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  • Jancis Robinson
Written by
  • Jancis Robinson
11 Feb 2001

This is a longer version of an article also published in the Financial Times.

'So what do you think of New Zealand wine?' asked the cab driver a few minutes after I had landed at Auckland airport.

The question was repeated at what felt like half-hourly intervals throughout a recent visit. For a foreign wine writer, New Zealand, or rather New Zealanders, can be exhausting.

At the end of a three-day Pinot Noir fest capably organised in the capital Wellington (subtext: NZ makes great Pinot Noir), we delegates were hauled up on stage to say what had most surprised us.

On reflection what I should have cited was the outstanding quality of New Zealand food and cooking nowadays. What I did say, blinkered by vinous myopia, was how amazed I was to find the whole nation, not just wine geeks, so in love with Pinot Noir.

The red burgundy grape, notoriously difficult to grow successfully, particularly in warm climates, is now New Zealand's most planted red wine grape and third overall behind Chardonnay and its world-famous Sauvignon Blanc.

All over the country passionate young winemakers are wrestling with this minx of a grape trying to turn it into something as fruitily delicious as a simple young Beaune or even something as demanding as a Chambertin. And they are doing this in response to consumers who seem to be more aware of Pinot Noir than anywhere else in the world. Even cab drivers, I can assure you.

On the wine lists in the country's smart new restaurants and wine bars, Pinot Noir seems automatically to command a premium.

Part of the reason Pinot has taken off in New Zealand is that it is one of the very few New World wine-producing countries with a climate cool enough to suit it. (If this early-ripening grape ripens too fast, it fails to build up any interesting flavours and makes simply jammy red wine. Even parts of New Zealand, anywhere north of Martinborough in my experience, seem too hot to grow fine Pinot Noir.)

Another reason is that Pinot, like Sauvignon Blanc, is much easier to do well in New Zealand than in Australia.

To Kiwis, any such advantage is well worth exploiting, and flaunting. Hence the Pinot Noir get-together of hundreds of Pinot producers and fans from around the world.

But rivalry can be savoured regionally as well as nationally.

Three regions are fighting over Pinot supremacy: Martinborough in the south of the North Island, Marlborough in the north of the South Island where so much Sauvignon Blanc is grown, and Central Otago (known as 'Central' by some Kiwi winemakers) way down south in spectacular ski country.

Martinborough, the dry heartland of Wairarapa over the mountains east of Wellington, is certainly the established home of NZ Pinot Noir. Ata Rangi, Martinborough Vineyards and then Dry River proved that, in spite of vines with a tendency to grow horribly leafy, attentive growers could produce deliciously juicy, spicy Pinot Noir.

Wines to grab if you can are all 1999s from Dry River and Ata Rangi, Martinborough Vineyards Reserve 1998 (Larry McKenna's last before taking off to his own Escarpment project), Voss Estate 1999 and the new winemaker's Te Kairanga Reserve 2000.

The 1999, from Martinborough's only winery of any size, Palliser Estate, is its best effort to date, while the same vintage from new Stonecutter suggests this tiny estate may be worth watching.

The exciting new challenger to Marlborough is Central Otago, where young winemakers have a reputation for late-night carousing which is at odds with rural New Zealand's once stuffy image. The vines are also young: half of the 700ha (1,730 acres) are too young to bear a crop, in fact. But 1999s such as Felton Road Block 5 and Quartz Reef show that extra savoury dimension that Pinotphiles seek once they have satisfied themselves that a region is capable of producing authentic Pinot Noir fruit flavours.

Central Otago is well on its way, and already attracting investors from outside New Zealand, not to mention actor Sam Neill. There was the obligatory investment rumour about Gallo, the big California wine group, during the Pinotfest, linking it to Marlborough, which has masses of Pinot Noir planted, although much of it as a base for sparkling wine.

What makes a good ingredient in fizz is generally too thin and lean to make delicious still red wine (see Champagne's Bouzy Rouge). But Marlborough's many winemakers, perhaps a little bored with their reliable Sauvignons, clearly cannot wait to get their teeth into this challenging grape.

The Cloudy Bay team has been experimenting with it for years and with the 1999 has proved it has finally got there. Isabel Estate's 1999 also seems to have more weight than previous vintages, while Seresin's is positively enormous. Wither Hills 1999 is extra-juicy and Villa Maria's 2000 a clear step up. Fromm has long gone its own way, making wines clearly designed for much longer ageing than the New Zealand norm - an element lacking in most examples, with the notable exception of Dry River.

New Zealand's Pinot proficiency by no means ends with these three regions, however. Nelson in the north-west of the South Island has fielded some beguiling Pinot from Neudorf and Greenhough's 1999 suggests good things to come.

Vineyards all over Canterbury, from Marlborough in the north of South Island to Central Otago in the south have demonstrated there is real potential here. Pegasus Bay and Mountford Vineyards also did a notably good job in 1999.

So how good are New Zealand Pinot Noirs overall? The best are nowhere near as good as the best red burgundy, but the worst are so, so much more delicious than the worst burgundy.

For UK stockists try: John Armit of London W11; Fine Wines of New Zealand of London NW5; Justerini & Brooks of London SW1; Lay & Wheeler of Colchester, Essex; Morris & Verdin of London SE1, and Raeburn Fine Wines of Edinburgh.

Elsewhere, try WineSearcher