The popularity of Pinot Noir seems to know no bounds. It’s always been popular, but it’s upward trajectory the last decade and change has been nothing short of impressive. It’s also one of the most challenging grapes to grow and shepherd into great wine. The struggle to grow great Pinot Noir begins with site selection. Unlike Cabernet Sauvignon, for instance, which thrives more easily, Pinot’s demands are more specific. It wants cooler sites, preferably with early morning fog and proximity to maritime influence. Once you have a great spot to plant Pinot Noir, you want to make sure you have the correct clones too. There isn’t a grape out there as clone specific as Pinot. Each one brings something different to the party — like fruit or spice or heft — so to create a well-rounded, cuvée-style offering, you’ll likely want several different clones.
Central Otago in New Zealand sits in the top handful of the very best regions in the world to grow reference quality Pinot Noir. Bourgogne in France, the Willamette Valley in Oregon and Napa’s Russian River Valley are among the few that can be mentioned in the same breath. Situated in the bottom third of New Zealand’s Southern island, Central Otago is the southernmost wine growing region on earth. Its greatness comes in part from being a study in diversity. There are mountains, rivers, lakes and extreme fluctuations in climate. The differences are such that within the greater region sit six subregions. Aromatic whites, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc thrive there as well, but such is the allure of Pinot Noir that the others make up less than 25% of all planted hectares.
Sub-regional, climactic and weather diversity means that even within Central Otago, there is a wide swath of distinct examples of Pinot Noir. Some offerings grow mere yards away from each other yet produce wildly distinct wines. These specific small regions are a piece of what makes Central Otago one of the most noteworthy places for Pinot Noir in the world. In terms of the specificity of site and diversity of results based on those sites, Central Otago reminds me most of Bourgogne. But when thinking of the overarching style that acts as a connective tissue between the Pinot here, I’m most reminded of the Willamette Valley.
A few months back, I spent a couple of weeks in New Zealand, including some time in Central Otago, where I attended a celebration of New Zealand Pinot Noirs from each region. Here’s a look at some exceptional Pinot Noirs that I sampled throughout my time there. However, the average quality of Central Otago Pinot Noir is so incredibly high and such a good value that nearly any bottle in your price range is worth taking a gamble on; they are at the very least always interesting. So try a few different ones and you’ll see how distinct they can be.
Prophets Rock 2013 “Home Vineyard” Pinot Noir ($39)
The nose here is a bit reticent, but it does show off black tea, a touch of anise and hints of black raspberry. The palate is firm but even-keeled with droves of dark fruit and a sprinkling of spices. Chicory, earth and bits of black olive are evident on the long, firm finish. Racy acid keeps things balanced.
Akarua 2015 Pinot Noir ($42)
This offering is from the Bannockburn subregion. The fruit was sourced from two vineyards. From the first whiff to the last sip, black fruit aromas and flavors win the day. Hints of bay leaf and leather are also evident along with a complement of spices. Savory herbs and a gentle hint of citrus rind show up on the long, earth-laden finish.
Felton Road 2015 Cornish Point Pinot Noir ($49)
The Cornish Point Vineyard, one of four the winery owns, sits near the water. Red fruits and floral notes fill the nose. Cherry, strawberry, oodles of spice and a dusting of cocoa are evident through the palate. The finish is long and mineral laden. Mouth-watering acid lends to the lovely structure.
Burn Cottage Vineyard 2015 Central Otago Pinot Noir ($55)
Savory herbs and floral notes dominate the nose here. Generous red fruit flavors tinged with black fruits dominate the palate. Bits of spice and additional references to savory herbs are present as well. The finish is long, lush and memorable. Firm acid keeps things fresh and balanced.
Mount Edward 2011 Muirkirk Vineyard Pinot Noir ($75)
Savory herbs and wisps of red fruit dot the nose. The palate shows off red cherry tinged with bits of black fruit as well as spice and continued savory herbs. The delicate finish is stuffed with spice and continued morsels of fruit. What’s most impressive here is the incredible texture and mouth-feel. There’s depth to spare, and the moment you finish a sip, you’ll want another.