New Zealand pinot noir, although not blessed with the centuries-old history of some of the great wines of the world, is one of the country’s most well-established varieties.

Marked for decades by great wines from many still-respected estates like Ata Rangi, Dry River, Pegasus Bay and Neudorf, it changed little until the late 90s and early 2000s when blockbuster fruit-driven and powerful styles emerged from the Central Otago region. NZ wine has continued to evolve over the past decade and a half and even bastions of the classic styles like Martinborough and North Canterbury have seen a shift towards a more ‘current’ style of pinot noir.

What has changed, and what has contributed to this evolution?

New clones? At one stage, clonal material was considered the great new hope but as vines have matured and settled into their environs, this has proven to be less significant than had previously been assumed. Some vignerons, like Wilco and Dry River and the team at Pyramid Valley, believe that the rootstock vines potentially play an even more important part, as New Zealand does not yet have the right rootstock vines to suit limestone soils and low-yielding terroirs.

At 20-30 years of age, our vineyards are approaching adolescence and the resulting wines are also changing. The fruit is tempered with complexity and subtlety – not just from the vineyard but in the winery. Confidence in winemaking and a better understanding of their grapes have allowed winemakers to exert a lighter hand with less new oak. These are generally less extracted wines with lower alcohol and more elegant, complex structure due to improved viticulture and the influence of organics.

Generally, maceration times have come down: where the standard winemaking practice in NZ was to destem the fruit and have extended cuvaison of 25-28 days, it’s now more often 21-28 days with rising use of whole-bunch (though it is not for everyone!) This has resulted in more transparent, delicate, effusive and gentle wines rather than the intense blockbusters of yesteryear.

The limestone-influenced regions of Waikari, Waitaki and Central Hawke’s Bay have been strong contributors to the pinot noir story and have forced winemakers to reconsider the balance of the grape variety and how it can display on the palate. Once regarded as the source of sparkling wine base and fruity, slightly simple pinot noir, Marlborough now boasts fantastic pockets of the varietal in the Southern Valleys which have inspired producers like Churton, Folium, Te Whare Ra, Fromm, Giesen and Corofin to explore the possibility of a Cru and climate system. In the manner of the Côte d’Or, many of these producers are making wines from these vines alongside each other and this is being reflected on their labels. Will the day come when we understand the character of a Clayvin in the same way as we do a Ruchottes-Chambertin, the vineyard taking centre-stage regardless of which producer has farmed the fruit and made the wine?

Lastly, winemakers are also navigating what it means to be a pinot noir from Waipara, Martinborough or indeed Wanaka. At one stage, emulating the great wines of France was the inspiration. About a decade ago, a movement began to emerge that rejected emulation declaring that NZ pinot noir shouldn’t taste like Burgundy – embrace the fruit, embrace the exuberance of the New World, they cried! Like all things that swing and sway, styles are now returning towards a more Burgundian elegance with a lightness of flavour yet more confident structure. Freshness, complexity and poise are appearing in the wines, just as the wine from Burgundy itself is changing subtly – influenced as it is by the New World.

We live in interesting times for pinot noir. Where will we go next?

WORDS: Stephen Wong MW,