Pursuing the perfect Pinot

It was a mammoth tasting. 271 bottles of New Zealand Pinot Noir from seven New Zealand regions. Most were from the generally excellent 2007 vintage with a small group from the very good 2006 vintage plus a handful of older wines. I expected to find many great wines. I was not disappointed.

Pinot Noir is New Zealand’s most fashionable red wine. It’s also making waves internationally. I recently asked a handful of top wine critics from several countries where they rated New Zealand Pinot Noir after the universally acknowledged leader, Burgundy. They all agreed we were number two.

While New Zealand Pinot Noir is a distant second from Burgundy, if they’re right, it’s a great achievement to have come so far in a relatively short space of time. They’ve been making great wine in Burgundy for hundreds of years. The first decent Pinot Noir in New Zealand was made a mere 25 years ago.

The best things in life are seldom cheap. Pinot Noir is no exception. The average price of the 271 wines in my tasting was $35.98 a bottle which, incidentally, makes the total collection worth nearly $10,000.

Bargain hunters can relax. Nearly 100 of the wines reviewed cost less than $30 with a dozen under $20. As the production of Pinot Noir has increased an under-class of less expensive wines has emerged. Some of these are very good indeed (see my list below).

Not all New Zealand Pinot Noirs are equal. Regional styles add exciting diversity to the range of wines on offer. It’s great to have a choice between the rich and complex wines of Martinborough, the vibrant energetic wines of Nelson and the sleek spicy Pinot Noir from Central Otago (I find it difficult to generalise about the wines of Marlborough and Waipara).

Which region makes the best wines? Central Otago earned six of the places in my top ten wines but as a percentage of entries Martinborough scored a significantly higher rating. Let’s call it a draw. In terms of value, Marlborough, Nelson, Hawke’s Bay and Central Hawke’s all had a considerably lower average price than the “big three” above.

Here’s my summary of the top wines from the main regions.

Central Otago

I reviewed 106 wines from this rapidly growing and highly fashionable region. There’s a big range of wine styles from Central Otago’s sub-regions. Bannockburn is the glamour region. This warm grape-growing area achieves consistently high results from a wide range of vintage conditions. The emerging Bendigo area is even warmer and may offer a serious challenge to Bannockburn’s supremacy while other districts in the Cromwell basin also perform well. Alexandra is also a moderately warm sub-region with diverse soils producing a range of different styles. The lovely Wanaka and Gibbston sub-regions are typically cooler. They strut their stuff in warmer vintages.

Central Otago experiences considerable vintage variation. The 2004 and 2005 vintages were both fairly challenging. 2006 was better although my favourite in recent years is the widely available 2007 vintage. Top wines in the tasting were:

96 2007 Felton Road Pinot Noir Cornish Point Central Otago $55

This latest label from Central’s icon winery is an absolute winner. Poised and powerful.

96 2007 Felton Road Pinot Noir Central Otago $55

Elegant, complex wine – a winning label every vintage.

95 2007 Rockburn Pinot Noir Central Otago $39

Beauty and brains in this charming, complex Pinot Noir (I bought a case)

95 2007 Akarua Pinot Noir Cadence Central Otago $45

A hauntingly beautiful aroma and a heady mix of flavours.

94 2007 Wild Earth Pinot Noir Central Otago $38

Hearty Pinot Noir for mid-winter drinking (with or without food)


There were 104 Marlborough wines in the tasting with an even greater variation in style and quality than Central Otago. They can be intense, powerful and long-lived such as Fromm Clayvin (tastings) or delicately seductive like Nautilus (tastings). Marlborough doesn’t seem to experience the vintage variation of other regions making the region’s wines more reliable than most. Marlborough’s star producers (Clos Henri – tastings, Cloudy Bay – tastings, Dog Point – tastings, Fromm – tastings, Nautilus – tastings, Seresin – tastings and Villa Maria – tastings are my favourites) seem to occupy the top slots every year.

94 2007 Nautilus Pinot Noir Marlborough $39

This wine has a harmony and energy that is both rare and very appealing. It’s a stunner.

94 2006 Villa Maria Pinot Noir Single Vineyard Taylors Pass Marlborough $57.99

Another in a string of winners from this vineyard. Elegant wine with power.

93 2007 Clayridge Pinot Noir Excalibur Marlborough $38

Supple, charming wine from hillside vines.

93 2006 Auntsfield Pinot Noir Hawk Hill Marlborough $45

Exciting, seductive Pinot Noir with a drop-dead silken texture.

93 2005 Fromm Pinot Noir Clayvin Vineyard Marlborough $60

Powerful, complex wine. Buy now, drink later to really appreciate a winner.


Martinborough put quality Pinot Noir on the map in New Zealand and made a lot of noise in the early years of the variety’s development. Central Otago now occupies a higher profile, largely thanks to that region’s far greater number of producers but Martinborough still makes many of the country’s top wines. My tasting only attracted 16 entries from Martinborough and did not include regional hero, Ata Rangi (tastings). Martinborough had the highest average price of $46.26.

