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The Kiwis’ new game: Extreme Pinot

Times Staff Writer

Martinborough, New Zealand--When Neil McCallum planted his vineyard, he was scared off by Pinot Noir. And why not? It’s a notoriously finicky grape, and McCallum, a pioneer in New Zealand wine, was doing just fine with Pinot Gris, Riesling and the other white grapes that have proven themselves in this young region.

And yet, he had a hunch about Pinot Noir that wouldn’t go away. Although he worried that the area was too cool to produce grapes with enough tannins, it had the right loamy soil and a long, dry growing season.

So in 1981, he grafted a few Pinot vines onto existing root stocks. They thrived. And seven years later, McCallum and other vintners were coming to the same conclusion: New Zealand has the land and climate to make world-class Pinot Noir.

“Most of the world can’t grow it,” he says, “and we get a big, lush fruit.”

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His first vintage in 1988, along with early wines from several other top Kiwi vintners, was promising. And now, after a dozen subsequent successful vintages, New Zealand is exploding in a Pinot Noir frenzy.

Today, McCallum’s Dry River Wines is surrounded by copycat vintners. Of the 34 wineries in Martinborough, 31 are producing Pinot Noir. The once-sleepy town has become a bustling wine center with dozens of boutique inns, shops and restaurants.

Other Pinot pioneers are at work on the South Island in Nelson, Marlborough and Central Otago, a mountainous area that is the world’s most southerly grape-growing region.

And the pioneers aren’t only Kiwis: Vintners from Napa and Oregon, as well as France and Australia, are buying vineyards across New Zealand.

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“Hundreds and hundreds of new acres have just been put under vine with Pinot Noir,” says Russell Briggs, who exports New Zealand wine to the United States.

Sauvignon Blanc country

New Zealand wines first came to international attention with the debut of Cloudy Bay Winery, the Marlborough producer whose Sauvignon Blancs made a critical splash in the late 1980s. Since then, New Zealand has become synonymous with Sauvignon Blanc, thanks to the legions of winemakers who followed suit, producing deliciously bracing whites with distinctive passion fruit and green grass overtones. The phenomenon propelled the industry from a standing start to the 33,215 acres of vineyards it has today.

But it’s one thing to make great Sauvignon Blanc, and quite another to make good Pinot Noir.

Because nearly all of New Zealand’s Pinot Noir vintners are mom-and-pop operations, the results are mixed, says Briggs. “It’s a treasure hunt to find the good ones.” Only a handful of vintners have been able to realize the complexity of a world-class Pinot Noir.

Yet New Zealand’s wine industry is hoping that a handful is enough to prove that their country can develop into another Oregon or, as the most ambitious Kiwis claim, a rival to the legendary wineries in Burgundy.

That’s tall talk for a country with only one generation of winemakers. McCallum, like almost every New Zealand vintner, learned winemaking on the job. He hand-tends his 24 acres, harvesting the grapes himself and fermenting the juice in a makeshift winery the size of a one-car garage.

McCallum makes wine to please himself. To his surprise, his wines also excite international critics and have a devoted following among New Zealand wine lovers.

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James Halliday, the leading Australian wine critic, describes Dry River Pinot Noir as having “an immensely concentrated and powerful bouquet with dark plum and black cherry fruit leading into a similarly massively concentrated palate, reminiscent of the famous Burgundy producer, Leroy.”

Today, if any of the few hundred cases McCallum produces a year is available in U.S. stores -- and that’s rare -- Dry River Pinot Noir sells for $60 or more, the highest price of any New Zealand wine.

Other Kiwi Pinot Noirs have shown up in U.S. stores in drips and drabs for several years. As production continues to escalate, the wines are becoming more readily available.

Of the country’s 421 wineries, today more than 110 of them are producing roughly 783,500 cases of Pinot. Exports of the varietal are up 183% in the last two years, and expected to soar as more of the newly planted vines begin producing, according to the New Zealand wine industry.

Queenstown in Central Otago, a stunningly beautiful region that was New Zealand’s little secret until “The Lord of the Rings” made it a movie star, is a viticultural boom town.

