Published in The Scotsman 7 March 2015

During my recent two week immersion in New Zealand Pinot Noir, I heard the same two comments repeated many times as I travelled through North and South Island regions down to the annual Central Otago Pinot Noir Celebration in Queenstown. 

This young wine country is now really starting to understand this tricky grape – and as a result, its own regional styles of Pinot Noir from Martinborough, Marlborough, Nelson, Waipara and Central Otago are starting to evolve.

Escarpment Pinot Noir tasting with Rose Murray Brown“We are concentrating much more on the ‘place’, following the Burgundian model”, explained Larry McKenna, one of New Zealand’s most experienced Pinot Noir growers, based in small Martinborough region northeast of Wellington, the first Kiwi Pinot region to emerge in the 1980’s.  “Growers are now clear that it grows better on different soils and microclimates across regions and are working out what their vineyards are capable of, as Pinot can be so expressive of site”, says McKenna.

Rose Murray Brown New Zealand Pinot NoirsThe second thing the Kiwis are all talking about, when it comes to Pinot, is vine age.  “Pinot Noir gets better as vines age and it is easier to make wine with older vines”, says Helen Masters winemaker of Ata Rangi in Martinborough.  “With older vines you can get fruit ripeness earlier, so we are picking earlier so alcohol levels are now lower”, agrees McKenna.  They are both lucky to be working with 30 year old vines, but in other regions like Marlborough and Central Otago where Pinot has been widely planted since the 1990’s, vines tend to be younger.

Marlborough is about a decade behind Martinborough’s progress when it comes to understanding Pinot, as Marlborough winegrowers spent far too long concentrating on Sauvignon Blanc.  They have similar soils and weather in this corner of north Island as they do in Martinborough, but they have now realised what makes Pinot tick here.

Ivan Sutherland of Dog Point Vineyards“We used to plant Pinot Noir on valley silt loam, but have now changed our soils for Pinot, improved clones and rootstocks”, says Ivan Sutherland of Dog Point winery (pictured right) – who worked as viticulturalist for Cloudy Bay for many years.  “Pinot is performing so much better on clay giving us its hallmark spice and richer red fruits”, says Sutherland.

Marlborough’s Pinot Noir has prettier aromas and less savoury notes than Martinborough.  Whilst Martinborough is about cherry fruits and earthy tones, Marlborough Pinot Noir has light perfumes and bright zesty fruit with a sweeter candy character.  Neighbouring Nelson region has more dried herb notes and more Burgundian texture than Marlborough.

As I headed south to Queenstown, with the cooler temperature I was expecting Pinot Noir to be more elegant.  Central Otago has a more contentinental climate with an intense growing season: long days, lots of UV light and plenty of frost risk (hence the predominance of small boutique estates).  Here the style of Pinot Noir is black plum and cassis – but it varies so much with site to site.  You just need to compare Pinots from lighter soils of Felton Road Cornish Point vineyard (more forward approachable style) in comparison to heavier clay soil of their Calvert vineyard (more structure and intensity) to see the difference.

Felton Road Pinot Noir tasting with Rose Murray Brown MW“We look for glacial soils here for Pinot”, says Nigel Greening owner of Felton Road.  In this old gold-mining country, he looks for calcareous soils (not limestone, he says) with calcium seams a metre down.  He uses biodynamic methods, with a menagerie of African Boargoats, Highland cattle and chickens, creating a self-sufficient viticultural environment.  He also says he is now picking earlier, but believes this is could be due to biodynamic methods rather than vine age.

Rippon Vineyards Central OtagoTasting across the 37 different Central Otago wineries on display at their annual Pinot Noir celebration in Queenstown, it was clear that even in one region the styles vary hugely from sensuous and elegant to more structured from different microclimates in Bannockburn, Lowburn and Wanaka. 

Most impressive estates at this tasting were the well-established estates of Felton Road, Rippon (owners Jo & Nick Mills pictured together with their double magnum), Peregrine and Quartz Reef with the most promising newcomer estates, Akarua, Valli, Grasshopper Rock and Terra Sancta (their youthful owner pictured below).



Escarpment Te Kiwa Pinot Noir 2011 (£35 Majestic Wine): Classic example of Martinborough styles from 29 year old vines grown on alluvial gravel: rich cherry fruit character and mocha notes.

Ata Rangi Pinot Noir New Zealand Rose Murray BrownAta Rangi Pinot Noir 2012 (@£40 Majestic Wine,; Wine Raks, Aberdeen) : Earthy savoury deep intense Pinot with ageing potential


Giesen ‘The Brothers’ Pinot Noir 2012 (£14.99 each for 2 bts or £19.99 bt Majestic Wine): Best value Pinot Noir on our trip, a good example of juicy upfront fruit and sweet candy character of Marlborough.

Dog Point Pinot Noir 2012 (£27 Woodwinters, Edinburgh; Berry Bros & Rudd; Must Wines): Classic Marlborough example: pretty aromatics, rounded fruit, finesse, great subtlety – a popular Pinot with our group.


Neudorf Moutere Pinot Noir 2011 (£35 Majestic Wine; Berry Bros; Herby, textural, velvet mouthfeel, rich intense fruits from this top Nelson estate

Pinot Noir Celebration in Central OtagoCENTRAL OTAGO

Felton Road Cornish Point Pinot Noir 2013 (@£30 Raeburn Wines; Woodwinters; The Wine Society; Berry Bros & Rudd; Harvey Nichols; Tanners Wines): Ripe plum, soft rounded, beautifully aromatic with great length.

Peregrine Pinot Noir 2007 & 2013 (2012 is £20/£25 Majestic Wine): I was impressed with both the youthful vibrant 2013 and rich mocha, succulent fruit of 2007 from this estate.
Rippon Pinot Noir 2007 (£30 Berry Bros; Lea & Sandeman): Served from double magnum this was the star Pinot of my trip: so beautifully mellow, rounded and gloriously mature.

Join the 12th Central Otago Pinot Noir Celebration in January 2016 in Queenstown

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