New Zealand’s other grape: Pinot Noir

When I say “New Zealand wine,” what color pops into your mind? Chances are your first thought went straight to “white,” perhaps quickly followed by “Sauvignon Blanc.”

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We think of these wines in connection with New Zealand with good reason: It was New Zealand’s bold, aromatic take on Sauvignon Blanc that first introduced the rest of the world to the wines of this beautiful land Down Under, a delight that came to us not that long ago.

New Zealand’s wine industry, it seems, focused almost entirely on domestic sales until quite recently, when a wave of imports from neighboring rival Australia prompted Kiwi wine producers to ramp up production and imports. According to New Zealand Wine (#NZ Wine), the informative website of the New Zealand wine industry, “Spurred into action by their heavy loss of domestic market share, the winemakers launched a sustained export drive. The value of New Zealand’s wine exports has skyrocketed from $NZ18 million in 1990, to a forecasted rise to $2 billion by 2020.”

That’s why it was only as recently as the 1980s that a few bottles – mostly from the Marlborough region’s iconic Cloudy Bay – started showing up on the shelves of U.S. wine shops. Once its popularity took off, there wasn’t much reason for us to take much notice that the Kiwis produce some wines from other varieties … even a few reds.

New Zealand Vineyard Reports from #NZWine

New Zealand Vineyard Reports from #NZWine

But curiosity prevailed, of course, so it didn’t take us long to discover that New Zealand’s Pinot Noir, in particular, has considerable potential enhanced by the country’s relatively cool vine-growing conditions, with occasional southerly winds blowing straight up from Antartica taking a bit off the edge of the otherwise balmy climate that its position on the southwestern edge of the South Pacific provides for the country whose Maori name, Aotearoa, means “the Land of the Long White Cloud.”

Let’s look at the numbers: #NZ Wine’s annual statistical reports show Sauvignon Blanc with a long lead in both vineyard acreage and production.

NZ Wine’s snapshot of the 2017 vintage, which ripened last spring in the Southern Hemisphere’s reversed seasons, reveals that fully three-fourths of the 2017 vintage (285,862 metric tons) was Sauvignon Blanc; Pinot Noir accounted for about one-tenth of that amount, comprising 28,760 metric tons. Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Merlot and Riesling trailed in tonnage, followed by relatively tiny amounts of Syrah, Gewurztraminer, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, and Cabernet Franc, along with random others including a couple of plots of Pinotage, South Africa’s signature wine.

Vineyard area tracks tonnage, as you might expect, with Sauvignon Blanc vineyards occupying 22,085 hectares (54573 acres), 60 percent of all the nation’s wine-growing property. White-grape vineyards (29,210 hectares) take up nearly four times as much land as the 7,919 hectares given to red grapes.

Which brings us to the Pinot Noir. Is it good? You bet it is. Check below for my reports on two good Pinots, both from the same Marlborough region on NZ’s South Island that is also home to Cloudy Bay and scores of other producers. Both are good, yet they’re quite different in style, with Oyster Bay 2012 Marlborough Pinot Noir showing lean, herbaceous flavors more akin to the Old World, compared with the ripe, oak-accented Oyster Bay 2012 Marlborough Pinot Noir showing a more New World style.

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Let’s spin the globe and look at the Southern Hemisphere as we delve into the wines of New Zealand for Wine Focus this month.

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Today’s Tasting Reports

Oyster Bay 2012 Marlborough Pinot Noir ($14.99)

Oyster Bay

Clear ruby color, quite dark at the core but shading quickly to a clear edge. Light red fruit and a pleasant whiff of ripe, just-cut tomato – a characteristic that I often find in cool-climate Pinot Noir – shows in the nose and on the palate. It’s brisk and acidic in the flavor, tart and palate-cleansing, rather light-bodied, with a soft edge of tannins and a hint of stony minerality in the finish.
13% alcohol in a wine that’s distinctly Pinot Noir, more reminiscent of the Old World than the New. U.S. importer: Oyster Bay Wines USA, NYC. (Nov. 1, 2017)

FOOD MATCH: Fine with beef, burgers and meatloaf. It would also go well with Pinot’s alternate companions: salmon, mushrooms, and cheeses.

WHEN TO DRINK: The sturdy metal screwcap – almost ubiquitous in New Zealand wines – will help preserve it, and there’s no rush to drink it up now. I doubt that it will evolve with cellaring, though, so might as well enjoy it over the next year or so and then buy more recent vintages.

I skated in for a buck less than’s $16 average U.S. retail; it’s a good value in the middle teens.

Here’s a detailed fact sheet from the producer.

Locate vendors and check prices for Oyster Bay Marlborough Pinot Noir on


Nobilo Icon 2013 Marlborough Pinot Noir ($19.99)


Rather dark ruby in color, with reddish-orange glints against the light. Mixed fruits, blackberries and plums and red and black cherries, with a distinct but not overwhelming edge of warm, spicy oak. Mouth-filling fruit and good body on the palate, red and black fruit and gentle spice over tart acidity, with soft tannins becoming more apparent in the long finish. Moderate 13% alcohol doesn’t intrude. U.S. importer: Constellation Imports, Gonzales, Calif. (Nov. , 2017)

FOOD MATCH: Lamb; salmon or tuna, mushroom and cheese dishes are its natural territory for matching, but like most Pinot, it’s versatile. It worked nicely here with a simple Tuscan dish of large white beans (Royal Coronas from Rancho Gordo) drizzled with good olive oil, kosher salt and black pepper; thin slices of Parmigiano Reggiano alone made it sing.

WHEN TO DRINK: No rush, particularly with the stout metal cap, but I don’t see it as a Pinot with long-term aging potential. Drink up over the next few years.

VALUE:’s $20 average U.S. retail is on the steep side, but it can be found widely in the middle teens, at which point it’s a very good value. Check Wine Searcher for good buys at sources convenient for you.

Here’s a fact sheet on Nobilo Icon Marlborough Pinot Noir from the winery website.

Find vendors and compare prices for Nobilo Icon Marlborough Pinot Noir on


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