The ineffable taste of New Zealand pinot noir

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What started about four decades ago as an experimental project, has today converted Pinot Noir into the island country’s second most grown varietal. In the 1970s, vine-cuttings from Burgundy’s Domaine de La Romanée-Conti’s La Tâche Grand Cru were found hiding in a rugby player’s boots in the quarantine area at the airport. Around the same time, soil scientists identified resemblances in conditions at Martinborough with Burgundy, indicating that Pinot Noir was destined to find its second home in New Zealand’s cooler pastures. 

The country that had become synonymous with crisp and grassy Sauvignon Blancs has been repositioned by its Pinot success and proved to its critics that it isn’t a one-hit wonder. The fruity, ethereal and hauntingly perfumed reds from this finicky varietal have become a greatly desired by true Pinot Noir connoisseurs.

The origins of Pinot Noir are dubious and highly debated, but are known to be from the general zone of northeastern France or southwestern Germany. What’s assured is that its parents were wild vines. A family on its own with Pinot Gris and Blanc, its wellknown and successful siblings, Pinot Noir is said to be the parent of many other varietals like Chardonnay, Gamay, Melon de Bourgogne and Auxerrois. Its inability to ripen consistently, and the ever-charged debates of what its real expression is, the right heaviness for Pinot, should it be rested in oak or not, and if Burgundy is after all grape’s true holy grail has drawn more eyes than turning away heads. It’s hard to say if there’s any varietal ever that has found more glory and passionate followers than Pinot Noir!!

New Zealand’s success with Pinot Noir is thanks to multiple factors. Firstly, it’s the country’s cool climate and intense light that ensures better ripeness for the varietal than anywhere else. Pinots here are packed with lush fruits, layers of complexity, velvety textures, and sophistication. Then comes the consistent water-retention ability of the soils in Marlborough, Central Otago, Waiparra and Martinborough, that aids the varietal in retaining its acidity, and purity of flavours. And lastly, it is the expanse of styles that the country offers. Those from Martinborough offer complexity, savouriness and good structure, Central Otago’s hot days and cool nights accentuate the perfume and plush sweet fruitiness in its wines, Waiparra Pinots are driven by spicy character and dark fruits, while Marlborough delivers subtle, linear and raspberry-laden drops. This guarantees that any Pinot lover will definitely find at least a handful of Pinot Noir wines to fall for.

From a country contributing only 1% of the world’s wine production, the wine prices are deemed high, which therefore puts New Zealand Pinot Noirs in competition with the Burgundians at the entry level. Even today in India, Burgundy is undoubtedly the first preference, with New Zealand’s Pinots following closely. With Burgundian wine prices hiking upwards at an unprecedented rate, and the recent failure of vintages year after year due to hail, snowfall, and frost, the Kiwi wine is rapidly filling the gap, and gathering more recognition as it reaches more Pinot-thirsty palates.

For an educated consumer, there can never be a fair comparison between Burgundy and Kiwi Pinots, not just on quality and price, but also the templates they follow and the overall personality of their wines. French Pinots are almost always a tad shy, savoury, and less forthcoming, while the Kiwi Pinots are expressive, plush, and more fruit driven comparison. Both the styles have often been criticised as jammy and unimaginative, while New Zealand Pinots have got the brunt of adverse comparison by Burgundy-loyalists as being jacketed and uniform in taste. That said, there can be no denying the fact that New Zealand Pinot Noirs have made great strides in the last decade. With better understanding of the varietal, enhanced soil studies and intelligent site selection and technical advancements, the producers have let the varietal be, rather than trying to fit it into a box. Even at their high per litre price, they are certainly greater value-for-money than any other new world counterpart, given the higher minimum quality benchmark New Zealand’s winemakers follow. You’ll rarely find a bad New Zealand Pinot Noir.

With Sauvignon for whites and Pinot for reds, Pinot Noir in New Zealand has created a place and identity for itself on the world map. Its style only grows from here, moving in to single vineyard and terroir-driven expressions. While these are already being produced back in the home country, we’ll just have to wait and hope that they eventually reach the shores of the Indian subcontinent too. Until that happens, we collected a respectful lineup of New Zealand Pinot Noirs tasted blind by the Sommelier India/Academie du Vin Tasting Panel and here are our findings.

