Pinot noir has lured many with its complexity yet delicious, easy drinkability. Cameron Douglas MS takes a closer look at what is at the heart of its intrigue and how to get the most out of the variety
The next time you’re poised to make a selection from your local Liquorland store, or perusing the wine list at a restaurant don’t be surprised by the amount of space dedicated to New Zealand pinot noir – there are a lot to choose from.
Pinot noir has been cultivated and enjoyed in nearly every country that can grow grapes for wine, but its first home (some would say spiritual home) is Burgundy, France, where it has been cultivated for over 2000 years and where the modern story begins. It gets its name from the French word for “pine cone”, as it resembles that shape as a cluster of grapes; and “noir” meaning black.
If you speak with a local winemaker or grape grower about the variety, they’ll undoubtedly mention its good qualities, such as its adaptability to soils and environment, but in the same breath you’ll also probably hear about how it often won’t grow evenly and how it sometimes it even mutates, sometimes into pinot gris. Occasionally vines and even particular bunches can revert to growing red and green grapes simultaneously. These challenges appear to increase a vigneron's passion to unlock its secrets, nurture the variety and make something worthy of their efforts and your attention. Such is the pull to winemakers in New Zealand that all regions produce pinot noir – though the most notable examples (not in any particular order – opinions vary widely on this) are Central Otago, Martinborough, Canterbury, Nelson and Marlborough.
Early on in New Zealand’s wine history Jean Féraud, a French settler to the Otago region established a vineyard and wine business (circa 1865). Of the wines he released to the market (around 1870) one was called red “Burgundy Wine” (as noted in the Otago Witness newspaper of the time). It could well be that Féraud was New Zealand’s first commercial pinot noir producer – where he procured the vines is unknown.
Further north, in the Wairarapa, the Beetham family also established a family vineyard in the late 1890s. At a recent tasting of a historic 1903 red wine at the Beetham family homestead, it was revealed it was highly likely the blend contained pinot noir grapes.
By the early 1980s the love affair and commercial production had begun in earnest, thanks to a few modern pioneers, many of whom were actually advised not to pursue the variety in the beginning. Fortunately, these determined pinot noir fans persevered – and the variety is now our second largest success story, after sauvignon blanc.
The aromas and flavours to expect from pinot noir wines are quite varied and winemakers like to tease out the ones that highlight their particular vineyard, terroir (the combination of factors, including soil, climate and environment, that gives a wine its distinctive character) and style. The matrix of combinations can become the signature of a particular producer and build their reputation in the market. You’ll note that pinot noir can be quite a complex wine to unravel for the taster – which is part of what makes it addictive to many. The described ripe red fruits alone may include red cherry, raspberry, cranberry, wild strawberry or black cherry. Floral tones can be purple and red flowers, violets and lilacs. Some herbal or spice qualities can have a quiet yet obvious voice: tea leaf, dried herbs, fennel, anise and clove. Other aromas and flavours include game, earth, minerality and limestone.
Oak is a natural and well used component of pinot noir, adding layers and depth including: French oak – with toast, vanilla bean, smoke, baking spices and roasted nut.
Pinot noir is nearly always a dry wine, with medium weight (body), fine to elevated tannins (that dusty chalky texture) and elevated acidity in the finer examples.
Key areas of production do include the southern Hawke’s Bay – try Mission Estate’s Vineyard Selection – then feature in every wine growing area southward through to Otago.
The best approach to take when selecting or preparing food to pair with pinot is to keep things simple – pinot doesn’t like heat spices such as chilli, or foods over-seasoned with black pepper; or too much salt such as found in soy sauce or capers – a little can be just fine.
Pinot can be quite complex in its finest forms, so dishes that have simple earthy flavours can find harmony with the wine quite easily – for example a risotto with fresh herbs, dried mushroom, leek and perhaps pumpkin served with a simple protein such as chicken breast or white fish can be delicious. Try this with the Peregrine Pinot Noir Central Otago and you’ll discover what I mean.
Other dishes that pair well can appear a lot bolder in nature, but are classic – such as beef or chicken stew and, as such, are delicious partners with pinot noir – try the Tohu from the Marlborough region. Lean meats are better partners than rich fatty flesh.
Duck with its natural slightly gamey flavour and moist texture can be the perfect partner for pinot noir. Try the Mud House wines from Waipara with this bird. Venison, lamb and wild game would complement the Astrolabe Pinot Noir (Marlborough).
Menu choices and pinot noir matches at restaurants can be challenging at times, especially if the wine list has a dozen or more to choose from. The best food and wine matches come from dishes with bold yet simple flavours such as salmon (hot smoked), lean medium-rare venison or carpaccio of red meat. Try some of the wines from the Ara portfolio, with their toasted barrel notes, with these dishes.
Pinot noir has become the red wine of choice for many, with even habitual white wine drinkers happy to enjoy a tasty glass. The future for New Zealand pinot noir, in its many incarnations, is bright.