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New  World: Pinot Noir – New Zealand

Strength in depth, sure, but a tendency to slap on the oak with a trowel held the country back from making the most of some good fruit 

Pinot Noir, as any fule kno, is hard to get right. And the New World’s winemakers have been battling with it for a good while now. Long enough, in fact, that you might expect to start seeing unequivocal signs of progress, especially in New Zealand.

But the results were somewhat mixed here – oddly so for a country that has worked so hard to take ownership of the grape. Maybe it’s just the problem that comes with working with a fickle beast like Pinot Noir.

A good number came in – in fact, half of all the New World Pinots were Kiwi – and the prices were not universally outrageous, suggesting that wineries have at least one eye on the market. Here, though, the issues were less about value for money (Kiwi Pinot commands a certain premium, after all) than about style.

It was rather like an A-level essay question: ‘What should New Zealand Pinot Noir taste like? Discuss.’ And our tasters did. At length. Without ever reaching a conclusion.

Should it be more concentrated and powerful than Burgundy, or should it stand out for its freshness? There were plenty of examples of both styles sent in, and our tasters could find reasons to like (and dislike) most of them. There was about as much common ground as at a Coalition cabinet meeting.

‘Get that on a list at £30 and it’ll fly out,’ said Henley Hotel du Vin’s Michael Harrison of a fresh, juicy, unoaked and proudly Pinot-ish wine that turned out to be The Crossings.

In fact, as pricing got more ambitious, so the use of oak got more heavy-handed. ‘I think it’s sad that people think you have to get heavier as you get more expensive,’ opined Liam Davey of Hawksmoor Spitalfields.

Perhaps because of this, the best wines tended to be clustered around the £10-15 mark, with the only gold, the Delta Hatters Hill, smack in the middle. With freshness, purity and lift, it managed the delicate balancing act between ripeness, vivacity and typicity better than any of its peers. And its use of oak was exemplary.

‘It’s impossible not to like,’ said WineChap’s Tom Harrow. ‘And good for a wide variety of dishes. It’s a very flexible option on the list.’

Rather frustratingly, that was it when it came to Golds. The Central Otago flight was a popular one, but the tasters struggled to get their head round the huge variety of styles, from rich and fruity to gamey and savoury, punchy to feminine. They liked the wines, but they weren’t confident enough of the style to put any on the Gold List, which was a major disappointment for what is one of the few bankable New World regions.

Nuff respect to Elephant Hill, which picked up a Silver here to go with its two Syrah Golds. But isn’t it odd that New Zealand got more of the latter grape variety on the Gold List than it did Pinot Noir?

‘If you put too much oak on Pinot Noir, you distract from what the grape is all about. The problem we found with the New Zealand flight was that a lot had either acidity or fruit but not often both together and in balance.’ Joe Wadsack, wine consultant

‘A few years ago Kiwi Pinot used to be a hand-sell but now it sells itself.’ Michael Harrison, Henley Hotel du Vin.