Pinot Noir – The New Zealand Story by John Saker

How New Zealand became a major force in the world of pinot noir

By Charles Lewis
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Vineyard scene, New Zealand. Courtesy of Food & Wine Travel

Vineyard scene, New Zealand. Courtesy of Food & Wine Travel

Vineyard scene, New Zealand. Courtesy of Food & Wine Travel
Matakauri Lodge, Central Otago, New Zealand
Pinot Noir – The New Zealand Story by John Saker


New Zealand is about as far away from Burgundy as you can get, perhaps an unlikely birthplace for some of the New World’s most interesting pinots noir.

In the 70s and early 80s, when big Australian reds and buttery chardonnays were being introduced to the UK, mention of the word wine in (or from) New Zealand would probably have raised a laugh. Back then, cabernet sauvignon was the next red hope, and it was thought that – along with Tasmania – much of New Zealand was too cold to ripen wine grapes, let alone produce fine wines.

And then, inspired by some successful plantings in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, someone remembered pinot noir, the cool-climate red queen of the wine world. The rest, as they say, is history.

Pinot noir has since become a worldwide cult, fuelled in part by the 2004 movie Sideways, which saw sales of pinot noir increase 45% in the US the following year.

However the trend was in place well before that, with Old World and New World pinot noir being compared and contrasted at length decades before.

More recently we have seen increasingly stratospheric prices of French examplars like Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, one of the truly great pinots noir in the world, driven in part by Chinese demand for luxury wines.

The early movers in New Zealand are thus at an advantage – their pinot noir vines are now 30+ years old, and reaching their prime. Having a movie star like Sam Neill investing in growing and making pinot noir in Central Otago sure hasn’t hurt the Kiwi reputation, or their marketing, either.

With its mercurial personality, and like a charmingly cultured and elegant woman, pinot noir is a wine that is notoriously hard to ‘pin down’.  But when you try a superb example, you certainly know and will never forget…. You are likely to be entranced for life.

John Saker is a Kiwi who can thank his sister for his early flirtation with pinot noir. Then followed several years spent playing professional basketball in France, during which he found time to pursue his vinous interest; by this stage he was clearly smitten. 

Saker writes on wine for New Zealand’s Cuisine magazine, and is the author of another book How to Drink a Glass of Wine. Along the way, he became convinced that a book on New Zealand pinot noir needed to be written. It’s a great story.

This book starts by explaining some of the mystique of pinot noir, its challenges, its loveliness and the ‘clubbishness’ that seems to go with its production. It’s a choosy grape that can't be grown well everywhere – especially where average summer temperatures get a little on the hot side.

Saker traces the journey of pinot noir from France in the 1300s – when Philip the Bold was so impressed with the grape that he ordered its planting over much of Burgundy (and the removal of the gamay grape, which he described as ‘vile and noxious’ by comparison) – to its arrival in New Zealand in the late 1800s.

It met with some early success, but was overtaken by its cousin pinot meurnier (although on a very small scale), after which “New Zealand wine sank into decades of mediocrity, during which the staple products were sherries and fortified wines”. In 1965 it is estimated that only 2 rows of pinot noir remained in the country (tragically, these were pulled out as recently as 1979). 

But in between, the son of a Croatian immigrant named Nick Nobilo rediscovered pinot noir, and with the addition of some new clonal material imported from Switzerland, established some small trial plantings.  

Success didn’t come easily, however, and it was not until Nobilo changed his winemaking method that a breakthrough in quality was achieved:

“We hand-picked the grapes, than put them all – some whole bunches – in tall draining tanks. I left them there for ten days and drained off some of the free-run juice. What was left was fermented en masse and we closed it, creating a carbonic maceration effect. Then I separated the berries and pressed them out… and got this beautiful wine. I was out of sync with the rest of the winemaking community…. I was passionate”.

Nobilo was certainly ahead if his time, and his Nobilo Pinot Noir 1976 is regarded as ‘New Zealand’s first serious expression of the variety’, standing up well in a 1981 showing in the US against its Oregon counterparts.

