Berger: New Zealand pinots on the rise


The most amazing fact that came out of last week’s Pinot Noir New Zealand 2017 conference here was that just 20 years ago, the country’s most widely planted grape was Muller-Thurgau, a grape that makes boring wine.

Yet it’s clear that just two decades later, New Zealand has the potential to make world-class wines from its cooler climates. A key to anyone recognizing this is allowing consumers around the world to be exposed to them. Which is beginning to happen.

The year 1997 might be considered a turning point for New Zealand wine. Not only was it the date of the first vintage of sauvignon blanc to be exposed broadly to Americans, but it was also the first date we saw the early efforts of pinot noir.

I first tasted a great New Zealand wine in 1997 when Wilson Daniels of the Napa Valley began to import sauvignon blanc from there, from Kumeu River Winery.

Weeks later I tasted a New Zealand pinot that was impressive, and by 2002 the category had begun rocketing to fame.

Despite the relative youth of all pinot noir plantings in this remote two-island nation, the pinot noir conference here last week drew nearly 1,000 attendees, many from around the world, indicating how rapidly New Zealand has arrived on the fine wine scene.

Often during the three-day event, many of the speakers drew a parallel to exalted red Burgundy. It amazed me that New Zealand pinot is now so widely spoken of and in such illustrious company.

In fact, some regions of New Zealand, like Martinborough and Central Otago, now carry the same exalted status with local pinot lovers that Russian River Valley does with American pinot lovers.

Today, pinot noir has perhaps the most enthusiastic following of any grape variety in the world.

I see it as outpacing the mantle once proudly worn by cabernet sauvignon and its European counterpart and ancestral homeland, Bordeaux.

The first pinot noir made in this country was in 1987. The 30 years from then to today is, in wine-making terms, what Germans would call an augenblick — a blink of the eye.

I have made nine visits to New Zealand starting in 1997 and have seen it develop reputations for great wines from many varieties.

Despite the worldwide success of its sauvignon blanc, New Zealand is no one-trick pony any more.

It now makes superb cabernets and merlots (from Hawkes Bay in the mid-north island), syrahs (Martinborough on the southern end of the north island), as well as aromatic whites like riesling, gewurztraminer, and pinot gris, mainly from the south island.

The pinot conference, which revealed dozens of top-flight pinots, also focused on some of the science being used to refine wine-growing and –making techniques to perfect pinot from one region to another.

Indeed, this very distinctiveness of regionality was one of the main themes of a seminar topic, entitled The Search for Turangawaewae, a Maori term that literally means “a place to stand.”

The word refers to the importance and permanence of native lands, and in a wine sense, may be considered parallel to the French “terroir,” a place that imparts a specialness to wine.

Among the speakers here were the esteemed British wine journalist Jancis Robinson and Kumeu River Winery winemaker Michael Brajkovich, who each gave extensive presentations on research projects into Pinot production.

The bottom line for American pinot lovers is that many formerly unobtainable pinot noirs are now being made available in the United States, and many are of exceptional quality.

Our Wine of the Week is one of the more widely available and reasonably priced pinot noirs that displays a New Zealand-ishness of real charm with food.

Wine of the Week: 2013 Spy Valley Pinot Noir, Marlborough ($25): The aroma of this strikingly cool-climate lighter-styled red wine offers wild thyme, violet, and cranberry and the best aspect of it is its crisp acidity that allows it to work with grilled salmon topped with lemon-based sauces.

Sonoma County resident Dan Berger publishes “Vintage Experiences,” a weekly wine newsletter. Write to him at