NZ Pinot Noir road trips

This story was first published in NZ Winegrower magazine, April 2017.

You hear the words ‘road trip’ and think Thelma and Louise, but a little more planning was required for the 600 people who took three trips around New Zealand’s six Pinot Noir regions earlier this year…

The road trips were part of the country’s biggest ever wine conference – Pinot Noir NZ 2017, held in Wellington from 1 to 3 February. And the road trips were metaphorical rather than real. But still. That’s a lot of wine and it is, literally, impossible to look at, taste and form an indepth impression on each and every one. A wine writer commented that another approach to the regional tastings had to be found – and fast. This is easier said than done.

A sit down tasting might be more contained. This could feature one wine from each producer, but many might wonder why we couldn’t taste more wines and have the invaluable opportunity of talking with winemakers, owners, marketers and those intimately involved with growing grapes and making wine. And since so much time is spent sitting at wine conferences, do we really need any more long sit-down affairs?

It’s easy to see – and taste – why the road trips have evolved into rooms of people who have long since tired of sitting and are now focused on tasting, talking and sharing the turangawaewae of their wines.

Each of the three road trips had its highlights. Here are my stand outs…

Road trip 1: Auckland, Hawke’s Bay, Wairarapa and North Canterbury

 This was the most diverse road trips, spanning the widest geographic area and biggest range of climates, soils and elevations. It includes sub-tropical West Auckland with its high rainfall, maritime climate and, perversely, high frost risk in some springs, right through to the distinctly cool climate maritime region of North Canterbury.

Auckland is home to the smallest amount of Pinot Noir produced anywhere in New Zealand but it is significant due to the quality focus of Kumeu River Wines – a consistent high hitter with Chardonnays and now making pretty, floral, red fruited Pinot Noirs.

Bay’s best: Sileni Pinot Noirs

Hawke’s Bay’s Pinot Noir has been eclipsed by its big reds and Chardonnays, but the Bay frequently produces more Pinot Noir than the entire North Canterbury region. And it’s mostly from one producer– Sileni Estates. This medium sized, family owned winery owns significant inland vineyards that benefit from cool coastal breezes, inland vineyards and a slight elevation. At last count, Sileni Estates makes five different Pinot Noirs, not all made every year. The top wine is Sileni EV (Exceptional Vintage) Hawke’s Bay Pinot Noir –20% new French oak allows the red fruit, refreshing high acidity and softness to shine. This bodes well for the Bay’s red future. Lime Rock Pinot Noir from Central Hawke’s Bay never fails to impress from a small limestone vineyard.

North Canterbury

North Canterbury had the most diverse range of wines in this room, unsurprisingly, given its vineyards span the gamut of cool maritime Waipara to cool inland Waikari. Soils vary massively from loam to limestone, with other variations.

One conference highlight, for me, was a talk by Central Otago winemaker Sarah-Kate Dineen, who was charged with providing an overview of the North Canterbury Pinot scene. She did so with many straight forward facts (the Teviotdale Hills providing shelter from the nearby ocean, just 9 kms away) and humour that the scene was set for this region to shine. Which it did.

Like the Wairarapa, North Canterbury’s vineyard’s are beaten up regularly by wind, which can intensify savoury flavours and firm tannins. Pegasus Bay and Pyramid Valley impressed me the most. The library release of 2009 Pegasus Bay Prima Donna Pinot Noir was one of my top three wines of the entire Pinot Noir NZ 2017 event. Other top drops included: 2013 Bell Hill, 2015 Black Estate Home Block, 2015 Pyramid Valley Angel Flower and 2015 Greystone Pinot Noir.

Wellington Wine Country

Savoury, dark and intense. These words apply to Pinot Noir from this region, thanks to high quality wines from Martinborough, Gladstone and  northern Wairarapa. Favourites for me were: 2015 Ata Rangi Pinot Noir, 2015 Big Sky Pinot Noir, 2015 Craggy Range Te Muna (a wine really hitting its straps after more than a decade’s production – and a significant reduction in new oak, which allows the fruit to be the star), 2015 The Escarpment Kupe, 2014 Julicher, 2015 Te Kairanga Runholder and 2014 Urlar Select Parcels – yet to be released, this is the first wine from Carol Bunn. She is the new winemaker at Urlar Estate, and making choices to ensure this is a winery to watch (earlier picking being one). And let’s hear it for Wellington Wine Country. The name makes geographic and logical sense. Wai words abound and cause confusion internationally. Wellington Wine Country offers great potential for tourism. Enough said.

Road trip 2: Nelson and Marlborough  

The two regions of Nelson and Marlborough are perennially overshadowed by their southern neighbours and Marlborough is the most underrated over performer for Pinot Noir. Highlights are too numerous to name and star players consistently raising their quality. The most outstanding, juicy, deliciously savoury Pinot Noir from Nelson is the 2015 Neudorf Moutere Pinot Noir. History showed earlier this year (in an old bottle of 2006 Neudorf Moutere Pinot Noir) that it has stellar aging potential.

Marlborough’s star performers are a long list, but the biggest wine company in the country ranks high for me right now. Brancott Estate winemakers Patrick Materman and Jamie Marfell are growing quality from $16 to new Pinot Noir peaks around $100 – yet to be released. I am a big fan of the red fruited Stoneleigh Pinot Noir, particularly the Rapaura Series, which reveals more depth of flavour and a savoury twist. Look for the company’s new Brancott labels later this year.

Other top wines for me: 2015 Astrolabe Province Marlborough Pinot Noir, 2015 Churton Pinot Noir, 2015 Corofin Settle Vineyard East Slope Marlborough Pinot Noir (exceptional), 2015 Dog Point Pinot Noir, 2015 Greywacke Pinot Noir, 2015 Jules Taylor Marlborough Pinot Noir, 2014 Nautilus Pinot Noir, 2014 Spy Valley Pinot Noir, 2013 Te Whare Ra Single Vineyard 5182 Pinot Noir, 2013 Terravin Pinot Noir, 2014 Villa Maria The Attorney Pinot Noir and 2016 Zephyr Pinot Noir (Not yet released).

Road trip 3: Waitaki Valley and Central Otago

Central Otago shines for its cohesive polish and top producers, the peaks being Folding Hill, Mount Edward, Domain Road, Domaine Thomson and Felton Road.
This region’s presentation has it in spades over all others. Perhaps it’s the relative isolation of the world’s southernmost wine region, perhaps it’s the people, perhaps it’s the strong sense of turangawaewae in Otago, but this region walks all over the others with its strong identity. My absolute top list is:

2013 Bald Hills Single Vineyard Pinot Noir, 2010 Brennan Wines Pinot Noir, 2014 Brennan Gibbston Pinot Noir $30, 2013 Domain Road Central Otago Pinot Noir $38, 2014 Domaine Thomson Surveyor Thomson Pinot Noir Rows 1-37 $45, 2015 Felton Road Calvert Vineyard Pinot Noir, 2015 Folding Hill Orchard Block Pinot Noir $65, 2015 Ballasalla Pinot Noir $27, 2015 Maude Mt Maude Vineyard Pinot Noir, 2014 Misha’s Vineyard The High Note Pinot Noir (not yet available), 2011 Mount Edward Central Otago Morrison Vineyard Pinot Noir $65, 2015 Nevis Bluff Pinot Noir and 2015 Quartz Reef Pinot Noir.

Author: Joelle Thomson

I am a wine writer, author and educator... first bitten by a big buttery Chardonnay on a dark and stormy night in the 1980s and there was no turning back... Follow my tastings and join some too on this new site.

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