NZ map (courtesy New Zealand Wines)

I have tasted dozens of Pinot Noirs from New Zealand over the past year or so, at a variety of events. One thing I've noted among many producers, whose vines are relatively young to begin with, is steady improvement from vintage to vintage.

]May 16, 2013, NZ Wine Fair in San Francisco
May 2013 NZ Wine Fair in San Francisco

While there are lots of delicious Pinots to choose from, at very good price points, my top producer recommendations, with one or more wines scoring 92 points or higher, are Cloudy Bay, Escarpment, Felton Road, Loveblock, Mondillo, Mt. Difficulty, Mud House, Nautilus Estate, Pyramid Valley, Rippon, Saint Clair, Villa Maria and Wither Hills. Some of these producers--Escarpment, Pyramid Valley, Rippon--have had high reputations for several years and a big following in New Zealand itself, so their wines tend to be pricey--in the $45 to $75 range.

Nonetheless, there are also excellent values to be found amongst NZ Pinots I have rated 92 points or higher. The top values, ranging from $18 to $26 in the U.S. on average, can be found from Wither Hills ($18), Mud House ($20), Mt. Difficulty ($23) and Nautilus Estate ($26).

Nautilus Pinot Noirs
Nautilus Pinot Noirs

There are even more values, from $15 to $20, amongst wines I've rated 90 to 91+ points. These include Coopers Creek ($15), Woollaston Estates ($18), Momo by Seresin ($18) and Te Kairanga ($20).

Part of the comparative value in NZ wine prices is due to the favorable exchange rate for the U.S. dollar against the New Zealand dollar in recent years. The NZ dollar has dipped even further in the past couple months.

Another advantage of "buying Kiwi" is that you stand very little chance of getting a wine with a natural cork closure -- the kind that can lead to premature oxidation and contamination of the wine with the flavor-removing chemical trichloroanisole (TCA). Instead, virtually all producers in NZ switched to bottling under screwcaps in the past decade, so over 95% of the country's wines are now under convenient and TCA taint-reducing screwcaps.

Pinot Noirs of this complexity, minerality and balance can hardly be found at this price level elsewhere, so Pinot lovers looking for really good wines at $25 and under owe it to themselves to begin looking "down under."

NZ expert Chuck Hayward with Erica & Kim Crawford (Loveblock)
NZ expert Chuck Hayward with Erica & Kim Crawford (Loveblock)

On the complete version of this report on my blog here you will find my detailed tasting notes and ratings on 72 recent vintage wines from 46 producers.