Life Beyond Sauvignon: New Zealand’s Insider Secrets

Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from the Other 45th Parallel

Text and Photos by John Szabo MS

“Chardonnay is our best white variety and pinot is our best red. That’s where our best chances of international notoriety lie”. The statement, by Kumeu River’s owner/winemaker Michael Brajkovich MW, is made without linguistic flourish or dramatic intonation. For him it’s simply a matter of fact. And Brajkovich, who makes some of New Zealand’s most celebrated chardonnay from his winery just outside of Auckland on the North Island, is in a comfortable position of authority to make such a proclamation.

Brajkovich has been bottling wine under the Kumeu River label since 1983, from the very early days of New Zealand’s now-flourishing wine industry. And in the three-and-a-half intervening decades, he has observed much change. Gone are the semi-sweet Müller-Thürgaus and Muscats in the “Germanic” style, the failed prototypes of so many new world wine industries. Acreage under vine has risen exponentially. From just over 5,000 hectares in the early 1990s, the latest statistics show nearly 39,000ha devoted to wine grapes, a rise of nearly 800% in less than a generation, and three times more than is currently planted in all of Canada.

Michael Brajkovich, Kumeu River

As of the year ended June 2019, New Zealand recorded its 24th consecutive year of export growth; total export value was up 6% on the previous year to $1.83 billion NZD ($1.58 billion CAD) and volume up 5% to 270 million litres. That’s an enviable set of statistics to be sure. For a country that came within a whisker of national prohibition in the 1920s, and where bars closed at 6pm until 1967 and some electorates had actually voted themselves dry (the last dry county went ‘wet’ in 1999), New Zealand has certainly embraced wine.

But the second part of Brajkovich’s statement is not exactly true. And furthermore, it deflects from one potentially weak point of the NZ wine industry: the risky reliance on a single grape variety, produced, at least from a commercial volume perspective, in a rather narrow range of styles. Chardonnay and pinot noir aren’t of course New Zealand’s most notorious wines. That honour goes to sauvignon blanc. Just ask any Canadian.

Sauvignon blanc accounts for nearly 80% of New Zealand’s wine exports to Canada (85% of total NZ wine exports by volume). And with sales of over 300,000 cases annually alone, Kim Crawford Marlborough Sauvignon is Canada’s best-selling white wine. Period. (Not just the best-selling New Zealand wine.) By contrast, chardonnay and pinot noir together amount to barely more than 10% of New Zealand’s imports to Canada. Pinot gris/grigio, and a few drops of over two dozen other varieties and blends account for the rest.

It’s not hard to understand why sauvignon has been so successful. For one, it’s intensely flavoured and immediately recognizable, comforting attributes in the domaine of taste. In the sommelier’s world of blind tastings, Marlborough sauvignon is as close as it gets to a sure bet.

Producers love it, too. It’s a welcome cash generator, rare in the wine world. From the 24,037ha planted (a whopping 62% of NZ’s total acreage), 302,157 tonnes were harvested in 2019. That’s over 12.5 tonnes/ha, pretty enviable yields indeed. And furthermore, Sauvignon, at least the more industrial stuff, is usually machine harvested, fermented and aged in stainless steel, and bottled and shipped mere months after harvest. And it’s sold and at decent prices, too. The average bottle of NZ sauvignon sells for just under $20 in Canada (Kim Crawford costs $19.95 in Ontario) – not cheap though neither really expensive, which means lots of fast cash in producer’s hands.

Waipara Valley, North Canterbury

Chardonnay, on the other hand, averaged just over 8t/ha in 2019, and pinot noir a mere 4.8t/ha. They are much less productive varieties, especially if quality is the aim. Add in the far greater expense of producing chardonnay and pinot, which includes more often than not costly hand harvesting, oak barrels, and much longer ageing before bottling, and sauvignon starts to look like an accountant’s dream. It’s too profitable to stop making it.

Yet the heavy reliance on a single grape is a proverbial basket of eggs. If the world were to suddenly fall out of love with Marlborough sauvignon blanc, New Zealanders would drown in a lake of the stuff, similar I’m sure to the Aussies’ collective bath when the world grew tired of their fruity, ‘sunshine in a bottle’ wines and moved on.