Word spread, and interest and plantings grew. As one taster remarked “We’d never seen a New Zealand red wine that was so lively”.  It’s still a good descriptor today.

The history includes the famous story of the Abel clone which was found hidden in the gumboot of a traveller return to New Zealand. The customs officer, Malcolm Abel, had fortuitously planted his own vineyard so was intensely interested in all things viticultural. During questioning, the traveller revealed that the cutting was obtained when he jumped a stone wall of La Tache vineyard of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti in Burgundy.

Abel made sure the confiscated vine was not destroyed and he put it to very good use once it came out of quarantine. This single cutting has been multiplied over and over and is now a major plank of the New Zealand pinot noir industry.

Despite these fortuitous events, New Zealand pinot noir took some time to find its feet. In the early years many of the wines were too heavy and dark, and lacked elegance and sophistication. They had the iron fist but without the velvet glove to soften it. But through honest self-appraisal of wine making, an increasing percentage of truly excellent wines have subsequently been produced.

Pinot noir is a grape variety and wine whose time has come. In an era when terroir is king, pinot noir is arguably the best variety to express terroir.  And what beautiful terroir New Zealand possesses – certainly some of the most scenic in the world.

Good examples of pinot noir can express the location, climate, soils and the human element from which they are derived, resulting in a unique product. Other varieties often lack this clear definition and are correspondingly less interesting to many drinkers of fine wine.

Saker discusses pinot noir viticulture, important not only for expressing terroir, but fundamental in New Zealand as many areas are either too cold to ripen the grape properly, or very marginal, so careful tending of the vines is required, often making the critical difference between success and failure, and also degree of quality. Frost is a major menace.

Most pinot noir vineyards in New Zealand  today are a mixture of clones, with ‘a  broad choice available …(and) new ones arriving all the time’ according to Saker. In time, no doubt, the right clones for the right areas will be proven.

Today, pinot noir is New Zealand’s most widely planted red grape, by a big margin, representing over 15% of the total plantings (sauvignon blanc makes up 52%). Almost 90% goes into still (table) wine, the balance into sparkling.

Of the total, nearly 90% of New Zealand’s pinot noir is grown in the South Island, between Wairarapa and Central Otago, with two regions, Marlborough and Central Otago growing two thirds of the nation’s crop. Wairarapa (which includes Martinborough, home of the annual Toast wine festival) region is the North Island’s main growing area.  

Saker takes us on a journey through each of the wine regions of New Zealand. The profiles of each region and key producers are attractively covered in an easy reading and informative style, and the key producers and wineries whose aim is to produce excellent pinot noir are included.

The book covers the wine regions of Wairarapa in the North Island including its famous vineyards which include Ata Rangi, Craggy Range, Dry River, Escarpment and Martinborough Vineyard.

The South Island wine regions include Nelson (including Greenhough and Neudorf), Marlborough (including Cloudy Bay, Pernod Ricard, Villa Maria), Canterbury (including Bell Hill, Kaituna Valley, Pegasus Bay), Central Otago (including Chard Farm, Felton Road, Rippon Vineyard). Only a few of the vineyards covered in the book are mentioned here.

The overall result is an excellent production. The beautiful photographs by Aaron McLean – a mixture of winemaker portraits and glorious landscapes – that accompany each chapter are treasures to behold, and accompany the words seamlessly. The two together are greater than the sum of the parts.

If you’re a fan of New Zealand (or indeed any) pinot noir, we recommend you obtain a copy of Saker’s excellent book, to delve deeper into the subject, one truly worthy of further exploration. Certainly no-one is laughing at the Kiwi wines now, and Pinot Noir – the New Zealand Story puts this variety firmly on the world stage. A great gift for any pinot noir lover, too.


Pinot NoirThe New Zealand Story by John Saker is published by Random House (Auckland, New Zealand, 2010; sc, 296 pp) and retails in Australia for RRP A$45.

It is available for purchase online via here »


  • NZ North Island (NZ)

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