New Zealand Pinot and Sauvignon

While Josh Raynolds was slogging his way through a couple thousand Australian and Spanish wines this summer, many of them with alcohol levels of 15% or more, I was enjoying a cool dip in the pool of New Zealand sauvignon blanc and pinot noir. These categories of wine are wonderfully food-friendly throughout the year, but they are especially refreshing during the warm months. No serious wine from New Zealand can be described as truly cheap, owing to the high cost of production there and to the strength of the New Zealand dollar. But there’s still plenty of value to be found, and more good choices than ever before. And the American market obviously agrees, as 90% of total New Zealand wine shipped here in the year ending in June of 2007 was accounted for by these two varieties, with sauvignon blanc representing 77.5% and pinot 12.5%. Sales of the two categories are on fire, having grown by 31% and 44%, respectively.

New Zealand sauvignon blanc—especially from Marlborough—had already imprinted itself on the international wino’s consciousness by the mid-‘90s, but back then New Zealand pinot noir was just getting started. In fact, even seven or eight years ago there were barely a handful of pinots available in the U.S. that could be compared to serious wines from Burgundy in complexity, texture and depth—or even, for that matter, to the best examples from Oregon and California. Today, retail shelves are awash with seriously good choices from New Zealand: the number of impressive wines has skyrocketed, and American importers have done a better job of ferreting out the good stuff. And, clearly, the best is yet to come for pinot noir from New Zealand, as the country’s high percentage of young vines matures.

Central Otago has exploded onto the world pinot scene in recent years, and promising producers are emerging with every new crop of grapes. It’s here, in New Zealand’s most continental growing region, that you’ll find comparatively powerful, intense pinots with deep colors, rich dark fruit flavors, and enticing floral and mineral lift. The best of these wines offer fruit aromas and flavors as close to those of the Côte de Nuits as any non-Burgundies get, with the possible exception of some pinots from the Sonoma Coast. Martinborough, a region with a longer history of producing high-quality pinot, yields more obviously soil-driven wines with dominant spice, mocha, earth and musky underbrush notes—again, often in a style I can only describe as Burgundian. To my palate, the best New Zealand pinot of all might be a hypothetical blend of these two styles. But more recently, the top producers in Central Otago have begun to buttress their pure pinot flavors with more complexity of terroir, while some in Martinborough are managing to get and retain deep primary fruit character to go with the smoke, spice and earth tones. And as the vines mature, New Zealand’s pinots can only gain in nuance and depth.

Marlborough, a virtual factory for varietally accurate and brisk sauvignon blanc, is also a major source of pinot noir, though to this point I haven’t discerned any particularly distinctive regional character to these wines. But Marlborough pinot too is on the upswing, as Burgundy clones become more widespread and as more producers build their wines from a blend of clones rather than just one. A growing number of wineries, especially on the southern side of the Wairau Valley, are now planting pinot on hillsides rather than on the valley floor. Hillside plantings, notes Brian Bicknell, long-time winemaker for Seresin and now concentrating his efforts on his own Mahi wines, appear to be producing the fleshiness of texture that too few pinots from New Zealand have previously demonstrated. In fact, added Bicknell, the advantage of planting on hillsides is probably more a matter of texture than drainage, as the deep shingle river-bed soils of Marlborough are rarely plagued by excessive moisture—or the excessive vine vigor that results elsewhere when clay and silt wash down to valley floors. Now if only New Zealand’s pinot farmers could find more north-facing slopes rich in limestone! Some of the best pinots of all, such as Pegasus Bay and Daniel Schuster, come from the Waipara Valley, located south of Marlborough on the east coast of New Zealand’s South Island. One of the most promising features of this emerging growing area is the availability of well-exposed limestone-and-clay hillsides, many of which are yet to be exploited.

The vintages in question. My recent tastings of sauvignon blanc focused largely on the 2006 vintage, which in Marlborough featured a large and very early harvest that is considered very good for this variety. The weather cooled markedly during March, allowing the fruit to develop more flavor intensity without losing too much acidity. I found a lot to like about these wines, which are quite ripe and generally do not show the searing acidity that can characterize the region’s sauvignons from lesser vintages. I tasted fewer aggressively vegetal, green-peppery wines than ever before, but I was also happy to find less of the overripe tropical character that I was beginning to see just a couple of years ago. This is a very good typical vintage, producing many examples that deliver what I think of as classic and varietally accurate Marlborough character: brisk citrus peel notes, jalapeño, gooseberry, grass, fresh herbs, anise, tarragon. In fact, most Marlborough insiders believe that sauvignon blanc did better than virtually all of the region’s other varieties, which in some cases did not get quite enough hang time to develop fully ripe flavors.

Most of the pinots I tasted this summer were from 2006 and 2005. Again, both were ripe years with reasonably temperate growing seasons, following a cooler vintage in 2004. As a rule, the yields in 2005 were very reasonable by recent standards. In Central Otago, the vintage was saved by light crop loads that resulted from miserably cold weather during the flowering in December (there were several snowstorms on the hillsides during that month!). The peak summer months were warm and a bit wet and the autumn was benign, allowing the small-berried fruit to ripen nicely without undue loss of acidity before the late-April frosts came. Some growers in Marlborough have also made well-concentrated, structured pinots from small berries in 2005.

In 2006, Central Otago picked a bumper crop of pinot noir grapes, and the harvest was very early. By the time rains arrived in late April, most of the fruit was in. Today, the growers generally believe that they benefited from near-perfect levels of ripeness. Many producers in Central Otago and in Marlborough find their 2006 pinots to be more intense than their 2005s, but in the instances in which I was able to taste both vintages from the same winery side by side, I tended to find the ‘06s more subtly perfumed and floral, while the 2005s showed more obvious tannic structure, if not richness and density. In Martinborough, there is considerable excitement about the 2006 pinots, which were made from ripe fruit harvested early under very dry, near-ideal conditions.