The Best of New Zealand Pinot Noir

Sometimes it almost seems possible to taste the beauty of a place when we’re sipping a wine. If this were actually possible, instead of just being a compelling romantic metaphor that we like to invoke about wine, then without a doubt, the world’s greatest wines would come from New Zealand.

There’s little to say about New Zealand’s staggering beauty that hasn’t been said in words well by others, and a million times over in photographs. It’s one of the most unspoiled landscapes on the planet, and its diverse topography defies easy description.

Not everyone can manage a visit to New Zealand, but luckily we can all drink its wines. The country became famous for its Sauvignon Blanc, but Pinot Noir was the grape that cemented New Zealand’s reputation as a world-class wine region worth everyone’s attention.

That was about a decade ago, and a lot has happened since. That was also about the last time I had been to the country. Then, in January of this year I had the occasion to return to New Zealand for their bi-annual New Zealand Pinot Noir conference in Wellington.

Returning to taste through hundreds of Pinot Noirs ended up being a remarkable experience. Akin to running into an old high school classmate only to find that she’s starring in Hollywood blockbusters. You remembered her as being kind of cute when you were seventeen, but now? Holy crap.

In short, there is now some seriously fantastic Pinot Noir being made in New Zealand. The finest wines (some from long-standing producers, some from relative newcomers) have reached new heights of quality and finesse, but more impressively, the overall quality of the middle of the pack, those hundreds of small and mid-size producers, has dramatically improved. This is true perhaps nowhere so much as in Central Otago. More about that below in the context of those wines.

New Zealand Pinot Noir provided anyone willing to focus an unparalleled opportunity to taste literally hundreds of wines from all over the country, and so I buckled down and focused. Over three days I tasted around 250 pinots, most from the 2010 vintage, with a good representation of 2011, as well as a smattering of wines from 2004 to the present.

My tasting notes and scores for these wines are grouped below by region. I hope you will take the opportunity to seek out some of these wines, as the best of them are truly world-class.

Canterbury + Waipara

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Lake Forsyth Vineyard, Canterbury

The next time I go to New Zealand, the very first place I’m headed is North Canterbury. Located on the country’s South Island, the Canterbury wine region is actually now two areas: the alluvial plains that surround the city of Christchurch, and a more newly developed valley about an hour to the north called Waipara, that distinguishes itself by being slightly warmer, and containing large amounts of limestone soils, which are not particularly common in New Zealand. Over 60% of the region is planted to Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, with Riesling coming in a distant third in terms of popularity.

Waipara is frankly the most exciting new winegrowing area of New Zealand in my opinion, in part due to a single producer, Bell Hill, who are making some of the most stunning wines I’ve tasted from New Zealand. Along with another producer, Pyramid Valley, they represent a glimpse into the future potential of the place. Both are small, family-run outfits, farming biodynamically, and making wines of extreme elegance and distinctiveness.

If you’ve not had a chance to try them, I cannot recommend them highly enough. These two producers were the highlight of my trip, and will be at the top of my list to visit when I return.

WINES WITH A SCORE AROUND 9.5

2010 Pyramid Valley “Angel Flower Vineyard,” Pinot Noir, Canterbury. $60
Medium cloudy garnet in the glass, this wine has a phenomenally perfumed nose of cranberry, floral notes, and black cherry. In the mouth, gorgeous dark and rich cherry, earth, and floral notes swirl in a silky seamless whole that floats effortlessly across the palate. Despite being utterly delicious, it’s the texture of this wine that truly bowls me over, seducing with satin and gloss. Gorgeous acidity and fantastic length. A candidate for the best NZ Pinot I’ve ever had. 13.7% alcohol. click to buy.

2010 Pyramid Valley “Earth Smoke Vineyard,” Pinot Noir, Canterbury. $50
Medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of wet earth, dark cherry, and piney forest floor with a hint of sandalwood. In the mouth the wine overflows with gorgeous raspberry and cranberry fruit that luxuriates on the palate like the sprawling Queen of Sheba on a bed of velvety tannin. Notes of cedar and dusty earth emerge in the long finish. Wow. 13.2% alcohol. click to buy.

