March 2010

A Rival for Burgundy?

By: Anthony Dias Blue

The charming island nation of New Zealand is known for many things: clean air, spectacular landscapes, cheerful and friendly people, bungee jumping, kiwi birds—and wine. Winemaking is something of a recent development in New Zealand. Although the first grape vines were planted at the end of the 19th century, Kiwi wines didn’t make an impression on the rest of the world until the mid-1980s when the first Marlborough Sauvignon Blancs landed on foreign shores.

"The Pinnacle" Pinot Noir from Peregrine Wines.
The crisp, juicy, herbaceous and, yes, aggressive style of Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough has become a standard for this white variety throughout the world. The mention of the words “wine” and “New Zealand” elicits an immediate association with Sauvignon Blanc. But that’s changing.

Slowly but surely, the New Zealand wine community has been honing its skills with another variety, this time a red wine. The new fixation is none other than the star of Burgundy: Pinot Noir.

Known for its finicky nature, Pinot Noir won’t grow and make acceptable wine just anywhere. It requires well-drained soil in a cool climate. New Zealand has both of these attributes in abundance. As a result, remarkably good Pinot Noirs are coming from four different growing regions that range from the
edge of the North Island to the bottom of the South Island.

Here are the appellations to look for on your bottle of New Zealand Pinot Noir:


The oldest plantings of Pinot Noir in New Zealand can be found in this lovely basin situated an hour’s drive over the Rimutaka Ranges from the capital city of Wellington and just twenty miles inland from the sea. The first Pinot vines were planted in 1979, so some of the vineyards are at least twenty-five years old. An older vine will produce fruit that is more complex and intense than a very young vine. As a result, Martinborough Pinots can be the most intricate and multifaceted of the Kiwi versions. Brands to look for include: Ata Rangi, Dry River, Escarpment, Martinborough, Palliser, Schubert, Te Kairanga, and the excellent Te Muna plantings of Craggy Range.


Half of all the wine produced in New Zealand comes from this large region that includes the sizeable valley of the Wairau River and has spread, as the valley filled with vines, over the Wither Hills, into the Awatere Valley to the south. More than half of what is grown in Marlborough is Sauvignon Blanc ,which was originally planted there in 1973 by Montana (sold in the U.S. as Brancott). Overflying the area today, you can see that the valley is carpeted wall to wall with neat rows of vines. It is a sea of green with scarcely enough room for roads and wineries.
The breakthrough for Marlborough was Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc, a wine that rose to cult status in the mid-1980s after its introduction in the American and European markets. But Marlborough is not just a one trick pony; other varieties flourish there as well, most notably Pinot Noir.

Marlborough Pinots are fresh and racy with bright fruit and lovely acidity. Because their vineyards are relatively young, the wines can lack complexity, but the potential for making excellent wines is there and becomes more apparent with each passing vintage.

Labels to look for include: Brancott, Cloudy Bay, Foxes Island, Fromm, Kathy Lynskey, Nautilus, Seresin, Spy Valley, Stoneleigh, Whitehaven and Wither Hills.  

Marlborough sunset at Kathy Lynskey Wines. 

South of Marlborough, on the east coast of the South Island, is the Canterbury region, a large, sprawling area with just a few thousand acres of mostly widely dispersed vineyards. One place where there is some concentration of vines is the sub-region of Waipara, due north of Christchurch, at just under 400,000 people, the region’s biggest city.

There are only about 3,000 acres of vineyards in Waipara, but Pinot Noir represents a significant portion of those plantings. There are some mature vineyards here and quite a few recently planted spreads.

The top winery in the area, Pegasus Bay, has been producing quality wines since the 1991 vintage and Pinot Noir is one of their flagship wines. In recent years a number of other wineries have chimed in with surprisingly good Pinots from this emerging region. Among them are: Camshorn, Daniel Schuster, Mountford, Muddy Water and Waipara Springs.

Incidentally, the Waipara area is also fast becoming the best New Zealand place for another noble variety: Riesling.

Central Otago

If you saw the Lord of the Rings movies, you already know how spectacularly beautiful this southernmost wine region is. The other-worldly landscapes around the charming city of Queenstown offers variegated vineyard land that flows between mountains and through gorges.

Central Otago vineyard landscape.
Of all New Zealand regions, Central Otago has the greatest potential for making world-class Pinot Noir.  In the short time it has been producing wine—just over twenty years—the region has caught the attention of Pinot lovers worldwide. From the beginning, the Otago wines have displayed a depth of flavor, perfume and texture that are exceptional. In a few years, when the vineyards reach full maturity, these wines will challenge Burgundy.

Wineries to seek out include: Akarua, Amisfield, Carrick, Felton Road, Gibbston Valley, Mt. Difficulty, Peregrine, Valli and Two Paddocks, which is owned by actor Sam Neill.

Where to Stay


Visitors to Waipara can cool their heels between winery visits at the magnificently restored Otahuna Lodge, just twenty minutes outside Christchurch. This historic Queen Anne–style homestead has been converted into an estate offering just a handful of exquisitely decorated guest suites. Every detail has been fashioned to provide a total immersion into an era of late 19th century luxury—combined with 21st century amenities such as wi-fi. The kitchen draws from the property’s own garden, orchards and remarkably deep wine cellar.


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