It also blinds consumers to all of the other excellent New Zealand wines, especially chardonnay and pinot noir. The first part of Brajkovich’s statement is true, after all. Allowing again for the odd exceptional syrah or riesling or merlot, Chardonnay is NZ’s best white variety and pinot the best red. And there’s even some of it to go around, and it’s marvelously varied and distinctive from place to place. One of New Zealand’s hidden strengths is the diversity of its wine regions. So much is clear travelling and tasting from top to bottom, from quasi sub-tropical Auckland to cold continental, high desert Central Otago. And there are few varieties better-suited to articulating that diversity than pinot noir and chardonnay.

The important, and selfish, take-away here is that comparably few people know this. And that spells opportunity for the few who do: prices follow demand, and demand is modest. This means great quality at moderate prices.

I was reminded of this at a recent tasting in Toronto pitting top names from Burgundy in a blind tasting against the pinot noirs and chardonnays of Felton Road in Central Otago. In three flights of five wines each, which included bottlings from Leroy, Boillot, Lamy, de Montille, Jobard and other coveted Burgundy domaines, Felton consistently showed at or near the top. And while the wines aren’t cheap, cresting past $100 for the top single vineyards, they are still dramatically less expensive than similar Côte d’Or Burgundies. And Felton is about the most expensive in New Zealand. There are dozens of producers working to very high standards at even more attractive pricing. Savvy buyers are well-advised to seek out the best now, before New Zealand becomes notorious for its pinot noir and chardonnay.

Quality On The Rise

This past July I made my second trip to New Zealand. The first, in 2013, was occasioned by the triennial NZ Pinot Noir conference that gathers pinot producers and lovers from across the globe for a battery of seminars and tastings. Over the course of five days in Wellington, and two subsequent weeks of travel in both the north and south islands, I went deep into New Zealand’s progress with pinot (and where pinot grows, chardonnay is invariably found). Results were already impressive then. So, a half dozen years later, I was very curious to see what has changed.

Blair Walters, winemaker at Felton Road in Central Otago, one of the country’s top references for pinot and chardonnay, shares some industry insider information. “What’s changed? Well, the industry has evolved considerably. The rush of pinot plantings in the early-mid 2000s came online in ’08-’09-’10. Suddenly there was a bunch of wineries each trying to sell 3000 cases of pinot at $45/bottle. They couldn’t do it.”

Deep discounting inevitably occurred, according to Walters, and wineries disappeared as fast as they appeared. The net result was industry consolidation, as larger players swooped in to pick up the pieces. Big names like Steve Smith (Craggy Range, ++) and Bill Foley (Foley Family wines), among others. bought in or expanded their holdings in Central Otago and elsewhere.

While this can be both positive and negative, it’s worth noting that larger companies bring economies of scale and often more winegrowing experience, better distribution and more competitive pricing. That’s a win for consumers.

An unambiguously positive development has been the emergence of a cheaper ‘second tier’ of pinots. “Before, the less suitable parcels had not yet been identified”, says Walters. “Now, growers know which vineyards have the greatest potential and they can concentrate their efforts on them. The top wines are much better now.” And more entry-level wines, now farmed to proper specs, are more realistically priced, signs of a maturing industry.

And Central Otago, for one, is also much more specialized than it once was. Rolf Mills, for example, who planted one of Central Otago’s first commercial vineyards at Rippon in 1975, trialed 25 different varieties and clones just to see what would work in a classic shotgun approach. Now, Rolf’s son Nick has whittled the number down to just six. “We selected the best performers”, says Mills matter-of-factly. And specialization pays quality dividends; Rippon’s biodynamically-farmed wines are standouts in New Zealand.

Nick Mills, Rippon

On the technical side, Walters describes a movement, in Otago and elsewhere in New Zealand, towards harvesting earlier. “The wines tasted porty”, he says, of the riper, bolder styles of pinot noir from the early 2000s. Now the search is on for fresher and finer wines, and extraction has been reduced. “We used to do up to four punch downs a day. Now we might only do one”.

