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The Place for Pinot Noir

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Sommeliers look to New Zealand wineries for value and flavor pairings.
By Kristine Hansen November 2013 Wine

New Zealand Pinot Noir is gaining prominence, largely because that country’s cool, sunny, dry climate yields perfect growing seasons for a varietal that has long been the quintessential autumn wine and one that has gained considerable popularity in recent years. Whether from New Zealand, Oregon’s Willamette Valley, or Burgundy, France, the wine is characterized by a bouquet of baking spices that eases into a palate rich with bright red fruit and a light, well-balanced body with silky tannins.

Pinot Noir is neither heavy, like a Napa Cabernet Sauvignon would be, nor is it a crisp, refreshing Rosé or white wine more suited for summer. Ideal for pairing with food, it’s a winner whether the table is ordering barbecued meats or vegetarian fare.

“Pinot Noir is a great wine, in general, for being very versatile,” says Joshua Orr, sommelier and bar manager at Marina Kitchen in San Diego.

As sommeliers increasingly turn to Pinot Noir for pairings, New Zealand has quickly emerged as one to watch and another favorite destination for growing Pinot Noir grapes, with regions like Otago and Marlborough coming into their own. What makes this country so solid for growing Pinot Noir?

“New Zealand’s climate—and particularly in regions from the Wairarapa through Marlborough and Central Otago—is exceptionally suited to Pinot Noir. The variety requires the whole growing season and in so doing is allowed to exhibit the full spectrum of Pinot Noir characteristics without being burdened with high alcohol,” says Dave Edmonds, winemaker at Nobilo Wines, which began making Pinot Noir from Marlborough grapes during the mid-1970s.

Nick Blampied-Lane, a winemaker at Cloudy Bay Vineyards in Marlborough, New Zealand, agrees that New Zealand is ripe with opportunity for growing Pinot Noir. “In all the major Pinot Noir regions of New Zealand, the climate is cool, sunny, and dry. Another aspect that is often overlooked is the collegiate nature of the wine industry in New Zealand. Sharing information, ideas, and—of course—the occasional bottle is common among Kiwi winemakers,” says Blampied-Lane.

Indeed, each September Cloudy Bay hosts “Pinot at Cloudy Bay,” a trade-heavy event that attracts Pinot Noir enthusiasts from around the globe for seminars and tastings where the Pinot Noir bottles, from a country more celebrated for its wool and surfing, join those from New World Pinot Noir regions, such as Willamette Valley, Oregon, and Russian River Valley, California.

New to Market

Cloudy Bay Vineyards recently inched into Central Otago with its first vintage of Pinot Noir: the 2010 Cloudy Bay Vineyards Te Wahi Pinot Noir ($75), which hits the Chicago and Dallas markets this fall with wider distribution in 2014.

“Te Wahi is a blend of three sub-regions within Central Otago, and its palate of dark berries and silky tannins complement the red fruit and elegance of our Marlborough Pinot Noir,” says Blampied-Lane. “Our Marlborough Pinot Noir has a lifted perfume with a great taught purity, whereas our Te Wahi from Central Otago has a richer, thicker fruit aspect and more obvious tannin.”

Turning wine drinkers’ attention to New Zealand isn’t always easy, admits Edmonds. However, once someone has tried Pinot Noir it’s easy to fall in love with the complexities. “Pinot Noir is a variety that can surprise the consumer with its concentration on the palate even if it doesn’t look like an Australian Shiraz or Argentinean Malbec,” he says.

For fans of Burgundy and Oregon Pinot Noirs, New Zealand’s lower price points are enticing. “When you show people a New Zealand Pinot Noir, they are truly surprised at the quality and value for money,” says Anthony Walkenhorst, a winemaker at Kim Crawford Wines, where the Pinot Noir features Marlborough grapes and the first vintage was in 2000.

“The early days involved working closely with a handful of growers. However, since Constellation (which acquired the winery in 2006), we’ve now got our own vineyards, giving us full control over the grapes,” continues Walkenhorst. “We were fortunate to have learned a lot from other Pinot-producing countries to ensure that the best clones were used from the beginning. Over the past few years we’ve been able to identify which sub-regions work best for the varietal, such as the Southern Valleys in Marlborough, and as a result we have focused most of our plantings [in those areas].”

Flavors that Entice Eating

Blampied-Lane feels Pinot Noir is a nice pairing with foods that feature earthy profiles. “The low-tone earthy flavors of duck are complemented perfectly by the high-tone, ethereal notes of New Zealand Pinot Noir. A great cheese board can also be a great match with a more mature New Zealand Pinot Noir. Smoked mushrooms are also a delicious partner,” he says. Many sommeliers also like to suggest to diners ordering lamb that they try New Zealand Pinot Noir.

Because many foods at Marina Kitchen—such as pan-seared King salmon served with local vegetables—are regionally sourced, their farm-fresh flavors are quite noticeable. “They do have that hint of earth to go with the fruit,” Orr says, adding that spinach and bacon are two other delightful pairings with New Zealand Pinot Noir.

“[New Zealand Pinot Noirs] make you want to eat. They are very good with food,” says Steve Tindle, general manager at Roka Akor in Chicago. He points to the higher acidity, crispness, and lower alcohol. “They’re still gaining traction and still a bit of a hard sell. The price can be a little high for a wine that’s not a household name. I think [Pinot Noirs from Otago] can compete with some of the best Pinots in the world.”

Otago Pinot Noirs, Tindle says, are more “mineral-driven, dry, and austere” in an Old World style much like Burgundy, France. Currently he includes Pinot Noirs from three New Zealand wineries—Peregrine Wines, Tarras Vineyards, and Amisfield Wine Company—on the wine list. Paired with Roka Akor’s Japanese food (especially oilier, more textured fish), they’re a surprise hit.

“I like them because they present value,” says Orr, who currently has Pinot Noirs from Kawarau Estate Wines (Central Otago), Felton Road (Central Otago), and Kim Crawford Wines (Marlborough) on his wine list. “They’re underrated for what they are.”

Compared with Pinot Noirs from California, the fruit notes in a New Zealand Pinot Noir are less “ripe” on the palate and the terroir much more pronounced. “You say Pinot and people think of California, which is a riper, much more intense style,” says Orr. New Zealand Pinot Noirs, he says, are similar to those from Oregon that are lighter-bodied, particularly for “that beautiful ruby color that’s not so dark you can’t see through it.”

“We have come a long way in a very short time and enjoy the best climate in the New World for growing Pinot Noir,” says Blampied-Lane. “New Zealand has already carved out its own style, and this style will strengthen as winemakers learn the characteristics of the land and can afford to let the wines make themselves a little more.”