2007 Pyramid Valley “Earth Smoke Vineyard,” Pinot Noir, Canterbury
Light cloudy garnet in color, this wine smells of candied apple and flowers. In the mouth stunningly beautiful flavors of red apple skin, redcurrant, earth and leather are possessed of a delicate, lacy acidity and caressed by velvety tannins. Stunningly refined and delicate, with a phenomenal finish. 12.8% alcohol.

2007 Pyramid Valley “Angel Flower Vineyard,” Pinot Noir, Canterbury
Light to medium garnet in the glass, this wine has a remarkably floral nose with bright redcurrant fruit and a hint of wet stone minerality underneath those juicy aromas. In the mouth, redcurrant, raspberry, cedar, and leather flavors are layered on top of a bed of piney forest floor flavors that lean towards the dark peaty side of earthy. Stunning acidity and faint, velvety tannins linger for a long time in the finish. Remarkable. 12% alcohol.

2011 Tongue in Groove Pinot Noir, Canterbury
Light to medium garnet in the glass, this wine has a wonderfully floral and raspberry aroma. In the mouth the wine is bright and crystalline with flavors of sweet raspberries dusted in faint tannins. Gorgeously bright acidity makes the overall impression of the wine a glassy purity that is quite compelling. 14% alcohol.

2010 Bell Hill Pinot Noir, Waipara
Medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of cranberry and cherry fruit. In the mouth earthy cherry and black raspberry fruit builds into more complex black tea, earth and forest floor notes as supple powdery tannins wrap around the edges of the mouth. Phenomenal acidity and incredible purity through a very, very long finish. Stunning. 14% alcohol. click to buy.

2009 Bell Hill Pinot Noir, Waipara
Medium garnet in the glass, This wine smells of candied raspberries, a hint of brown sugar and flowers. In the mouth, gorgeous raspberry fruit has a wonderful aromatically sweet complexion as it mixes with cherry and deeper earth tones. Bright acidity and faint tannins linger for a long time through a gorgeous finish. Delicate, distinctive, and delicious. 14% alcohol. click to buy.

2006 Pegasus Bay Pinot Noir, Waipara
Medium ruby in the glass, this wine smells of cherry, cranberry and the sweetness of French oak. In the mouth, bright cherry and raspberry fruit nestles into a cupped hand of suede-like tannins, and a scent of wet earth. Excellent acidity makes the fruit zingy and the earthy notes make for a nicely balanced package that has both elegance and deeper notes of profundity. Stellar. 14% alcohol. click to buy.

2009 Pegasus Bay Pinot Noir, Waipara
Medium ruby in the glass, this wine smells of cherry, cranberry and a hint of oak. In the mouth, bright juicy cherry fruit melds with raspberry in a crystalline pure-toned package that is bursting with acidity. Stonier, even metallic mineral and earth tones hang underneath the boisterous fruit, and linger through the long finish. Supple, fine grained tannins. 13.5% alcohol.\ click to buy.

WINES WITH A SCORE BETWEEN 9 AND 9.5

2010 Bell Hill “Old Weka Pass Road,” Pinot Noir, Waipara
Medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of struck match, bright cherry fruit, and wet earth. In the mouth the wine is exceedingly velvety and smooth on the palate, with gorgeous citrusy cherry fruit that tumbles for minutes in the mouth with deeper earth and herbal notes adding complexity through a long finish. Fantastic. 14% alcohol. click to buy.

2010 Pegasus Bay Pinot Noir, Waipara
Medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of cherry, raspberry, and dark earth. In the mouth the wine has beautiful balance, with juicy notes of raspberry and cherry fruit made bright by excellent acidity. Notes of earth linger in the finish. Seamless and beautifully textured. click to buy.