Paul Pujol at Prophet’s Rock in Central Otago has likewise backed off on extraction. Each of his pinot noirs is hand-plunged only once during fermentation; the cap is literally kept wet with a watering can. “The more I reduced extraction, the more I found the wines came to reflect the natural structure of each site. More delicate flavours came back – the citrus, floral, red fruit profile”, he says. He takes the theory to the extreme in Prophet Rock’s quasi red-rosé pinot noir he calls “Infusion”, for which the grapes are picked early morning when they are cool, destemmed into tank, and then allowed to ‘cold soak’ naturally. But as soon as fermentation starts, the juice is pressed off the skins and finishes as for a white wine – there’s no extraction in an alcoholic milieu – the ultimate in gentle handling. It’s a theme that reappears across New Zealand.

Plant clonal material, especially for pinot and chardonnay, is another critical quality factor, and here too there have been developments. Nik Mavromatis, winemaker at Greystone and Muddy Water in North Canterbury, credits the recent improvement in pinot to the introduction of better clonal selections, including the so-called Dijon clones from Burgundy that made such a difference in places like Oregon and Ontario.

But old vines and heritage clones have their supporters, too. Braden Crosby of On Giant’s Shoulders in Martinborough, for example, reports that new pinot noir plantings in the region are moving away from the Dijon clones: “the production is highly inconsistent”, he says of the Dijon vines, “and they ripen earlier”. While that was once considered a major bonus, Crosby and others are finding that it’s increasingly a disadvantage as climate warms. New Zealand’s original pinot clones, such as Able, Pommard and 10×5 (aka Wädenswill), are later ripening, and thus finding favour once again. They’re also higher and more consistent yielding, a clear advantage in Martinborough’s tough climate where yields are naturally some of the lowest in the country.

Top Pinot Noir and Chardonnay Picks by Region

Outside of Marlborough, New Zealand’s largest winegrowing region devoted largely to sauvignon, there are three main quality areas for pinot noir and chardonnay, from north to south: Wairarapa/Martinborough, North Canterbury/Waipara/Waitaki, and Central Otago (not counting Michael Brajkovich’s magical wines from Auckland, which are unique).


Derek Milne, professor of agriculture in in Wellington, published a paper in the late 1970s declaring that the area northeast of Wellington on the north Island, called Wairarapa (“glistening waters in Maori), was eminently suitable to wine grape production. This caused a mild stir of interest, and a small group of Wellington wine lovers who tasted regularly together all decided to buy land within a year of each other. The first wineries were born, among them Ata Rangi and Dry River, still leaders today.

Dry River Vineyard. Martinborough

As of 2019 there are 72 wineries registered in Wairarapa, a GI that covers the entire area suitable for winegrowing, farming just under 1000 hectares, though important local player Craggy Range is reported to be planting another 250ha. Martinborough is a sub-GI named for the charming town of the same name, where 3/5ths of plantings are found. Gladstone and Masterton are the two other official GIs.

Soils are largely alluvial, based on an uplifted gravelly fan at the convergence of two rivers. Local growers remark on the nuanced differences between the slightly warmer Martinborough terrace around the town itself, and the Te Muna Road terrace nearby over a range of low hills. But the entire area is decidedly cool and challenging for growers.

The edge of the Martinborough Terrace

Wairarapa is essentially a valley between two ranges of hills, open to the south, allowing winds to rush northward from Cook Strait, around Cape Palliser but essentially unimpeded, often ferrying moisture into the region. Wet and/or windy weather at flowering can severely reduce crop loads, among the lowest on average in the county, and highly variable year to year. Martinborough pinot shows some of the highest dry extract and tannin numbers in the country, and when nature cooperates, produces the most savoury, herbal, tightly wound pinot noirs and chardonnays in New Zealand.

