WSJ: What Happened to New Zealand Pinot Noir?

WSJ recently had an article lamenting on the “disappearance” of New Zealand Pinot Noir from the US market.

I’m glad we visited NZ and explored some of its wine regions. How else would we discover such gems as Seresin Rachel Pinot Noir or the Brennan? From what we’ve so far tasted, I would rank NZ Pinot above Oregon Pinot, and argue that it has more finesse than Californian Pinots. Pity the wine shops here don’t carry a breadth of NZ wines.

What Happened to New Zealand Pinot Noir?
Updated September 1, 2012, 9:46 a.m. ET

WHAT HAPPENS WHEN a wine disappears from the market? Does anyone notice? Does anyone care? Do its fans actively mourn its absence or do they simply move on to a wine they deem equally good? These were a few of the questions that came to mind recently when I began researching the mysterious disappearance of New Zealand Pinot Noir from restaurant wine lists and retail store shelves.

It wasn’t so long ago that New Zealand Pinot Noir was hot—or at least there were a lot more of the wines around. After all, Pinot Noir had been touted as New Zealand’s greatest discovery since Sauvignon Blanc (whose sales, by the way, are still growing by leaps and bounds). It began “around the time of ‘Sideways,’ ” recalled David Strada, the U.S. marketing manager for the New Zealand Wine Growers Association. The movie debuted in 2004, and that was the year that Kiwi winemakers began planting Pinot Noir in earnest, said Mr. Strada. He has a particularly long perspective on New Zealand’s wines, having represented its growers since 1998, when exports to the States were so small his was basically a part-time job.

New Zealand producers planted Pinot Noir all over both islands—in regions like Central Otago, Canterbury, Waipara and Marlborough on South Island as well as Martinborough, Wairarapa and Hawke’s Bay to the north. Eager winemakers (and wine writers) heralded the early wines as “Burgundies of the South,” though the vines that they came from were often only several years old. (Young vines have shallow roots and are believed to produce wines that are less complex and nuanced than those produced from older vinestock.)

Of course, New Zealand winemakers weren’t the only ones focused on Pinot Noir at the time. There were plenty of other winemakers thinking much the same thing, especially in California and Oregon, where plantings of Pinot Noir increased exponentially. While there are currently 12,000 acres of Pinot Noir in New Zealand, said Mr. Strada, and around the same number in Oregon, according to the Oregon Wine Board, there were almost 40,000 acres of Pinot planted in California as of 2011, according to the Wine Institute, and the numbers just keep going up.

In other words, there are plenty of options for the Pinot-crazed hordes—which hasn’t been particularly good news for New Zealand producers. As Blair Walter, winemaker at Felton Road winery in Central Otago, commented in a recent email, “The USA is about the only place where New Zealand Pinot competes directly with the other New World Pinots.” In other markets, he noted, New Zealand Pinot Noir is second only to Burgundy since most U.S. Pinot makers don’t export their wines.

But competition from American wineries hasn’t been the only problem that New Zealand’s Pinot producers have faced in recent years. Adequate distribution has also been a challenge. Several wine distributors went out of business during the economic crisis of 2008-09, leaving many wineries without representation.

That’s why many of the New Zealand Pinots at the Fred Meyer Store in Tualatin, Ore., are a few vintages old. “They’re wineries who lost their distributors,” explained Fred Meyer wine buyer Mike Dietrich. The list of affected wineries he sent me was disconcertingly long and contained several once-sought-after names including Allan Scott, Sileni Estate, Grove Mill, Mountford Estate and Coopers Creek.

Although his store isn’t far from Oregon’s top wineries (and he’s a big fan of Oregon wines), Mr. Dietrich loves New Zealand Pinot Noirs. In fact, he sees a good many similarities between the two wines. “Oregon and New Zealand Pinots are less about fruit and more about earth and minerals,” he said. “There’s an earthy complexity to the wines—they’re not just fruit-forward like California Pinots.”

Mr. Dietrich stocks around 30 New Zealand Pinot Noirs, one of the largest selections of the wines on the West Coast. He also carries more than five times that number of Oregon Pinots (about 160), which he admits are an easier sell—not just because of home-state loyalty, but because the prices are much better. “I can find a good Oregon Pinot Noir for under $20,” he said. “That’s a lot harder with New Zealand.” (A good New Zealand Pinot is closer to the $30-$40 mark.)

The unfavorable exchange rate keeps the prices high, noted Kiwi-born Ken Mudford, New Zealand wine buyer for Sherry-Lehmann in New York. Mr. Mudford’s selection of New Zealand Pinots is many multiples larger than at any other New York store I visite—most of them had only two or three wines.

And yet Mr. Mudford had a fairly gloomy outlook. “New Zealand Pinot Noir hasn’t succeeded yet. It’s not where it should be—not compared to New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc,” he said, adding that the latter is one of the best-selling categories in his store.

Added to the problems of price, exchange rate and distribution, there was also the issue of brand recognition, Mr. Mudford said. Few customers seemed to recognize the best Pinot producers or why certain wines commanded high prices. There were a few exceptions, a few wines that Mr. Mudford called “brands”—these were the wines people asked for by name, such as Craggy Range, Ata Rangi and Felton Road—but they were the exception rather than the rule.

These “brands” were among the wines I selected for my tasting of 16 or so ranging in price from $20 to $80 a bottle. I focused (mostly) on two recent vintages, 2009 and 2010, as both were considered very good Pinot years. I was hoping to find not only a few good Pinots but perhaps even a new New Zealand point of view.

Alas, the results fell short of that latter goal, at least at the lower end of the scale. The wines around $20 a bottle were often not as lean and tart, showing more acid than fruit, though there were some exceptions, mostly notably the 2009 Mt. Beautiful at $20. Elegant and lithe, it had a lovely cherry nose and minerally finish.

Things improved at a higher price range, particularly among the so-called brand wines. The Pinots from producers such as Ata Rangi, Felton Road, Craggy Range and Greywacke were quite good. Some, particularly the Felton Road and Ata Rangi, were truly impressive, marked by dense, dark fruit, firm minerality and a pleasing savory quality. But as Mr. Dietrich had noted, “fruit-forward” they were not—they took a few hours’ decanting to unwind. As my Pinot-loving friend Richard observed, they needed “at least a three-course meal to show well.”

Is that another New Zealand Pinot Noir problem, or is it, perhaps, a virtue instead? The (best) wines take time to open up but deliver complexity, depth of flavor and finesse. Wine drinkers must be patient, willing to invest money and put in time the search.

As it happens, Mr. Dietrich was just appointed wine buyer for a different Fred Meyer store, in Oregon City, where there are but three New Zealand Pinots on the shelves. Mr. Dietrich plans to increase that number substantially. “And I will be selling them,” he vowed.


3 thoughts on “WSJ: What Happened to New Zealand Pinot Noir?

  1. Did you go to Peacock Sky while you were in NZ? It’s an interesting visit with the couple who owns the vineyard with nice food pairing.

    • Nope – that’s in the north island right? This last trip we only had time to explore the south island (and even then, there’s still so much more to see!). So we only went to wineries in Central Otago and Marlborough.

      Where else did you go besides Peacock Sky?

  2. Thanks for sharing – I agree, I love Kiwi Pinot’s and I noticed that lots of places in the US don’t seem to stock them for some reason. It is very unfortunate, as I rate Central Otago Pinot’s amongst the best in the world.

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