Pinot Noir occupies an important place in New Zealand wine. It is our most widely planted red grape variety. More importantly though, it is central to the country’s growing reputation for crafting wines of uncompromising quality that speak of ‘terroir Aotearoa’.
Pinot’s presence in New Zealand is a tale of three parts – a tantalisingly promising 19th century debut, followed by a long doldrums period, followed by a renaissance that took hold in the 1970s.
Prominent among those 19th century pioneers were the Marist brothers from France, whose pinot plantings in Hawkes Bay in 1889 were the first for which we have documented evidence. Soon after, Pinot Noir was flourishing in the Wairarapa, thanks to the efforts of William Beetham and his French wife Hermance. The grape also had a presence in North Auckland, Wanganui and probably Central Otago. When Croatian oenologist Romeo Bragato delivered his famous report on New Zealand viticulture toward the end of the 19th century, he declared; “There was no country on the face of the earth which produced better Burgundy grapes than were produced in Central Otago and in portions of the North Island.”
New Zealand’s nascent wine scene buckled under pressure from several quarters in the early 20th century. Phylloxera, prohibition and an aggressive beer lobby all contributed to its decline.
Pinot Noir all but vanished. It did not reappear until several clones were imported from Switzerland by the government in 1962. In the 1970s, wines produced by Nick Nobilo in west Auckland, then Danny Schuster and Dr David Jackson in Canterbury, offered glimpses of its potential. By the early 1980s, the grape was in the ground in the Wairarapa, Marlborough and Central Otago, exciting the early ‘new wave’ winemakers in those regions as well as consumers. By the end of that decade, it was a shining star of the New Zealand industry.
The area planted in the variety rose from 141ha in 1989 to close to 1,100ha in 2000 to 5,588ha today. That current figure accounts for 15% of the New Zealand’s total vineyard area, and makes Pinot Noir the country’s second most planted grape (after Sauvignon Blanc). Like Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot thrives in the cooler parts of the country – 86% of New Zealand’s Pinot vines are found in the South Island.
Critical success, both in New Zealand and overseas, has underpinned this upward production curve. Interest from around the world has seen Pinot rise to second place among New Zealand’s exported wine styles, with more than 1.5 million cases exported annually.
Pinot Noir’s significance to New Zealand wine is only partly reflected in numbers. Around the variety a culture of dedicated, inquisitive winemaking has developed. More than any other New Zealand wine style, Pinot has been the catalyst for important conversations around turangawaewae (sense of place) and kaitiakitanga (guardianship of the land). It has also led to strong bonds being formed with important offshore winemaking communities, notably Burgundy and Oregon.
Not least, it has spawned events that draw people from around the world. One of these, of course, is Pinot Noir NZ.