WINES WITH A SCORE AROUND 9

2008 Bell Hill Pinot Noir, Waipara
Light garnet in the glass, this wine smells of floral notes, cedar, and tightly wound earthy raspberry. In the mouth, tart redcurrant melds with earth amidst leathery tannins and a touch of alcoholic twang, despite the wines very low 13.5% alcohol. This wine may just be at an awkward point in its development. A citrus edge hangs in the finish as well. click to buy.

2010 Pegasus Bay “Prima Donna,” Pinot Noir, Waipara
Medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of sweet cherry and raspberry fruit. In the mouth flavors of cherry and raspberry have a sweet aspect to them, while suede tannins brush the edges of the mouth. Good acidity and length. click to buy.

WINES WITH A SCORE BETWEEN 8.5 AND 9

2007 Pyramid Valley “Growers Collection,” Pinot Noir, Canterbury
Light garnet in the glass, this wine smells of citrusy red raspberry and cedar notes. In the mouth, bright raspberry, cedar, and sandalwood flavors mix with a juicy orange peel note in the long finish. 14.2% alcohol. click to buy.

2010 Muddy Water Pinot Noir, Waipara click to buy.
2010 Muddy Water “Hares Breath,” Pinot Noir, Waipara click to buy.

WINES WITH A SCORE AROUND 8.5
2010 Bellbird Spring “River Terrace,” Pinot Noir, Waipara
2010 Fancrest Estate Pinot Noir, Waipara
2010 The Crater Rim Pinot Noir, Waipara

WINES WITH A SCORE BETWEEN 8 AND 8.5
2010 The Crater Rim “Omihi Rise,” Pinot Noir, Waipara

Martinborough + Wairarapa

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Palliser Estate, Martinborough

The Wairarapa region, and its sub region of Martinborough were some of the earliest places to put New Zealand Pinot Noir on the map. The rolling sheep and vineyard covered hills of the southeastern corner of the country’s north island offer a beautifully crenellated landscape of old stream beds and fault-shifted soils that support a remarkable range of expression for Pinot Noir. The region is one of the warmer growing sites for Pinot Noir, and similar to Marlborough in its overall climate.

Some of the country’s pioneering Pinot producers hail from Martinborough, including notably Ata Rangi and Escarpment, both of whom carried the torch for New Zealand Pinot Noir for years before many took notice. Superstar producer Craggy Range has also gained the region much attention with their devotion to producing a Pinot from Martinborough each year.

While Martinborough still produces some excellent Pinot Noir, it has been somewhat eclipsed in quality and prominence, at least in my eyes, by some other regions of the country at this point.

WINES WITH A SCORE AROUND 9.5

2004 Ata Rangi Pinot Noir, Martinborough
Light ruby in the glass, this wine smells of cherry, cedar, and red apple skin. In the mouth, flavors of red apple skin, raspberry and a hint of forest floor have a wonderful aromatic sweetness to them, and a cloudy effortlessness that lets them float across the palate, even as velvety, fine grained tannins eventually bring them back to earth. Long, lovely, and juicy. Aging beautifully. 14% alcohol. click to buy.

WINES WITH A SCORE BETWEEN 9 AND 9.5

2010 Ata Rangi Pinot Noir, Martinborough
Light to medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of raspberry and deep wet earth. In the mouth that dark, earthiness takes a turn for the deep, shot through with cherry and cranberry fruit. Leathery tannins grip the palate firmly but great acidity keeps the fruit bright and juicy. Long finish. 13.8% alcohol. click to buy.

2009 Craggy Range “Te Muna Road Vineyard,” Pinot Noir, Martinborough
Light ruby in the glass, this wine smells of exotic spices, cherry and raspberry fruit. In the mouth, sweet raspberry fruit mixes with darker earth and black cherry notes as notes of forest floor emerge along with the faint tannins that wrap around the core of fruit and linger with fuzzy texture through the finish. Great acidity makes the fruit juicy. 14% alcohol. click to buy.

2010 Craggy Range “Te Muna Road Vineyard,” Pinot Noir, Martinborough
Light to medium garnet in color, this wine smells of raspberry and cherry fruit. In the mouth the wine is silky as hell, with cherry and raspberry fruit floating on a bed of billowy satin. Velvety tannins seem to emerge from nowhere to caress the mouth. Slightly softer acidity than I’d like but that doesn’t detract significantly from the sexiness of this wine. 14% alcohol. click to buy.

