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New Zealand pinots rise and shine

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New Zealand is best known for sauvignon blanc, with its assertive grassiness and racy acidity that can really jump-start your palate. But New Zealand also produces some fascinating red wines, including enticing pinot noir that straddles the style spectrum between Old World and New.

More of those pinots are reaching our market now, for a variety of economic reasons. New Zealand’s wine industry grew dramatically in the past two decades, with more vineyards planted in anticipation of rising demand amid global prosperity. That led to a glut similar to (but less severe than) the one facing Australia; the result is downward pressure on price that outweighs the weak U.S. dollar. So although good pinot noir is rarely cheap no matter where it’s from, we now have more New Zealand pinots than before, at relatively attractive prices, which in this case means from the teens up.

However, though the selection of kiwi pinot might be broader, the category has not penetrated the retail scene very deeply. The wines can be excellent, but they don’t have the reputation of sauvignon blanc. When we think of pinot noir, we don’t think of New Zealand; we think of Burgundy, California and Oregon.

New Zealand’s pinot noirs feature up-front fruit flavors, a style point that places the wines squarely in the New World. Yet they don’t have the brown-sugar character that is becoming all too common in California pinot noir. Their acidity and structure often evoke Old World pinot, with hints of earth and minerality, especially in wines from older vineyards. (And as with most New World wines, “older” vineyards here is a relative term, often meaning about 20 years old.)

Within this broad style framework there are regional variations. Pinot noir centers on Martinborough, at the southern end of the north island, and on Marlborough, at the northern end of the south island (confused yet?). These fairly warm climes produce silky pinot noir that can be effusively fun and easy to drink. Pinot also grows farther south, down to Central Otago, the southernmost wine region in the world. It is also more inland and at a higher altitude than New Zealand’s other wine regions. As a result, the grapes benefit from the intense sunlight at higher elevations (the hole in the ozone layer supposedly helps), matched by wide variations in day-night temperatures to preserve acidity and freshness. Pinot noirs from Central Otago can be austere and minerally; reticent at first, they can require a little effort and attention before they reveal their charms. But the effort and attention are worthwhile.

Several years ago, New Zealand pinot noir meant pioneering producers such as Pegasus Bay, Felton Road and Cloudy Bay. Those remain on any short list, but they’ve been joined by Villa Maria, a label from New Zealand’s largest winemaker, and other names such as Craggy Range, Dog Point and Grove Mill.

In the next few months, there will be more. A new venture, Pacific Prime Wines, is a cooperative effort by four New Zealand wine producers to sell their wines in the United States. By managing distribution, the producers hope to maximize their presence in the U.S. market without having their wines get lost in an importer’s portfolio or, worse, having the importer go bankrupt in a difficult economy. The Mid-Atlantic region will be the primary market, as the company’s U.S. representative, Eric Platt, a veteran wine wholesaler, is based in Maryland. I’ve tasted pinot noir from two co-op members, Carrick Wines and Forrest Estate, and they are excellent. (The other members are Lake Chalice Wines and Seifried.)

Pacific Prime Wines is another example of how economic pressures affect our choice of wines to drink with dinner. In this case, the economics are here in the United States: the difficulties of small importers and the need to navigate the crazy quilt of state regulations for distributing wines. This innovative effort might help these producers cope with their economic conditions back home by penetrating our market in a more stable and reliable fashion. Either way, more choices for us. And that’s a good thing.

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