Guy McMaster, Palliser Estate, showing the Martinborough terrace gravels

Top Producers: Ata Rangi, Cambridge Road, Craggy Range, Dry River, Escarpment, Kusuda, Luna Estate, Margrain, Martinborough Vineyards, On Giant’s Shoulders, Paddy Borthwick, Schubert, Te Kairanga

(Link to all of John Szabo’s New Zealand wine reviews on WineAlign)

Three Top Martinborough (Wairarapa) Chardonnay

96 Ata Rangi Chardonnay Craighall 2016

Just starting to open up now, Ata Rangi’s Craighall delivers highly attractive white flower notes, sweet-herb-tarragon, black licorice, and pear and white apple flavours in a complex expression. It has a gorgeous palate, expansive, complete, replete with elegant white fruit and flower-sweet herbal notes. Just so seamless, with integrated lees. No wood detected. Classy wine; drink or hold into the late ’20s. Tasted July 2019. (Lifford Wine & Spirits)

Helen Masters, Ata Rangi

94 Martinborough Vineyards Chardonnay Home Block 2017

Bought by Foley Family Wines in 2014, Martinborough Vineyard’s 2017 chardonnay offers fine, intense aromatics, complex, with old wood character, sawdust, low fruit intensity overall. Fullish, complex palate, richly textured, broad but not overly creamy. Long finish. Mostly orchard fruit, nicely contained. Neither modern nor old fashioned. This is good wine, serious. 13.5% alc. Tasted July 2019. 

94 On Giants’ Shoulders Chardonnay 2016

From a tiny 0.5ha parcel planted to clone 95 in 1999, this is wild fermented and aged in puncheons and hogsheads, 20% new, with full malo. Fine nose, complex, well-balanced, 12.5% alcohol. Wood a minor influence, but neither is it fruity; more of a botanical garden. Fine texture, creamy but fresh and balanced. Excellent, ripe acids. Long finish. Fine wine. Tasted July 2019.

Three Top Martinborough (Wairarapa) Pinot Noir 

95 Ata Rangi Pinot Noir Estate 2017

The 1st vintage of this wine was in 1985. There’s about 40% whole bunch in the final assemblage, and the result is very pretty perfume, full of spicy cherry, all red fruit, a pinot in the delicate, cool climate mold (also from a cool vintage.) Fine grained edgy tannins, genuine savoury aspect, long finish. Lovely wine. Tasted July 2019. (Lifford Wine & Spirits)

Wilco Lam, Dry River Vineyards, Martinborough

93 Dry River Pinot Noir 2017

The only pinot made commercially at Dry River, aside from a tiny amount of single vineyard for a VIP client list. Pommard and 10×5, plus a small amount of younger Dijon clones. 25-40% whole bunch. Quite ripe, pure and spicy, fresh red fruits shift into some darker tones. The palate is more vibrant than expected, with lovely succulent acids. Tannins are still a bit spiky, but they will surely resolve in another 2-3 years. Fine length. Classy, firm, savoury pinot. Tasted July 2019.

93 Schubert Marion’s Block Pinot Noir 2017

5000 vines/ha, Dijon clones. Harvested pre-rain. Lovely savoury, spicy, and herbal (but not green); Big, plush, a chewy mouthful, rich and dense, especially for 2017. Long finish. This is good wine, drinking now, but should also age well. (Hobbs & Company)

North Canterbury/Canterbury

Centered around the city of Christchurch and the Banks Peninsula on the South Island, North Canterbury/Canterbury is New Zealand’s 4th largest growing area with just under 1500ha of vineyards, yet still only amounts to about 3% of the total crush each year. Pinot noir represents almost a third of plantings, while sauvignon blanc and riesling are both more widely planted than chardonnay, which accounts for just 6%, of acreage, or 86ha in total. Despite the small production, Canterbury makes some of the country’s top chardonnays.

The region experiences weather patterns similar to Martinborough’s. The southerlies blowing up from the Pacific and across Pegasus Bay tear across the area, the low lying ranges of hills not quite parallel to the coast providing little protection and in some areas helping to funnel cool, moist air. Wind and rain during flowering are common occurrences, making yields erratic. And as in Martinborough, few of the larger producers consider investing here, and the majority of operations are small.