2010 Escarpment Vineyard Pinot Noir, Martinborough
Medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of wonderfully floral raspberry fruit, with notes of green wood. In the mouth beautifully floral cherry and wet earth notes mix with bright citrus notes that linger through a long finish. 40% whole cluster fermentation. 14% alcohol. click to buy.

2010 Kusuda Pinot Noir, Martinborough
Medium cloudy garnet in the glass, this wine smells of cherry, cedar, and wet earth. In the mouth, high toned cherry, cedar, and the green woody flavors of grape stems mix with deeper earthy notes ad fine grained tannins gently buffet the edge of the mouth. Good length. 14% alcohol. click to buy.

2010 Schubert “Marion’s Vineyard,” Pinot Noir, Wairarapa
Medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of crushed herbs, raspberries, and redcurrant with a woody undertone. In the mouth, the wine offers a spicy raspberry and bright cherry fruit core wrapped in faint tannins with great length and fantastic acidity. 14.5% alcohol. click to buy.

2010 Schubert “Block B,” Pinot Noir, Wairarapa
Medium garnet in color, this wine smells of cedar, wet wood and wet earth. In the mouth, cherry, cranberry and raspberry fruit bounce across the palate with fantastically juicy acidity and dusted by faint tannins. Excellent finish, and an overall juiciness that makes it quite delicious. 14.5% alcohol. click to buy.

WINES WITH A SCORE AROUND 9

2010 Ata Rangi “Crimson,” Pinot Noir, Martinborough
Light to medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of crushed mixed berries and bright raspberries in particular. IN the mouth beautiful raspberry and cherry fruit is held in a leather glove of tannins. Excellent acidity and long finish. 13.5% alcohol. click to buy.

2008 Craggy Range “Te Muna Road Vineyard,” Pinot Noir, Martinborough
Light ruby in the glass, this wine smells of earthy cherry and raspberry fruit tinged with a hint of cedar. In the mouth, flavors of cedar and raspberry mix with a woody earthy quality. Tightly wound tannins are finely grained but muscular, giving the wine an overall taut quality. 13.5% alcohol. click to buy.

2010 Escarpment “Kupe Single Vineyard,” Pinot Noir, Martinborough
Medium to dark cloudy garnet in the glass, this wine smells of pruney cherry and raspberry fruit tinged with cedar. In the mouth flavors of red apple skin, cedar, and cherry mix under a gauzy blanket of fine-grained tannins that are supple and smooth, like a sheet of muscle underneath the fruit. 13.5% alcohol. click to buy.

2006 Kusuda Pinot Noir, Martinborough
Medium ruby in the glass, this wine smells of sweet brown sugar, baked apples, and red fruit. In the mouth, bright cherry fruit melds with earth and woody flavors, nicely balanced against good acidity. A hint of alcoholic heat lingers in the long finish, but the wine is quite poised and delicious. 14% alcohol. click to buy.

2010 Te Kairanga “Runholder,” Pinot Noir, Martinborough click to buy.

WINES WITH A SCORE BETWEEN 8.5 AND 9

2007 Ata Rangi Pinot Noir, Martinborough
Medium to dark ruby in the glass, this wine smells of cherry, leather, and earth. In the mouth flavors of dark cherry and dark earth mix with a rich cedar character. Bright acidity and fine grained tannins round out the mix. click to buy.

2010 Dry River Pinot Noir, Martinborough
Medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of dark cherry fruit. In the mouth, black cherry fruit mixes with darker blueberry notes, earth, and wet tree bark. Fine grained tannins linger for a long time in the finish. 13% alcohol. click to buy.

