Pinot Envy in Marlborough
Visiting the vineyards and wineries famous for Sauvignon Blanc, Brendan Vaughan discovers that New Zealand's South Island has its eye on a redder future. He shares the story in this installment of our occasional series of postcards from Wine Spectator's globe-trotting wine tasters.
"The Pinot's the thing," says Kevin Judd, winemaker at Cloudy Bay. We've just tasted six recent bottlings, including the '96 and '97 Pinot Noirs, and I had asked which new project holds the most promise. His answer's not surprising. The '96 is a light wine, and pleasant enough, but the '97, with its generous flavors of dark fruit, earth and coffee, flashes a more titillating glimpse of the future.
Judd's assertion pretty well sums up the buzz of Marlborough, a valley-floor wine region on the northeastern tip of New Zealand's South Island. Though Marlborough is known primarily for its zingy, herbaceous Sauvignon Blancs, Pinot Noir is the Great Red Hope. Acres planted to Pinot have soared to 795, up from 452 just five years ago, as an ever-growing number of vintners decide that Marlborough's maritime climate is right for Burgundy's finicky red grape. Pinot is now the nation's third most planted varietal, behind Sauvignon Blanc (3,021 acres) and Chardonnay (1,910), and acreage is projected to reach 1,158 by 2001, according to the Wine Institute of New Zealand.
All this in a region that grew not a single grape 30 years ago. Driving down Marlborough's vineyard-flanked roads, it's hard to imagine this was nothing but sheep country until 1973, when Auckland-based Montana Wines, New Zealand's largest wine company, planted Sauvignon Blanc vines in the Wairau Valley's stony, free-draining soil. Hunter's Wines followed suit, but it wasn't until 1986, when Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc topped a London tasting, that Marlborough demanded the world's attention. Today, the region is New Zealand's largest and most prestigious for wine. The Wine Institute counts 52 Marlborough wineries among its members, up from 32 in 1996 and just 9 in 1990. At last count, 15 were producing Pinot Noir.
Marlborough gets more annual sunshine than anywhere else in New Zealand, and a late spring day in early December is typical--clear, brilliant and windy. Most of the wineries dotting the 5-by-7-mile floor of the Wairau Valley are simple structures. They were built to make wine, not to be photographed for magazines. Though its wine industry is straining mightily for increased output and greater worldwide recognition, Marlborough and its principal town, Blenheim, retain a laid-back, semirural vibe.
Blenheim is a low-lying burg, at the eastern end of the valley, that frankly offers little charm. Its jewel is the Hotel d'Urville, a nine-roomer in the town's old Public Trust Building. The rooms are designed thematically--there's the Havana Room, the New Zealand Room and the Kuba Room, with African decor--and each is unique. The region's winemakers are known to congregate at the stylish d'Urville Wine Bar and Brasserie to sample each other's bottlings along with local cuisine, including mussels from the waters off Marlborough and scallops plucked from the sea near the town of Nelson, prepared in a range of international styles. For the student of New Zealand wine, it's a excellent place to be a fly on the wall. Just sip, listen and learn.
The problem with the d'Urville is that it's in the middle of town. We opt for Timara Lodge, an English-style country manor surrounded by vineyards, near the town of Renwick, about 10 miles from Blenheim. With a grass tennis court surrounded by acres of immaculately tended gardens, Timara is a little slice of the Cotswalds.
At the urging of our innkeepers, Sue and Jeremy Jones, my wife, Melissa, and I begin our day with an early lunch at Highfield Estate, a small hilltop winery with lovely views of the valley. Highfield has a small restaurant (as do many of Marlborough's wineries) with just one item on the menu, an antipasto platter that's a towering shrine to local produce. It's a bit breezy to sit at the picnic tables out back, so we gaze out the window while feasting on bread, cheese, hummus, salmon mousse, pâté, asparagus and chicken. Highfield's Elstree Cuvee bubbly and Sauvignon Blanc wash it all down. Fortified, we shove off in search of Pinot.
We make our stop at Cloudy Bay, then move on to Hunter's Wines, where winemaker Gary Duke turns out a light, early-drinking Pinot. It's a simple wine, perfect for a summer barbecue, and it's easy to imagine a festive crowd quaffing it while schmoozing under Hunter's most striking physical feature, a huge canopy of vines snaking across a complex of trelliswork. This "horizontal vineyard" is a marvel, but harvest is a nightmare, Duke laments (especially because none of the grapes are used for wine -- the trellis is purely decorative).
Next we head over to Fromm Winery, ground zero for red wine in Marlborough. It's a Swiss-owned property managed by a wafer-thin man named Hatsch Kalberer. If Marlborough Pinot were a religious pursuit, Kalberer would be a true believer. "Out of all the varieties produced in New Zealand, Pinot will give us the highest level of international recognition," he predicts, leaning against the cash register at Fromm. The reference to the international market hints at a commonly held, if rarely mentioned, anxiety among Marlborough winemakers: Success with Sauvignon was satisfying, but full-blown international respect won't come until the country produces a great red.
Kalberer pours the La Strada Pinot Noir Reserve 1997. (All Fromm wines are sold under the La Strada label.) A tannic mouthful of wine with a solid core of ripe, dark fruit, it's the most impressive juice we taste all day. (And we get to taste it again, at dinner, when Sue Jones at Timara Lodge serves it with her husband's roasted chicken and Persian rice pilaf.) '97 was a classic Marlborough vintage, long and cool. Kalberer's less optimistic about the very hot '98 vintage.
Across Middle Renwick Road from Fromm is Seresin Estate, founded in 1992 by New Zealand-born cinematographer Michael Seresin. Winemaker Brian Bicknell, who, like Kalberer, is a passionate champion of Marlborough Pinot, looks after the place while his boss shoots movies around the world -- the film version of Frank McCourt's "Angela's Ashes," at the moment. Seresin's first commercially released Pinot is the '97, a racy wine with dark plum tones, a hint of chocolate and an almost inky color. It's far from a classic Pinot Noir (more like a Cabernet, actually), but it's an intriguing style. We buy two bottles -- one for us and one for a friend back home who's an aspiring cinematographer. (If he ever has the chance to work with Seresin, knowledge of the man's wine can't hurt.)
Marlborough's vintners are confident that they can produce high-quality Pinot Noir with a commercially viable degree of vintage consistency, but what ever gave them the gumption to try? Pinot is, after all, one of the world's most capricious and sulking varietals. Even in Burgundy, a decade with three outstanding vintages is celebrated as excellent. What made Marlborough so sure it could tackle Pinot? The answer lies partly in the success of Martinborough, the first of New Zealand's 10 wine regions to triumph with Pinot Noir. Martinborough's a sleepy region located in the south of the country's North Island, just across Cook Strait from Marlborough's position in the north of the South Island. Its "big three" Pinot producers -- Ata Rangi, Martinborough Vineyard and cult favorite Dry River Wines -- began attracting attention in the mid-'80s. Many consider all three superior to the best of Marlborough's Pinot.
But Martinborough is a tiny region, with only 175 of its 524 total vineyard acres planted to Pinot Noir. Some promising Pinots are also being made in Canterbury and Central Otago, both located south of Marlborough on the South Island. But these, too, are minuscule wine regions on an international scale. If New Zealand Pinot is to become more than a curiosity on the world market, its future depends largely on the success of Marlborough. Kevin Judd, Hatsch Kalberer and Brian Bicknell, just to name a few, seem to relish the challenge.
--Brendan Vaughan, manager, new media content
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