What sets the region apart is the presence of limestone, the only region in New Zealand where it has any significant presence. It was in fact the active limestone that originally led Mike and Claudia Weersing, founders of Pyramid Valley Vineyards (now owned by Steve Smith MW of Craggy Range and Brian Sheth), to North Canterbury, after a nearly decade-long global search for an ideal place to plant pinot noir and chardonnay. As Weersing once described the Lion’s Tooth vineyard chardonnay to me: “the site has an almost toxic level of active limestone, up to 25% in some parts of the vineyard, which leads to a remarkable salty, saline quality, with acidity that travels horizontally across the palate, and spherically fills the mouth in multi dimensions.”

Viticulturalist Nick Gill of Greystone and sister company Muddy Waters was also excited by the limestone when he began planting a former sheep farm in the Omihi and Teviotdale Hills for the Thomas family in 2000. “A limestone mix of fossils, sea shells and small pebbles have been fused together through the seismic movement of North Canterbury. Over time this ancient seabed has been pushed and folded upwards to form the Teviotdale Hills.”

Waipara Valley, Grestone & Muddy Waters Vineyards, North Canterbury

Other vineyards in the region are planted on the gentle natural terraces formed by the Waipara River, featuring wind-blown loess over a smattering of clay, sand and gravels with low water holding capacity, another reason for the low average yields. Gill describes yields for sauvignon blanc, for example, as about half the average in Marlborough, thanks in part to the much smaller bunches, about 1/3 the typical size, of the Loire clone that produce Greystone’s top bottlings.

Canterbury’s pinot noirs and chardonnay count among the most finessed and crystalline examples in New Zealand, with fine purity and detailed acids and tannins, and limestone saltiness.

Top Producers: Bell Hill, Greystone, Muddy Water, Mt. Beautiful, Pegasus Bay, Pyramid Valley, The Bone Line 

Three Top North Canterbury/Canterbury Chardonnay 

93 Mt. Beautiful Chardonnay 2017

Here’s a fine and elegant, very Chablis-like chardonnay, gently lactic, focused on ripe citrus and white fleshed fruit end of the flavour spectrum, with fine-grained acids and excellent length. I like the fine detailing, the understated but flavorsome nature and the genuine complexity and length. Smart and sharp, excellent value. Tasted July 2019. 

91 Muddy Water Chardonnay 2016

Owned by Greystone; Muddy Water is the more experimental range under the common ownership. This is a fairly forward, maturing, cleverly crafted chardonnay here in the sense of ripeness and wood at the fore, with a considerable dose of sulphide-flintiness. The palate is rather broad and concentrated,  round and creamy up front but tightens on the back and lingers nicely.  Tasted July 2019. (Noble Estates Wines & Spirits)

90 Greystone Chardonnay 2017

A ‘cold’ year. Gently reductive, light sulphides but not extreme. Rich texture, ripe fruit. Lacks a bit of tension but the texture will appeal widely. Sufficient acids to tighten the screws. Good length. Tasted July 2019. (Noble Estates Wines & Spirits)

Three Top North Canterbury/ Canterbury Pinot Noir

95 Bell Hill Pinot Noir 2013

High density planting, 11,363 vines per hectare, planted between 1997-2009, 2.25ha total. Some whole cluster lots (9-21%), the rest mostly whole berry with only a small proportion crushed; close to a month on skins. Clearly serious wine, not yet at full peak, with dense, finely woven tannic structure abetted by firm, ripe, complete acids, with the sort of extract and complexity, genuine density and length on the palate that can only come from meticulous farming. There’s a real streak of savoury-earthy-herbal flavour, framed up by crunchy red and black fruit. The finish lifts up with a welcome touch of volatility, and lingers on and on. Top kit, structured, ageworthy. Best after 2022. Tasted July 2019.

The Waipara Valley, North Canterbury

95 Greystone Thomas Brothers Pinot Noir 2015

The top kit from Greystone, a single vineyard site on steep slopes, planted in 2004, with clone 5 and 115. “Only the Thomas brothers would have been crazy enough to plant this site”. Yields were just one ton per hectare in this vintage, so tiny were the berries. It’s dense, full, firm, and intense, with excellent sapidity, a dense and full center structured around a dark fruit core cosseted by suave, rich, supple but structured tannins. Great length. Very fine wine; drink or hold into the mid-late ’20s. Tasted July 2019. (Noble Estates Wines & Spirits)

92 The Bone Line Pinot Noir Wai-iti White Lable 2017

A property with multiple small parcels. This is quite serious stuff: balanced wine densely wrapped around a dark fruit core, with plenty of savoury-umami-succulence and  lively, salty acids. Really nicely managed tannins, long-chained, ripe. The finish lingers admirably. Drink or hold this into the mid-’20s – it will reward patience. Tasted July 2019.

