Separation of Pinots: New Zealand & More Mt. Difficulty
Post by Chuck Hayward | August 25th, 2011
Back when New Zealand pinot noir first entered the US market, our collective knowledge of these wines was infinitesimal. The country’s first serious attempts at producing pinot noir production had begun only a decade earlier, so the 1995/96 vintages that made the initial splash had few reference points. At that time, no one could say how Marlborough differed from Martinborough. Rather, the question was how the pinots of New Zealand compared to those from Burgundy, California and Oregon.
As the pinot noir industry matured, it became easier to understand the unique attributes and qualities among New Zealand’s growing regions, which was important so that customers could purchase the style of wine they prefer. Almost right away, however, it became apparent that not all wines from Central Otago were the same and that Marlborough pinots from the valley floor were markedly different compared to those from the southern hills. The quest to learn about a New Zealand wine appellation’s subregionality became important rather quickly.
In Central Otago, where subregional differences first became apparent to me, there are 6-7 loosely defined districts whose pinot noirs offer their own unique interpretations of the grape. Martinborough, Marlborough and Waipara also see differing pinot styles depending on their site, while Hawkes Bay Bordeaux-style red blends show incredible diversity that can be attributed to subregional differences.
but few people realize that sauvignon blanc is an important aspect of the area’s wine production. In the last vintage, 47% of the grape production in the Wairarapa region (which includes Martinborough along with the Masterton and Gladstone subregions) was pinot noir while 35% was sauvignon blanc. Yet it is Marlborough that has established itself and gained international recognition for sauvignon.
Sauvignons from Martinborough are quite distinctive and different from the prevailing Marlborough style. The palate profile is typically elegant and restrained with a long, lingering mineral presence on the finish. Flavor-wise, there are the classic lime and lemon citrus elements that are tightly wound about the mineral laden spine. Most examples are tank-fermented with a small portion (usually 10-15%) of barrel fermented juice added to the final blend for complexity. There are some notes of herbs and spices that show the grape’s varietal characteristics, but you rarely see the more pungent, herbaceous aromas that are prevalent in Marlborough.
Photo courtesy of winesfrommartinborough.com
The minerality that is so clearly evident in Martinborough sauvignons is probably a result of the soils of the region. The so-called “Martinborough Terraces” are considered the geological backbone of the area and are composed of deep layers of alluvial and gravel deposits. These soils are perfect for drainage, but also retard vegetative growth that can increase a grape’s grassy components.
There are relatively few Martinborough sauvignons in the American market despite their ability to offer a distinctively different style to what Marlborough produces. This is partially due to the fact that pinot remains Martinborough’s principal attraction. But it is also a very small region, only 3% of New Zealand’s grapes are planted there yet it only accounts for 1% of the country’s wine production to due consistently low yields. Nevertheless, brands like Ata Rangi, Palliser Estate, Craggy Range and Martinborough Vineyards are worth the search.