Pinot Noir perfection – when it’s great, it’s sublime

Winemakers call it “the heartbreak grape” or “the holy grail”. It’s easy to make Pinot Noir but fiendishly difficult to make great Pinot Noir. The ingredients for greatness are a perfect vineyard site, a mix of the best vine clones, viticultural attention of such intensity that the vineyard workers know each vine by name, ideal vintage conditions and “hands-off” winemaking.

I have no doubt that New Zealand will one day produce truly great Pinot Noir. Our winemakers are getting tantalisingly close to that goal – I’d class the best as “extremely good” – but it’s still just out of reach. We rank second or third behind France or, more accurately Burgundy, the only region in the world that has so far managed to make really great (by my definition) Pinot Noir.

How do you know when a Pinot Noir is great? As English wine writer, Simon Woods, wrote; “Great burgundy is like an orgasm. If you’re not sure whether you’ve had one or not – you haven’t. And if you have had one you want another as soon as possible”.

I clearly remember the greatest Pinot Noir, also the greatest wine, I have ever tasted. I was visiting Burgundy with a group of Masters of Wine on a tour hosted by some of that region’s top producers. Our hosts had organised a dinner in the town of Beaune and had each brought with them a special bottle – of burgundy, of course. I was yakking to a couple of winemakers when someone sloshed some red wine into my empty glass. Without giving it too much thought I sipped the wine. Fireworks exploded. I could no longer hear the buzz of conversation around me. My attention was totally focussed on the small glass of red wine in my hand. I had never tasted anything like it.

The wine was Mugnier Musigny 1985 (tasted in the mid-nineties). Moderately light in colour and with a slightly garnet hue indicating a little bottle age it was unremarkable in appearance. But the wine’s haunting scent, seductively silken texture and medley of exotic flavours were totally remarkable. Instantly appealing it revealed layer upon layer of different flavours displaying a virtual peacock’s tail of haunting spice, floral and fruit characters as it slowly evolved in my mouth.

I sipped and savoured every drop until my glass was empty. Then I hunted for the bottle – empty of course. I have searched for the wine, unsuccessfully, ever since. I recently spotted a case for auction in New York but its estimate of nearly $20,000 and the potential for disappointment if it hadn’t been correctly stored stopped me from making a bid.

To be fair I should also note that I’ve tasted many expensive wines from Burgundy that were bitterly disappointing. The fact that a wine is made from Pinot Noir grapes does not automatically mean that it is good. Many winemakers may be frustrated by the difficulty involved in making a good one but many more wine drinkers share the frustration of having to pay a lot of money for Pinot Noir that is simply not worth its price.

By tasting well in excess of 200 New Zealand Pinot Noirs and grouping the winners by price category I hope to take some of the frustration out of your Pinot Noir purchasing.

Here are some tips from the tasting that will help you get the best out of New Zealand Pinot Noir.

How to buy a great New Zealand Pinot Noir

Regional differences

Every region south of Hawke’s Bay is capable of making a top New Zealand Pinot Noir although some regions are more reliable than others. While Hawke’s Bay is not yet recognised as a good Pinot Noir region the development of vineyard sites in cooler districts might soon force me and others to revise that view.

My top 12 wines were from Central Otago (4), Marlborough (4), Waipara (3) and Martinborough (1). On the basis of top awards per wine entered Waipara wins by a country mile with nearly three times the success rate of Central Otago in second place. That confirms my view that if I randomly picked a Pinot Noir from Waipara it would be more likely to be of gold medal standard than if I performed the same exercise in any other region. It also confirms my view that Central Otago would be the next best region. That assumes all regions have similar vintage conditions, which they don’t.

Vintage differences

In general terms 2007 was a far more successful vintage than 2008 in most regions. That is particularly true in Marlborough, where rain disrupted harvest in 2008, although one wine at least (Jackson Estate 2008 Vintage Widow Pinot Noir – tastings) appears to be the exception proving the rule. It’s also true of Central Otago where the overall standard is higher and more consistent in 2007.

Winemaker differences

Run your eye down my top twelve list and you will see wineries such as Felton Road (tastings), Nautilus (tastings), Pegasus Bay (tastings), Mountford (tastings) and Fromm (tastings) which have been making consistently good Pinot Noir for a number of years. They (and others) are the “first division” of this country’s Pinot Noir makers. You can rely on their wines being very good almost irrespective of vintage variation. However you often pay a premium for that quality assurance.