Central Otago

At 45º south, Central Otago claims New Zealand’s, and the world’s, most southerly vineyards (for the record, Chile has some experimental vineyards near the town of Chile Chico in Patagonia

at 46.32º). These are also the most inland vineyards in the country, New Zealand’s only wine region not heavily moderated by the ocean, enjoying a semi-continental, almost high desert climate. As elsewhere on the South Island, rainfall out towards the west coast can top seven meters annually, but Central, protected by the Southern Alps, measures less than 350mm. Frost is a hazard, and the region is marked by a short, relatively hot growing season with high diurnal temperature variation, high luminosity, and low disease pressure, not unlike BC’s Okanagan Similkameen Valleys.

Central counts six sub-regions, which are: generally warmer Bendigo, Alexandra, Bannockburn and Lowburn, and slightly cooler Wanaka and the Gibbston Valley. This is pinot country through and through, with nearly 80% of plantings at just under 1500ha. Pinot gris is the next most planted at 190ha and is capable of producing excellent wines in the Alsatian idiom, also a cool, dry, high sunshine region. Chardonnay account for just 57ha, but, like in Canterbury, performs qualitatively far above its quantitative importance.

As noted earlier, site selection is critical, and with over 40 years of experience now in the modern area, Central’s best vineyards are coming into sharper focus. The soil story is one of schist, a hard metamorphic rock that forms the bedrock of much of the region. A common feature across the region is the low fertility, stony, very free-draining nature of the soils, churned up by glaciers. In other vineyards, like Prophet Rock’s Rocky Point vineyard where glaciers scraped the topsoil, vines struggle on almost pure exposed schist bedrock. Pinot noir from these sites deliver a pronounced ferrous-sanguine-iron-like profile, unique in New Zealand.

Central Otago pinot noir also tends to both darker colour and darker fruit character thanks to the high UV light, while acids remain firm and coiled even when the pH shifts up dangerously high – an unusual feature of the region that growers haven’t quite worked out. Potassium has been ruled out, and Walters of Felton Road believes it’s the high diurnal shift that leads to high pH, as vintages where the day-night temperature change is less pronounced have better (lower) pHs. But, also better farming techniques derived from experience, and older vines, are other factors that mitigate the pH issues.

Top Central Otago Producers: Burn Cottage, Carrick, Doctor’s Flat, Felton Road, Grasshopper Rock, Peregrine, Prophet’s Rock, Quartz Reef, Rewa, Rippon, Valli

Three Top North Central Otago Chardonnay

96 Felton Road Block 2 Chardonnay 2017

100% Mendoza clone, unfined, unfiltered, from the schist-gravel block on an alluvial fan out of the hills. The nose is quite tight, minerally, gently flinty-reductive but not in the exaggerated sulphidic way, with lime and lemon peel, white flowers, blanched almonds, wet stone, verbena-green-herbal touches; needless to say, complex. The palate is simply gorgeous, so refined and elegant, full of tension and energy. A New Zealand paradigm. Drink or hold into the late ’20s. Tasted August 2019. (Lifford Wine & Spirits)

94 Felton Road Chardonnay Bannockburn 2018

Tight, fresh, unyielding, with no notable flint nor toast, this is brimming with zesty-fresh citrus and white fleshed fruit, also white flowers and a dash of crème fraîche à la Chablisienne. The palate is perfectly pitched in the mid-weight category, lifted by the merest prickle of CO2 coupled to ripe-firm acids. Great tension and energy overall, not to mention great length. Ultra-classy and elegant, drinking beautifully, but certainly happy in the cellar another half dozen years or more. Tasted August 2019. (Lifford Wine & Spirits)

91 Domaine Rewa Chardonnay 2017

Planted 1997-1998. Bright and openly aromatic, with a combination of smoky flint and toasty wood leading the way over orchard fruit. Smells like new wave Aussie or Cali chard, complex to be sure, with well-measured reduction. The palate is silky-smooth, nicely-crafted, with seamless integration of firm acids and ripe fruit sweetened with caramel wood. I like the way it remains quite fresh despite solid weight (14% alcohol). Quite classy all in all, with good length. Tasted August 2019.