It started almost accidentally. When Alan Brady planted some of the first wine grapes in Central Otago in 1983, his well-intentioned friends told him it was a fool’s errand. It’s too cold, too far inland and too lonely.

With no more research than a hunch that land located on the same latitude as Bordeaux, albeit in the Southern Hemisphere, could produce at least passable wine, Brady rushed ahead, eager to escape his 24-hour days working as a New Zealand television journalist. Brady struck gold with his 20-acre vineyard at the base of the Southern Alps, launching that region’s Pinot Noir gold rush much the same way as McCallum’s success helped transform Martinborough. He has since sold his original vineyard, Gibbston Valley, and started Mount Edward down the road.

“This is the only truly continental part of New Zealand,” says Brady, noting that Otago has hot, dry summers with cold, dry winters. “It’s invigorating and challenging.”

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So it is for artisanal winemakers, working on small plots to make a few thousand cases of wine a year, which is the story with nearly all of New Zealand’s Pinot producers.

“The model is Burgundy: small growers, small production in small casks from very particular sites,” says Sam Neill, the actor famous for his role in the “Jurassic Park” movies.

A native of the nearby college-port town of Dunedin, where his father was the local French wine importer, Neill kept a vacation home in Central Otago after moving to Hollywood in the 1980s. In the early 1990s, he tasted some of Brady’s wines on a visit home and quickly bought land to plant his own vineyard. His first vintage was 1997.

All the Central Otago Pinot Noirs have “vibrant fruit,” he says. “There is a toasted herbal thing” as well, which Neill suggests is a reflection of the abundant wild thyme growing on the hillsides there.

Still, there are challenges. Neill’s neighbor, film director Roger Donaldson, whose Sleeping Dogs vineyard is named after the movie that launched both his and Neill’s careers in the 1970s, says the poor top soil that makes for great Pinot Noir, along with Otago’s extreme climate, can also pose unforgiving challenges. “The vines are under snow in the winter. And I’ve had snow on the grapes before they were plucked.”

What grape glut?

In the meantime, while the rest of the world worries about a glut of high-quality grapes, New Zealand is busy flipping paddocks to vineyards. Total New Zealand vineyard acreage nearly doubled in the last five years and is expected to grow an additional 32% in the next three years. Wine is now export-dependent New Zealand’s number one non-commodity agricultural export.

There are only 5,000 acres of Pinot Noir vineyards in New Zealand, but they represent a five-fold increase in plantings since 1995. Pinot Noir acreage is expected to expand 62% in the next three years, with no signs of leveling off after that, according to New Zealand Winegrowers.

“Pinot Noir can only be grown in a few places: Burgundy, Sonoma, Napa, Oregon and now New Zealand,” says Richard Riddiford, whose Palliser Estate Wines of Martinborough is one of the country’s larger Pinot Noir producers at 12,000 cases a year. That limited geography, he says, gives New Zealand far more potential in the Pinot Noir market than its limited production would seem to afford.

To grow, New Zealand needs exposure, says Riddiford, who is organizing New Zealand’s second international Pinot Noir conference, to be held in Wellington on Jan. 28. “You can’t produce a great product in isolation,” he says.

Only a few of New Zealand’s Pinot Noirs have attracted international attention, and the attention they’ve gotten hasn’t always been raves. This spring, influential wine writer Jancis Robinson dubbed New Zealand’s Pinot Noirs, on the whole, to be “improving” but with a long way to go. Since Pinot Noir vines improve with age, it will take at least a decade before it’s clear whether New Zealand will live up to the promise of McCallum’s early success.

“It’s not fair to compare New Zealand’s Pinot Noirs to the wines of Burgundy. They have hundreds and hundreds of years of experience,” says Briggs, the wine importer. “Those wines can hit higher heights than any new world vintner could possibly hit.

“New Zealand Pinot Noir is in the process of discovery. What’s amazing is how good it is, considering no one here knows what they are doing,” Briggs says. “There have been individual wines made by individual wineries that have been ravishing. What still needs to happen is a tradition of making that level of wine consistently.”


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