Joelle Thomson

Writer, author, journalist

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Friday drinks with an unreliable, moody, thin skinned (but strangely likeable) red grape...

Temperamental, needing constant care and attention and highly changeable, why is Pinot Noir a natural fit for New Zealand?

Haunting, subtle, thrilling and brilliant. Pinot Noir production is on the rise globally with a 24 per cent increase since 2021 according to Wine-Searcher. Pinot Noir has always been a problem child. Unstable, thin skinned and constantly changing so that it is unreliable at the best of times.

It has a tendency to mutate a little too easily in the vineyard where it may have begun life as a red grape but may mutate into one with a white skin on one side and morph into Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, or Pinot Meunier on the other Its global popularity has risen astronomically since the film Sideways was released in 2004 and led to a skyrocketing in Pinot's popularity which has only gained impetus, of late, rather than shrinking. It was already on the up and up in New Zealand, prior to Sideways, having grown from a humble 431 hectares planted nationwide in 1996 to over 1100 hectares in 2000 and then jumping to 2029 hectares in 2002 and to 3120 hectares in 2004. Why is a thin skinned and reliably difficult grape to grow so popular?

The answer is that it's a natural fit, even if difficult. Thin skinned grapes cannot tolerate excessive heat so New Zealand's predominantly cool climate allows it to express itself with aplomb. Its best expressions tend to come from the driest parts of the country where moisture cannot wreak damage on Pinot Noir, hence Central Otago, Martinborough, North Canterbury, the Southern Valleys in Marlborough and pockets of the greater Wairarapa region. 

Central Otago is synonymous with Pinot Noir for New Zealand Pinot drinkers due to 80 per cent+ of its vineyard area being devoted solely to Pinot Noir. The irony is that the majority of the best wines are not widely consumed because they only make up about 20 per cent of the region's total Pinot production each year. Wines such as Wild Earth and Quartz Reef remain the domain of cellar door sales, specialist wine stores or online retailers and yet these wines are among the thrilling, the haunting, the subtle and the spectacular, despite being made from a thin skinned, unstable grape variety. 

Here are four new Pinot Noir releases from Central Otago, tasted this week. 

19/20

2021 Quartz Reef Pinot Noir RRP $46

Silky, smooth and velvety in mouthfeel with layers of ripe cherries, dried cranberries and dark plums, all held together with the structure of a firm acidity and a full body. A youthful wine with at least five to six years' potential ageing to see it soften and become an even prettier wine than now. 

18.5/20

Quartz Reef NV Rosé RRP $43

Delicate in colour and powerful in flavour with a full body, crisp red fruit flavours with depth coming from hints of mushroom and dried fruit, intermingling on a long, flavoursome finish. This sparkling rosé is made 100% from Pinot Noir grapes, all hand picked, all certified organic and given a two year lees raging process. It was hand riddled and disgorged on site at Quartz Reef winery in Bendigo.

18.5/20

Quartz Reef NV Brut RRP $30

Organically certified, hand riddled and disgorged and made from hand picked grapes grown in Bendigo, Central Otago. This incredibly toasty and characterful bubbly is a blend of 76% Pinot Noir, 24% Chardonnay which was bottle fermented for nearly two years which saw the yeasty autolytic characters develop in this full bodied, complex southern sparkling wine. It was riddled and disgorged by hand, making it sensationally good value for money, given its depth of flavour and high quality. 

18.5/20

2021 Wild Earth Pinot Noir RRP $46

Jen Parr makes Wild Earth Pinot Noirs for owner Quintin Quider, a Pinot devotee who sources grapes  from vineyards in Bannockburn, Pisa and Bendigo for this silky, smooth, fresh new Pinot Noir. A portion of whole bunch fermentation adds firm elegant tannin structure to this wine, providing backbone with balance and lifting aromas of red and dark cherry notes into a gorgeously drinkable, subtly spicy young Pinot Noir with very good ageing potential for five to six years. It's a medium bodied, dry style with lightness in the mid palate.

19/20

2021 Wild Earth Pinot Noir Earth and Sky RRP $65

A powerful Pinot Noir made from grapes grown entirely in Bannockburn, Central Otago, on two vineyards - grapes were fermented separately to retain character prior to making blending decisions. The whole cluster portion in total was about 18% and the grapes spent nearly a month on skins to extract colour, tannin and weight, with about 12 months in French barriques, of which 24% were new. This is a beautifully juicy young Pinot Noir with dark fruit aromas, cedar and sandalwood flavours balanced by earthy tastes hinting at mushrooms and spice. These delicious flavours will integrate over time into a seamless wine. Ageing potential: up to 6 years, potentially longer.