The wines were tasted blind and are listed in the order of tasting. The stars are an average of the individual scores.
*****  A top wine both in itself and in its category
****   A very good wine with character and complexity
***.   A good wine with fruit and style
**.    A pleasant wine without special character
*      A dull wine without interest

2016 Saint Clair Pinot Noir, Marlborough ***
Importer – Wine Park
MRP Rs 3,950
Bright colour with pale fading rims. Good vibrant nose with ripe red fruits, strawberries, sweet raspberries, and a hint of smoke. Dry on the palate with fruity acidity, jammy red and sweet fruits, dry cherry, a tad shruby and chewy, with dusty palate and a rustic appeal (!). On the mid palate, powdery tannins take over, departing completely from fruitiness at the back palate, leaving only earthy tones, and finishing with  savoury and meaty notes. Commendable wine and easy drinking, although it hasn’t aged well.

2015 Framingham Pinot Noir, Marlborough ***+
Importer – Aspri Wine & Spirits
MRP – Rs 5,420
Ripe and deeper colour. Quiet on the nose at first. A touch smoky and shrub-like. More green than vibrant fruitiness. Lush and juicy palate with vibrant acidity balancing the fruity sweetness. Ethereal and elegant all the way through, with a tangy and citrus freshness persisting. Washes the palate clean as it leaves. Sweetness comes from fruit ripeness, not residual sugar.Well balanced, admirable representation of the style.

2017 Brancott Estate Pinot Noir, Marlborough **+
Importer: Pinot Ricard
MRP – Rs 2,200
Pale colour, almost watery in appearance. Nose dominated by jammy, syrupy, and sugary fruits, smoky, underripe greenness, and a hint of spice. Lacking ripeness and sugary fruits are contrary, and don’t add up. Without fruit on the palate, dusty underripe tannins, and savoury, leather and meaty touches at the back adds up to a rather flat palate profile. Seemed artificial and chemically assembled.

2015 Cloudy Bay Pinot Noir, Marlborough ****
Importer – Möet Hennessy India
MRP – Rs 5,400 
Dark ruby colour, pale fading rims, indicating age. Fragrant, floral nose, elegantly layered, pleasing, and adorably charming. Ripe mix of red sweet and dark fruits. Balanced, gentle palate. Fluid and easy to sip with admirably layered fruitiness, floral notes, perfume, savouriness, and a hint of earth. A smartly made example of the style, very approachable. Charming, maintaining commendable balance. Pricey, but a safe bet. Impressive if drunk now.

2014 Mud House Pinot Noir, Marlborough ****–
Importer – Sula Selections

MRP – Rs 3,400 
Orange and coppery hues, turning of colours indicating age.Shy nose only displaying some tones of florals, sweet and ripe red fruits.The palate retains it fruitiness (especially given the age), a citrus kick, and a juicy mouthfeel. Outright savouriness, forrest floor, leather takes over quickly, leaving the overall experience rather restrained from the fruit plus it offers at its youth. Won’t last longer, drink it up!!

2017 Villa Maria Pinot Noir, Marlborough ****
Importer – Brindco Limited

MRP – Rs 2,760
Medium ruby colour with a ripe appearance. Good intensity of aromas, with a tight structure ranging from ripe fruits, developing savouriness, and tertiary notes in sight.Ripe palate with rich and citrus sweet and red fruits, dark and red cherries dominates, with plush citrus acidity, and soft alcohol, all in balance. The freshness is appealing and the play of fruity sweetness and biting citrus puts up quite a theatre. Admirable, restrained makes a pleasurable glass.

2016 Ward Valley Pinot Noir, Marlborough ***
Importer – Phoenix Wines
MRP Rs 2,170
Ruby core with fading rims, showing an orange hue. Vibrant nose, jumps off the glass with a fruit-forward approach, floral touches, perfume, and earthiness. However, sweet berries dominate. Juicy palate with some syrupy traces. Can sense sugary weight on the palate with acidity lacking in intensity to create balance. Finishes with a leather and bitter bite. Otherwise a good tasting wine, but definitely giving rise to heat and storage concerns.

2016 Selini Estate Pinot Noir, Hawke’s Bay ***+
Importer – Prestige Wine & Spirits
MRP Rs 3,350

Dark colour with some fading rims. Fruity aromatics, mostly dominated by darker red and dark fruits, some medicinal touches too. Clean palate, abundant dark fruits, ripe and concentrated, good vivacious acidity, which isn’t tart, good grip and structure, with some dusty but nice tannins. Finishes on a high with ripe sweet fruits. A delightful wine, impresses with its simplicity and structure.

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