Relatively new Pinot Noir makers such as Aurum (tastings), Waitiri Creek (tastings) and Auntsfield (tastings) are clearly making top wines but need a few more vintages before they can be regarded as consistently high achievers. Names such as these can sometimes deliver high quality bargains.

Buying the best on a budget

The rapid increase in Pinot Noir production in recent years has seen the emergence of a Pinot Noir underclass to help shift the higher wine volume. Some, like Pencarrow (tastings) and Greenhough’s (tastings) Nelson Pinot Noir are second labels helping to protect the integrity of the flagship wine while satisfying a potentially larger market for more price-friendly Pinot Noir. Others, like Wild South (tastings), Astrolabe (tastings) and Konrad (tastings) have deliberately chosen the lower price category. All are potential bargains that have earned a reputation for producing good wines at a modest price.

Quality at this level is still vintage dependant. My advice is to stock up in the good vintages and enjoy better wine at the same budget price.

Perfect Pinot – the top twelve

95 Felton Road 2008 Cornish Point Pinot Noir, Central Otago $55.00

Beautifully perfumed with exotic spice and red fruit flavours. Truly great wine!

95 Nautilus 2007 Four Barriques Pinot Noir, Marlborough $60.00

Limited edition that really delivers the goods. Sleek and silken.

94 Pegasus Bay 2007 Pinot Noir, Waipara $46.95

Big, rich and complex – top wine from a great winery

94 Rippon 2007 Pinot Noir, Central Otago $54.50

Organic Pinot Noir with a drop-dead texture.

94 Aurum 2007 Madeleine Pinot Noir, Central Otago $86.00

Flagship wine with great power and complexity.

93 Jackson Estate 2008 Vintage Widow Pinot Noir, Marlborough $40.00

Marlborough’s top Pinot Noir from the 2008 vintage

93 Waitiri Creek 2007 Pinot Noir, Central Otago $42.00

Distinctive and stylish wine with strong herbal, floral and spice flavours

93 Auntsfield 2007 Pinot Noir, Marlborough $45.00

Intense wine – elegance on a grand scale!

93 Mountford 2007 Pinot Noir, Waipara $48.00

Generously proportioned Pinot with a cuddly texture

93 Fromm 2006 Clayvin Vineyard Pinot Noir, Marlborough $60.00

Dense, long-lived Pinot Noir from an excellent vintage

93 Craggy Range 2007 Aroha Te Muna Road Vineyard Pinot Noir, Martinborough $80.00

Only 70 cases made from a tiny vintage – be quick for this wonderfully intense Pinot Noir

93 Pegasus Bay 2006 Prima Donna Pinot Noir, Waipara $84.00

Big, dense, oaky Pinot Noir with heaps of ageing potential

Price-friendly Pinot – top five under $30

87 Aravin 2007 Pinot Noir, Central Otago $27.00

Silken-textured Pinot – serious wine at a seriously good price

86 Vidal 2007 Pinot Noir, Marlborough $27.99

Charming and seductive wine that’s deliciously ready to drink

85 Pencarrow 2008 Pinot Noir, Martinborough $22.00

Intensely fruity Pinot in a “drink-me-now” style

85 Greenhough 2007 Pinot Noir, Nelson $26.00

A minor fruit bomb from one of Nelson’s top makers

85 Astrolabe 2007 Pinot Noir, Marlborough $26.90

Gentle cherry and raspberry flavours – great slightly chilled

Paupers Pinot – top five under $20

84 The Crossings 2008 Pinot Noir, Marlborough $19.95

Light, supple and spicy wine from the Awatere Valley

84 Torea 2008 Pinot Noir, Marlborough $19.99

A gutsy Pinot that delivers plenty of bang for the buck

83 Wild South 2008 Pinot Noir, Central Otago $18.90

Pure cherry and strawberry flavours – delicate wine with poise

80 Konrad 2008 Pinot Noir, Marlborough $18.70

Light and fruity with pure strawberry and cherry flavours

78 Whalebone Bay 2008 Pinot Noir, Marlborough $12.99

Gutsy Pinot Noir at a silly price – available only from

First published in Taste Magazine NZ – Oct 2009.

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