Six Top Central Otago Pinot Noir 

95 Felton Road Calvert Vineyard Pinot Noir 2017

The Calvert vineyard is essentially a Felton monopole, except for a small bit on long term lease to Cloudy Bay. The 2017 is a composition of several parcels from this single vineyard, planted to three different Dijon clones. Variable weather resulted in Smaller than normal berry size, (130-140g/bunch is average, though far less this year), and well, this is exceptional wine: delicate, floral, very pretty, refined, sophisticated. Very Volnay like, toute en finesse. Such fine and filigree tannins. I love this style, this vineyard. Drink or hold into the late ’20s. Tasted August 2019. (Lifford Wine & Spirits)

95 Quartz Reef Single Vineyard Pinot Noir 2017

Demeter certified biodynamic. Evident density and complexity off the top. Rose petal meets ripe raspberry and cherry in a vibrant and lively ensemble. Love the energy and tension on offer here, the genuine concentration without heaviness, the fine, lingering perfume. This is well made, honest wine, a true pleasure to drink. Tasted August 2019.

95 Valli Bendigo Vineyard Pinot Noir 2018

This delivers a pretty perfume of fresh-ripe red fruit with a pinch of black berry/cherry emerging, and no obvious oak influence. The palate is dense and juicy, really succulent and lively, driving desire for additional sips. Tannins are fine-grained, firm but not angular, and acids are perfectly comfortable. Excellent length. Fine wine; drink or hold into the late ’20s. Tasted August 2019. 

94 Burn Cottage Burn Cottage Vineyard Pinot Noir 2017

Certified organic for the first time this vintage; bottled in May 2018. 13% whole bunch, less than previous vintages, but the nose is superbly spicy and resinous in the right way. The palate is perfectly mid-weight, with the right amount of tannic grip and acid balance. Great energy and tension. Top kit, best after 2021. Tasted August 2019. (The Living Vine)

Rippon Vineyards , Wanaka, Central Otago

94 Rippon Mature Vine Pinot Noir 2016

Unfined, unfiltered. Biodynamically farmed. Lovely, pure and open nose, with fruit singing in the high register. I like the lifted florals, the purity, with no evidence of wood to report aside from the gentle oxidative effect. The palate is a mouthful of crunchy-fresh cherries; tannins are fine-grained and dusty, and the length is excellent. It’s not a blockbuster style, but rather one built on finesse and subtlety, delicacy yet marked personality. Tastes all-natural, but clean, even if not squeaky, well-crafted. Drink or hold into the mid-’20s. Tasted August 2019.

93 Prophet’s Rock Rocky Point Pinot Noir 2018

Very low yields, 100% destemmed (whole bunch trials didn’t mesh well with the vineyard – tasted like a winemaking input. Couldn’t use stems every year in any case, so style would vary too much). Each wine is hand plunged only once; the cap is kept wet with a watering can. “The more I’ve reduced extraction the more the wines came to reflect the natural structure of both site. The more delicate flavours came back – citrus, floral, red fruit, explains winemaker Paul Pujol. Its aged one year in wood, mostly old, and the result is very bloody, iron, iodine, sanguine character, not a fruity wine by any stretch, but really intriguing profile. No wood influence. I love the citrus, the blood orange, the hibiscus flowers, the bright red cherry flavours. Tannins are ultra-fine, delicate but still dusty-firm, and length is excellent. Top notch; best after 2021. Tasted August 2019. (MCO Wines & Spirits)

That’s all for this special report. See you around the next bottle.

John Szabo, MS

Link to all of John Szabo’s New Zealand wine reviews on WineAlign