2010 Burnt Spur “Single Vineyard Series,” Pinot Noir, Martinborough
2010 Martinborough Vineyard Pinot Noir, Martinborough
2010 Palliser Estate “Green Label,” Pinot Noir, Martinborough
2009 Cambridge Road Pinot Noir, Wairarapa
2010 Urlar “Gladstone,” Pinot Noir, Wairarapa

WINES WITH A SCORE AROUND 8.5
2010 Julicher “Estate,” Pinot Noir, Martinborough
2010 Julicher “99 Rows,” Pinot Noir, Martinborough
2010 Martinborough Vineyard “Martinborough Terrace,” Pinot Noir, Martinborough
2010 Te Kairanga “Estate,” Pinot Noir, Martinborough
2010 Cambridge Road Pinot Noir, Wairarapa

WINES WITH A SCORE BETWEEN 8 AND 8.5
2010 Gladstone Pinot Noir, Wairarapa
2009 Gladstone “Johner,” Pinot Noir, Wairarapa

Marlborough

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Churton Vineyards, Marlborough

Tucked into the farthest northeastern corner of New Zealand’s south island, just over the hill from the jaw-dropping islands and valleys of the Marlborough Sounds, Marlborough the wine region is rightfully known as the Sauvignon Blanc capital of the Southern Hemisphere. But like a superstar rock drummer that harbors a secret desire to sing lead vocals, Marlborough yearns to be taken more seriously than a $14 bottle of Kiwi Sauvignon Blanc would merit.

Well, I’m here to tell you that it’s time to hand this guy a microphone. Marlborough Pinot Noir is hot stuff, even if most people still don’t know that even Cloudy Bay makes some excellent renditions of it.

I think I had tasted perhaps half a dozen Marlborough Pinot Noirs before this recent trip, and I emerged from an afternoon tasting in their pavillion quite humbled at my ignorance of the region’s strength with this grape.

Characterized by several alluvial river valleys, Marlborough is a study in gravelly loams, with massive vineyards sprawling across the flat, former river valleys. Some of the more exciting winemaking, though, is happening on the hillsides, especially in the more southerly Awatere and Southern Valleys areas.

WINES WITH A SCORE AROUND 9.5

2010 Clos Marguerite Pinot Noir, Marlborough
Medium garnet in the glass, this wine has a beautifully perfumed aroma of crushed green herbs, dried flowers and raspberry and cherry fruit. In the mouth, cherry and raspberry fruit is riddled with savory green and dried herb flavors borne on a very silky texture. Seamless and quite remarkable. 900 cases made. 13% alcohol. click to buy.

2009 Greywacke Pinot Noir, Marlborough
Light to medium garnet in color, this wine smells of beautifully pure sweet raspberry and a hint of earth. In the mouth, the wine is gorgeously poised, with flavors of raspberry fruit balanced against deep wet earth and wet sawdust. The tannins are faint and luxuriously supple, and add to the wines generally velvety texture. Beautifully balanced and a remarkable first vintage for this producer. 14% alcohol. click to buy.

WINES WITH A SCORE BETWEEN 9 AND 9.5

2008 Clos Henri Pinot Noir, Marlborough
Light ruby with a hint of garnet still scuttling about its edges, this wine smells of sweet raspberry fruit. In the mouth cherry and wet dirt dance a wonderful counterpoint, as the bright fruit is wrapped in faint powdery tannins. Juicy, thanks to excellent acidity and an overall nice balance. click to buy.

2009 Clos Henri Pinot Noir, Marlborough
Light ruby in the glass, this wine smells of perfumed, sweet raspberry fruit. In the mouth, however, the raspberry is tart and slightly woody, nicely married to deeper earthy notes. Powdery tannins dust the mouth and a note of sawdust lingers in the finish. Quite distinctive. click to buy.

2009 Clos Marguerite Pinot Noir, Marlborough
Pale ruby in the glass with a hint of brick red at the rim, this wine smells of green herbs, wet earth, and raspberry fruit. In the mouth, the wine is exceedingly silky with flavors of cherry and raspberry fruit. Filigreed acidity brings a citrusy character to the wine while notes of leather and earth deepen the wines dynamic range. Supple smooth tannins linger along with notes of citrus peel in the finish. 13% alcohol. click to buy.