96 2007 Craggy Range Pinot Noir Te Muna Road Vineyard Martinborough $49.95

A tiny vintage produced this seriously concentrated wine with power and potential.

95 2006 Martinborough Vineyard Pinot Noir Martinborough $70

Supremely elegant and complex Pinot Noir with cellaring potential (but terrific now).

94 2006 Alana Estate Pinot Noir Le Coup Martinborough $90

Never mind the price, feel the power and complexity. A true thoroughbred.

93 2007 Margrain Pinot Noir Home Block Martinborough $52

Wonderful fruit purity in this power-packed Pinot.

93 2006 Kusuda Pinot Noir Martinborough $65

Wine as art by this country’s only Japanese winemaker.


Nelson is a quiet achiever when it comes to making top quality Pinot Noir. The best can be spectacular. They are vibrant wines sparkling with star-bright energy.

89 2006 Kaimira Estate Pinot Noir Vintner’s Selection Nelson $30.00

Scented, savoury and powerful wine from one of Nelson’s rising stars.

87 2006 Woollaston Estates Pinot Noir Nelson $35.00

Delicate, pure and totally charming wine with an ethereal texture.


It’s impossible to talk about high quality New Zealand Pinot Noir without mentioning Waipara, a region that has produced many of the country’s greatest wines over the years. The quality of Daniel Schuster Pinot Noir (tastings) has been variable in the past but the winery’s latest offering is truly magnificent. Pegasus Bay (tastings), on the other hand, consistently delivers top quality wine year after year.

96 2007 Daniel Schuster Pinot Noir Omihi Waipara $90.00

Expensive but worth every penny. New Zealand’s answer to Burgundy. It doesn’t get much better than this.

93 2006 Pegasus Bay Pinot Noir Waipara $45.95

Concentrated, powerful Pinot with great density. A “knife and fork” Pinot Noir.


Kaituna (tastings) consistently heads the field in Canterbury with wines made in vineyards sited in a remote viticultural region near Banks Peninsula.

92 2006 Kaituna Valley Pinot Noir Kaituna Vineyard Canterbury $42.00

Great wine from the King of Canterbury Pinot Noir with a little help from the oldest Pinot Noir vines in the country.

87 2006 Kaituna Valley Pinot Noir Bone Hill Vineyard Canterbury $42.00

Deliciously light and supple Pinot Noir with surprising power.

Central Hawke’s Bay

A new and promising cool climate region in land from Hawke’s Bay and with a higher altitude.

87 2007 Trinity Hill Pinot Noir High Country Central Hawkes Bay $39.00

New Zealand’s newest Pinot Noir wine region – Trinity Hill are out to prove it’s up there with the best.

Pinot Noir on a budget

Best Buys under $30

92 2007 Triplebank Pinot Noir Awatere Valley Marlborough $25.99

Classy wine at a terrific price. My top value pick.

89 2007 Spy Valley Pinot Noir Marlborough $28.95

Concentrated Pinot Noir from a top value producer.

88 2006 Clayridge Pinot Noir Marlborough $29.00

Lovely pure fruit flavours with an appealing hint of spice.

88 2007 Aurum Pinot Noir Central Otago $29.50

At last! A Central Otago Pinot Noir that won’t break the bank.

86 2007 Main Divide Pinot Noir Marlborough $24.95

Elegant wine with cherry and raspberry flavours.

Best Buys under $20

84 2007 Trinity Hill Pinot Noir Hawke’s Bay $19.00

Best in the Bay – delicate, charming wine at a good price

83 2007 Wild South Pinot Noir Marlborough $19.90

Light Pinot Noir for easy drinking

83 2006 Richmond Plains Pinot Noir Nelson $19.95

Appealing Pinot for summer drinking.

79 2007 Te Mania Pinot Noir Nelson $19.99

Soft, savoury red that’s in peak drinking form now.

78 2007 W5 Pinot Noir Marlborough $15.99

Super value, only available from www.blackmarket.co.nz

Tips for Pinot Noir Drinkers


Serve Pinot Noir in large-bowled glasses to get the most out of the varieties often pungently heady aroma. I use stemmed glasses with a bowl resembling a brandy balloon.


Experiment with serving temperature – it makes a big difference. Some wines (particularly softer Pinot Noir) respond well to being served lightly chilled while others (bigger and more astringent wines) respond well to being served slightly warm. If I have a cold bottle of Pinot Noir I pour a generous serving into a large glass and heat in the microwave on high for 10 seconds. I then chill it down by adding more cold wine or increase the heat with more time in the microwave until the wine is at its optimum.


Most wines are now sealed with a screwcap. Wines stored in this anaerobic condition often respond to aeration. Try sloshing the wine (pour gently if it has any sign of sediment) into a decanter and allow it to sit for 15-30 minutes. The difference can be surprising.


Don’t store Pinot Noir, particularly the lighter examples, for excessively long periods. Most will show some improvement to flavour and texture after three to four years from the vintage date but only the most robust wines should be cellared for more than five or six years.

First published in Taste Magazine NZ – Sep 2008.

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