New Zealand is well-known for Sauvignon Blanc, but are there any other grape varieties we should know about? Yes! I attended a webinar with David Keck MS (USA), John Szabo MS (Canada), Ronan Sayburn MS (UK) and Cameron Douglas MS (New Zealand) as the speakers who talked about the differences in aromas and flavours of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir produced across New Zealand from the North to the South Island. Below is a summary of the discussion between these 4 Masters of Wine about NZ Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.
Cameron Douglas was the moderator for this webinar. He noted that New Zealand’s grape growing region was at approximately the same latitude as Bordeaux in the Northern hemisphere. Most regions in New Zealand grow both Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, and of course Sauvignon Blanc. Both these grape varieties enjoy cooler climates, although Chardonnay can still thrive in warmer temperatures. Cameron noted that the following years produced exceptional Pinot Noir and Chardonnay: 2007, 09, 13, 14, 19 and 2020.
John mentioned that New Zealand Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are great value as they are not as well-known as Sauvignon Blanc outside of the country.
David noted that talking about Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir+Chardonnay are two different discussions as Sauvignon Blanc is produced in a much larger volume. Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are affected by the differences in terroir across New Zealand and as such there is no “classic” style for these grapes compared to NZ Sauvignon Blanc.
Northland and Auckland
Northland is the most northerly region where these grapes are grown. This is also where wine grapes were first planted. It is too warm for Pinot Noir but Chardonnay can grow there. You get a bigger, fatter, richer, more fruit-forward style with lots of oak from the Chardonnays. There are only 12 producers in this area.
Auckland is a better place to grow these grapes. There are 43 major producers. Half make Chardonnay and 2 that Cameron knows of produces Pinot Noir.
Kumeu River Wines in Auckland makes a Chardonnay that David enjoys as well as a Pinot Noir. Ronan noted that the Kumeu River area is mainly a Chardonnay growing region and less Pinot Noir. John noted that the warmer climate area around Auckland is heavily moderated by water and cloudiness which gives the growers a longer, cooler growing season.
Gisborne and Hawke’s Bay
In Gisborne there are only 43 ha or Pinot Noir but around 500 ha of Chardonnay grown here. Gisborne is more a sparkling wine producing area. Rainfall is a major challenge in this region. Gisborne is a rainy area that has silty loam soil with a clay pan. Most speakers had no major comment about Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grown in this area other than being a sparkling wine region, and that with climate change, this area may produce Pinot Noir in the future.
In Hawke’s Bay more than 1000 ha of Chardonnay are grown and ~230 ha of Pinot Noir. There are 20 producers of Pinot Noir in this area. This region has 27 different soil types, from Gimblett Gravels where Chardonnay is grown to limestone fractured soils in the south where you find Pinot Noir. Ronan indicated that some of the best Chardonnays come from this region of a certain style. Inland you get a more tropical style, while Chardonnay grown on the coast get a saline mineral character. There is lots of variation in Hawke’s Bay. It does have a weightier style. John agreed with Ronan and also mentioned Syrah and Bordeaux blends do well in the Gimblett Gravels and fleshier Pinot Noir. Cameron pointed to the Te Mata Pinot Noir as a good example for this region.
This area is where you find Martinborough at the south end of the North Island. The soil is a mix of silty loam, gravel, limestone, and river terraces. It has a cool autumn and is almost a perfect growing region for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. David suggested the Atarangi Pinot Noir as a classic example for this region. He noted that Wairarapa is a very dry area. There are mountains on three sides of this area and southern ocean below it. It is easy to grow organically or biodynamically in Martinborough as the climate is so dry.
John said that Pinot Noir is the dominant variety here. The first plantings were in the early 1980s. Now 30-40 years later you are getting great, distinctive wines. They noted that the Abel (Gumboot) clone that is planted here which were vines that came from the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti in Bordeaux. The vines were originally confiscated at the airport, but then went through quarantine and were planted by one of the airport staff. John thinks that this Pinot clone is the clone of the future with global warming as it is later ripening and yields a bit more which is good in an area that has limited production.
Ronan notes that there is a signature style for this region that is windy blowing up the valley chilling down the area and has big diurnal differences. You get rich, heavy Pinot Noir with a ripe dense cherry fruit core; similar to the Côte de Nuits in Burgundy.
Nelson and Marlborough
Nelson has a combination of valley floor and hills. Silty river deposits on the valley floor while gravel and other glacial deposits in the hills. Both Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are well-known in Nelson. Ronan noted that Neudorf Vineyards produces quality wines from both these varieties. He indicated that they grind oyster shells from the coast and put them in the soil under their Chardonnay vines, as Chardonnay loves limestone. Their chickens also love the ground oyster shells and eat them then fertilise the vineyard. So a double benefit for the vines.
John indicated that Nelson gets many sunny, long days to ripen the grapes (300 more hours than in Marlborough). Ronan noted for Chardonnay that you get a rich wine with a long mineral finish but not a big tropical fruited wine. David agrees with John about the region. You get generous fruit in the wine due to the sunshine. There is organic and biodynamic farming here and in Marlborough. You get massive numbers of sunlight hours and less disease for the grapes. There are more grape ripening decisions for the winemaker to determine the best times to pick.
Marlborough is the heart of Sauvignon Blanc. It gets around 24000 hours of sunlight. With all the sun, this area needs irrigation. John noted that Pinot Noir shows differences here due to the different soils. The southern valleys clays produce a richer, riper Pinot Noir. The best clones for Pinot Noir were not originally planted here as the Pinots were meant for producing sparkling wines. Cameron noted that Marlborough Pinots show texture in the wine.
Canterbury & North Canterbury
This is an area with lots of fractured limestone soils. It is is in a rain shadow that is windy and dry. John noted that you get elegant finesse wines from the limestone here. He pointed out the Greystone Wines Pinot Noir is a good example from this region. He indicated that this region is difficult to grow grapes so there are fewer wineries. Ronan mentioned Bell Hill as producing one of the best Pinot Noir and Chardonnay there.
One thing that really stuck with me was when Cameron mentioned that bees are yeast vectors rather than grape pollinators. This is very interesting to me as yeasts are used to ferment grapes into wine. The bees carry yeasts to the grape vines, so they are populating the grapes with the indigenous yeasts which can be used to produce wine, rather than cultured yeasts (assuming you want a wild ferment). FYI, grape vines have both male and female reproductive organs, so they can self-fertilize. Bees are not needed.
This high desert region has a great variety of soil types; a mix of schist, quartz, and greywacke. There is a growth in Chardonnay planting in Central Otago. The wines from this region have evolved over time. Originally the Pinots were overly rich and extracted, and are less now which gives more transparency into the terroir. John mentioned that the Felton Road Chardonnay is a good wine from this region. It comes from the area of Bannockburn, which they say is like the hill of Corton in Burgundy. You get more smoky and herbaceous flavours and a more concentrated wine. There are other sub-regions like Lake Dunston, a man-made lake, where the moderating effects of the lake are good for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Some quality producers in Central Otago are Two Paddocks, Akarua, and Felton Road.
Thanks to all the speakers who provided us with insights into Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grown across New Zealand. There is always something new to learn.