The Great Potential of New Zealand Pinot Noir

Can this 'ugly duckling' wine turn into a swan?

I am totally intrigued with the potential for New Zealand wines.

It has only been for the last 30 or so years that plantings have increased to the point where the wines are now widely available. The sauvignon blancs with their crisp grapefruit and herbal-tinged flavors are lovely wines that I enjoy with fish and lighter foods. This is the variety most widely planted in New Zealand and the best known. But, there are other varieties as well and the one that really intrigues me is pinot noir.

The most recent one that I have tasted is the 2007 Palliser Estate Pinot Noir from Martinborough, New Zealand. To be honest, this wine is an enigma to me. But, it is exactly that quality that intrigues me. Why? Because I know that the New Zealand pinot noir grapes normally do not get as ripe as in some other New World growing areas. This can produce a wine that has Burgundian character — but that is a double edged sword. Sometimes this Burgundian character is herbaceous and even peppery, which occurs when the harvest grapes are not fully ripe or when there are a lot of green stems included. This character is often referred to as stemminess, herbaceousness, or greenness. And, it is something that can be found in many 2004 red burgundies. But, with enough fruit and from the right producer and vineyard, that character diminishes with time and can actually add complexity to the older wine. This is the vinous equivalent of the maturation of an ugly duckling into a swan. So, with burgundy, I have experience and know what to look for. With New Zealand pinot noir I do not have the same frame of reference. That is the twist.

And, geez, I just don’t know. At the moment I do not find the 2007 Palliser Estate Pinot Noir to be what I most like in pinot noir. But, it does have positive attributes. Here is my note: "Dark color. Deep berry perfume with herbaceous, green pepper undertones. Very pure with lots of fruit, yet lean and crisp with green pepper and herbaceous flavors on the finish."

Therefore, at the present moment it is not that attractive to me. However, tasted over a period of five days, the wine did not oxidize and softened a bit and showed more fruit. Except for the leanness it is, in fact, a bit like some of the 2004 red burgundies with regard to a bit of greenness and peppery, herbal notes. But, it is the purity of the fruit underneath that gets my attention in some of the 2004 red burgundies (such as the 2004 Georges Roumier Bonnes-Mares). In the case of the Bonnes Mares, I have confidence that the fruit will hold and the herbaceous quality will transform to forest-like spiciness with time. For the Palliser Estate? I do not have an answer.

So, in the interest of pursuing my never ending education in wine, I have laid away a few bottles to see how they age. This is a risk to be sure, but at $20 per bottle it is not a huge risk. However, this is a rare exception to my long-held belief that good wines get better and not so good wines get worse. Said another way, wines that are harmonious and balanced from the beginning age better than those that are not.

This makes this bet a real long shot. No matter, the bottom line is that I am looking at an unknown. An enigma wrapped in a riddle to be sure. Will the ugly ducking develop into a swan? Vamos a ver. Let’s come back and revisit this in five to 10 years. Please feel free to go ahead and mark your calendars!

— John Tilson, The Underground Wine Letter

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