2010 Cloudy Bay “Mustang,” Pinot Noir, Marlborough
Medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of cherry and wet earth. In the mouth, cherry and earth take on an herbal aspect as bright acidity makes the fruit juicy, and forest floor notes take the herbal down to something dirtier and deeper, like plunging your hands deep into river mud. 14% alcohol. click to buy.

2010 Dog Point Vineyard Pinot Noir, Marlborough
Medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of pure cherry and raspberry fruit. In the mouth, juicy cherry and raspberry flavors have a supple smoothness to them and are beautifully balanced with bright acidity. Fine, fine tannins are supple and drape the edges of the mouth as the wine lingers for a long time. 14% alcohol. click to buy.

2008 Dog Point Vineyard Pinot Noir, Marlborough
Medium to dark garnet in color, this wine smells of cherry, raspberry and darker forest berries. In the mouth darker cherry fruit takes on a nice umami character along with dirt and forest floor. Notes of wet wood linger for a long time in the finish with citrus notes emerging after some time. Fine grained tannins drape the fruit, and good acidity keeps things quite lively. 14% alcohol. click to buy.

2009 Dog Point Vineyard Pinot Noir, Marlborough
Light to medium garnet in color, this wine has a dusty, raspberry fruit aroma that seems to waft out from the middle of a pine forest. In the mouth, raspberry and redcurrant fruit are powdered with dusty tannins that seem to taste of dirt and leather. A hint of red apple skin lingers on the finish. Excellent acidity. 14% alcohol. click to buy.

2010 Esk Valley Pinot Noir, Marlborough
Light garnet with purple highlights in the glass, this wine smells of wonderfully floral raspberry fruit. In the mouth raspberry and raspberry leaf flavors stay quite floral and pretty, with herbal notes and a sweet aroma even as fine grained tannins give the wine more structure. Expansive and broad while at the same time retaining some delicacy, this is quite a refined wine. 14% alcohol. click to buy.

2011 Esk Valley Pinot Noir, Marlborough
Light purple in the glass, this wine smells of incredibly floral black raspberry fruit. In the mouth flavors of black raspberry taste as if they’ve been dredged up from the bottom of a deep, dark cistern wherein they have somewhat petrified themselves. This deep minerality makes the bright fruit seem etched in glass as powdery tannins settle light so many dust motes on the pane. Floral notes accompany the black raspberry through the finish. click to buy.

2010 Framingham “F-Series,” Pinot Noir, Marlborough
Medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of cherry and raspberry and wet earth. In the mouth, earthy, juicy raspberry flavors are firmly in the grip of muscular tannins that push them across the palate and through a long finish that has savory notes of herbs and umami. Lovely. 14.5% alcohol. click to buy.

2010 Fromm “Clayvin Vineyard,” Pinot Noir, Marlborough
Medium garnet in color, this wine smells of cherry and wet river mud. In the mouth the wine has an almost creamy aspect to it thanks to powdery, mouth-coating tannins that wrap around flavors of cherries, dried herbs and wet earth. Long and beautifully supple in the mouth. 14% alcohol. click to buy.

2010 Fromm “Fromm Vineyard,” Pinot Noir, Marlborough
Light garnet in the glass, this wine smells of deep stony raspberries and cherries. In the mouth, cherry and raspberry fruit have a deep earthy resonance and bright acidity, surrounded by serious, grippy tannins that need some time to relax. 13.5% alcohol. click to buy.

2010 Greywacke Pinot Noir, Marlborough
Medium garnet in color, this wine has a wonderfully perfumed nose of floral, cherry and raspberry fruit. In the mouth the wine is earthy, and exceedingly silky and smooth on the palate. Raspberry cherry, and stemmy wood flavors swirl amidst a gorgeously slippery silky texture that is powdered with fine tannins. Sexy as all get out. 14% alcohol. click to buy.

2010 Jules Taylor Wines Pinot Noir, Marlborough
Medium garnet in the glass, this wi