I ENJOY NOTHING MORE than being squeezed into a position where my preconceptions of something that I feel strongly about are questioned, dismantled and transformed into something afresh; something new and quixotic that, while still difficult to describe, serves as an avatar for fresh thinking and a giddiness over that which has been in front of us all the time, without any of us who drink and care about wine realising.
I have just returned from Pinot Noir New Zealand 2013 in Wellington, a major showcase for the grape variety. After the conference, delegates visited various regions that grow Pinot Noir, some better than others. I went to Marlborough, which – of all places, you say – left me with a sense of promise and optimism.
These are the same feelings that wine, as a form of “liquid geography” to use an oftquipped phrase at the conference, gave me when I first fell in love with it as a student in Paris. Why? Because Marlborough has found a new sense of purpose; a new vinous destination that arguably resonates more strongly than its first point of call with Sauvignon Blanc. It's called Pinot Noir. Pinot Noir that is captivating and in the throes of becoming compelling; at least among those producers who care.
To date, the efforts of many producers in Marlborough to craft fine Pinot Noir have frequently been subsumed by the vast plains of Sauvignon Blanc that singlehandedly established New Zealand as an influential wine-producing country – and this spectacular region, in the north of New Zealand's South Island, at the vanguard of Sauvignon Blanc production.
The world swooned over Cloudy Bay and other big names. Pinot Noir, for many producers, was an excuse to have a red wine available in the tasting room. It was planted contiguously to vineyards dedicated to Sauvignon Blanc: wrong aspect, mesoclimate and soil types, with fertility fuelled by irrigation and highly interventionist viticulture. Worse, much of it was made in a similar vein to “Savvy”, as antipodeans call Sauvignon.
Marlborough Pinot Noir was too often whacked into tank, fermented with robust yeasts at cool temperatures to protect fruit flavours, and bottled with an oaky gloss to perceivably justify a premium price. Moreover, Marlborough's vines are still relatively young despite the 1,818 hectares of Pinot Noir planted, the most of any New Zealand wine region. Few notable Pinot Noirs resulted from this dynamic.
By the mid '90s many wine drinkers began to tire of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, and yet, there was no other established varietal brand to pull the slack. Marlborough Pinot Noir was overlooked or simply not good enough. Yet. Marlborough had become inextricably bound to a particular love-itor-leave-it style of Sauvignon Blanc that was incessantly exuberant: citric and tropical, tarted up with sugar and underlain with a streak of green.
The region and grape variety became one and the same, while much of the wine also began to taste similar, irrespective of producer. The 2008 vintage, responsible for a slew of weak wines dumped with alacrity into the UK market, Marlborough's biggest consumer, proved a turning point. The brand got a bad rap and prices began to fall.
Marlborough's fertile alluvial plains and their sea of vines bear witness to the commercial importance of Sauvignon Blanc to the region, even today. This belies any temptation to croon the holy verse of Pinot Noir, while forgetting the lyrics to Sauvignon Blanc, the pagan chant. After all, the quality of Sauvignon Blanc in these parts has vastly improved. The wines have largely become drier. Grapes are picked when they are ripe, rather than under-ripe. There is more attention to detail among judicious producers whose lower yields make better wines.
Clos Margeurite's savoury and age-worthy Sauvignons are good examples, as are the fully weighted and pungent examples from TerraVin and Dog Point. These wines turn the facile paradigm established by earlier regional styles on its head. TerraVin's Te Ahu and Dog Point's highly rated Section 94 Sauvignon Blancs are both fermented slowly with ambient yeasts and varying degrees of oak influence – mostly large-format, used wood – to give richly textured wines driven by a tensile and smoky flintiness.
However, the winds of change are blowing strongly, bringing the carnal and autumnal whiff of Pinot Noir to the intrepid in Marlborough: those who seek less precocious vineyards at altitude, on bonier soils. These soils are a meld of glacial tills with scrags of stony residuals, calcareous marine mudstone and windswept freedraining loess; meagre and less fertile, although still heavily irrigated by many producers which, to my thinking at least, stunts potentiality. I look forward to a less effortful confluence between vineyard work and the components that make up a vineyard, some abstract and intangible – mineral, sun, soil, rock and water.
Marlborough's best examples of Pinot Noir include those from the producers noted above, with the lilting grace of Dog Point 2006 proving a standout. In addition, Fromm's firmly structured and age-worthy Pinot Noirs, particularly the Clayvin; and Churton's dense and savoury wines, attractively lower in alcohol than many of their peers, brought joy. The delicious epiphany of just how good Marlborough Pinot Noir can be, however, came while tasting Seresin's line-up of several sitespecific wines earlier in my visit.
Farmed biodynamically, the textural energy of the Seresin wines captured something different about each vineyard, or plot. Specifically, the febrile nature of the Home Pinot Noir; the delicately orange-hued, yet woolly and ferruginous Tatou, with a structural core reminiscent of fine Nebbiolo; as well as the cascading flavours, length and sheer intensity of the Sun and Moon, left me aghast. Admittedly, I was tasting wines from the very good 2010 vintage.
While Marlborough's best Pinot Noirs are already very fine indeed, I look forward to the next phase in their evolution when deference to that which we don't know, rather than reverence of what we do, serves as their guiding force.
Follow Ned Goodwin MW at twitter.com/rednedwine or email at firstname.lastname@example.org