Where are New Zealand’s next top quality Pinot Noir regions?

It never seemed important until I was standing at a wine festival in Hawke’s Bay, two weeks before this country’s biggest ever Pinot Noir gig in living history – Pinot Noir NZ 2017, which attracted record numbers of people from all round the world, but let’s not digress.

The wine festival in question was this year’s – and the third annual – Bridge Pa Wine Festival. It’s a small festival, by anyone’s stretch of imagination – only six wineries are involved and they range from small to medium to pretty darned large, namely Sileni Estates.

It was not the first time, but it struck me just how strongly the Hawke’s Bay’s Pinot Noir scene has been eclipsed for many years by its big reds from the Gimblett Gravels and its very good to outstanding Chardonnays. Not to mention by all of its southern counterparts.

So…. it may come as a surprise to find that in many years the Bay produces more Pinot Noir than the entire North Canterbury region. And it’s one producer who makes this do-able – Sileni Estates. This medium sized, family owned winery owns significant inland vineyards that benefit from both cool climate coastal breezes, inland vineyard positions and a slight elevation that makes a big difference – up to 180 to 200 metres.
At last count, Sileni Estates makes five different Pinot Noirs, Not all of these wines are in production every single year. They range from a soft, fresh and fruity ‘everyday’ style of wine to the serious structured Sileni EV (Exceptional Vintage) Hawke’s Bay Pinot Noir – a judicious 20% new French oak allows the red fruit, refreshing high acidity and softness of this wine to shine. Words such as iron fist, velvet glove spring to mind. It’s a surprising wine, once you realise where it comes from because it does not rely on oak for body, on big dark red grapes for appeal or on a sexy regional name for marketability. This is a pale ruby coloured, bone dry, soft and sensual tasting Hawke’s Bay Pinot Noir with fresh zingy crispness adding an interesting but balanced tartness to the ripe red cherry fruit flavours.

This wine bodes well for the Bay’s red wine future, as do the supposed entry level Pinot Noirs from Sileni, both styles proving that the diverse Hawke’s Bay region has many strings to its different microclimate bows.

The bigger picture is that Central Otago has the highest proportion of Pinot Noir planted in New Zealand because 80% of its 1943 hectares are devoted to this grape. It is also home to many of the big namers, such as Mt Difficulty, Felton Road, Carrick Wines, Mt Edward and Gibbston Valley, among many others.

And yet, Marlborough has more Pinot Noir planted overall than Central Otago. Two of New Zealand’s smallest regions make some of the most distinctive and savoury tasting wines – the Wairarapa (now marketing itself as Wellington Wine Country and home to just 2.8% of New Zealand’s total wine production) and North Canterbury (home to 3.4% of the country’s total wine production).

Despite what first springs to mind when Pinot Noir and New Zealand are mentioned, it’s worth keeping an open mind, I thought to myself, as I drank a glass (ok, two) of Sileni Pinot Noir, marvelling at its intensity and softness – iron fist, velvet glove? Definitely. And deliciously so.

Pinot snapshot…

There are 36,192 hectares of producing vineyard land in New Zealand, of which red grapes account for just 7,960 hectares of the total.

Pinot Noir grapes account for 70% of the reds and 5573 hectares of vines grown nationwide.