Joelle Thomson

Writer, author, journalist

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Dry (ish) July, Winetopia and 5 top Pinot Noirs

It may be dry July but the start of this month was anything but for Wellingtonians who attended Winetopia held on the water over the weekend. This is the sixth year that Winetopia has come to the capital and it was as relaxed and laid back as it was filled with with. As one of the organisers, Natalie Tan, says "It's a considered event, a place to go if you like exploring wine but without being in a formal setting."

Here here. Tan's description of Winetopia tallies with the feedback yours truly received at the end of each masterclass and stage talk that I hosted - "Thanks for making wine easy to understand while showing us some complex ideas and wines," said one couple. This is the third year I have worked as one of the hosts of the Winetopia team and while it's a busy schedule of eight separate tastings to host over two days, it is invigorating and stimulating to be part of. 

The most popular masterclasses this year (that I hosted) were the two on Pinot Noir and here are my top five Pinot Noirs from a weekend filled with wine, information and people - all in a refreshingly unpretentious environment. 

Five top ranking Pinot Noirs 

19/20

No1 Rosé Methode Traditionelle NV RRP $49

If this isn't the best blanc de noir bubbly made in this country, then please show me what is. Daniel le Brun has the mana and the French winemaking experience, both of which he brings to bear in this 100% Pinot Noir bubbly, which is a blend of years and bottled at an off dry level with 8.5 grams residual sugar per litre. It's aged on lees for over two years and its layers of complexity - red fruit, dry flavours all through the palate, full body, refined fine bubbles - make it a superlative wine that shines as soon as it's open and for many days afterwards. 

The verdict: If you have a decent bubbly stopper, try saving a little and try it again on day two for an even better experience.

19/20

2019 Prophets Rock Olearia Pinot Noir RRP $65

Olearia Lineata is a small dense, drought­ resistant tree that once carpeted the valley floors of Central Otago, says Paul Pujol, winemaker for Prophet's Rock wines. He produces this dense, dark and full bodied Pinot Noir from vines grown on the highest elevation of the Rocky Point Vineyard in Bendigo, a place where 'soil' is a bit of a misnoma and schist rules the day. This wine tastes of dark fruit flavours of cherries and plums with an earthy note, not least due to the wild yeast fermentation and 17 months ageing in French oak. It was bottled unfiltered and 321 cases were made.

The verdict: Delicious now but needs a big glass to open up - it'll reveal more in another four to five years. Great wine to cellar. 

19/20

2019 Coal Pit Reserve The Leo Pinot Noir RRP $140-$150

The 2019 vintage marked the arrival of another grandson for Rosie and Mark Dunphy, the owners of Coal Pit Wines in the Gibbston Valley. This incredibly lush, plush, Pinot Noir has gorgeous red floral and red fruit aromas and flavours as well as a powerful full body. Just seven barrels were made and the wine is a blend of the best Pinot Noirs from a barrel tasting at the winery. This wine is a full bodied reflection of Gibbston Valley’s cool climate, at its best.

The verdict: A wine of beauty for now or 10 years' time. 

18.5/20

2019 Greywacke Pinot Noir RRP $49

One of Marlborough's top Pinot Noirs from a top vintage; 2020 was the first year that winemakers had to contend with lockdown restrictions; not easy when you're hand picking all your grapes, as Greywacke founder Kevin Judd does. This wine is a beautiful full bodied, commanding wine, packed with spicy, earthy aromas and big dark fruit flavours. It is one of Marlborough’s best. 

Judd is one of the region's experienced winemakers as he was the first to make wine at Cloudy Bay where he remained for 25 years prior to creating this brand. Grapes in Greywacke Pinot Noir were grown on vineyards in Marlborough's sun drenched Southern Valleys, mostly from the Yarrum Vineyard. All were hand harvested and chilled overnight prior to hand-sorting and a high portion of whole bunches were added to the wild yeast fermentation. The finished wine was aged in French oak barriques, 30% new.

The verdict: Among my top five Pinot Noirs from Marlborough and it needs time - cellar it.

19/20

2020 The Escarpment Kupe Pinot Noir RRP $115

The sixteenth release from The Escarpment Vineyard’s Kupe - the king of Pinots in this region and undoubtedly one of the country's top reds too. Smooth, soft, dark and earthy flavours dominate on the nose and the powerful full body comes is beautifully balanced with intense concentration of flavour. This comes at least in part from closely planted rows of grapes with 6,600 vines to the hectare; a figure inspired by the planting densities used in Burgundy. A smaller crop than normal was all hand picked in 2020 and the wine was fermented in French oak, hand plunged and aged in 50% new French oak barriques for 18 months, made by winemakers Larry McKenna and Tim Bourne.

The verdict: Keep it. Savour it in at least three to four years time and make sure you have another bottle on hand for the long haul. 

Pinot Noir in New Zealand today

Pinot Noir is the most planted dark skinned grape in New Zealand today with 5,779 hectares planted nationwide as at 2021 (the latest statistics from NZ Winegrowers). The vast majority of Pinot Noir in New Zealand is grown in the South Island with a smidgeon in the southernmost wine region in the North Island, Martinborough. The region most devoted to Pinot Noir is Central Otago where over 80% of its vineyards are planted in Pinot. There may be marginally more or marginally less Pinot Noir grown in Marlborough, in terms of sheer numbers, but a substantial portion of that goes into sparkling wine.