Marlborough, tripping the pinotastic

Marlborough tends to dominate our wine headlines but think pinot noir and most conjure up an image of Central Otago. This is perhaps unsurprising when 80% of its vines are pinot and its lush, expressive style has captured imaginations and palates both here and abroad.

But at the Pinot Noir 2013 celebration, it was Marlborough enjoying the limelight. Attendees revelled the region’s overall quality advances, a result of continual honing of site selection, clones and winemaking, and the hot topic exciting many was that Marlborough’s size and climate offer potential for quality at reasonable prices, a combination for which pinot is not usually renowned. That said, Marlborough’s challenge will be delivering such wines consistently – and profitably – while maintaining the ever-crucial premium image, and from a grape not known for making life easy for viticulturists or winemakers. No small challenge then…

At its best, pinot noir is a marvellously complex wine, haunting and ethereal. Its magic and mystery keeps fans entranced, even if they have to kiss a few (often expensive) frogs along the way. Well-suited to our cooler climes, pinot noir is far and away the country’s most important red variety with 5425ha under vine and plantings doubling over the past decade (by comparison, the closest other contenders are merlot at 1261ha and cabernet sauvignon at 331ha, both of whose acreage is declining). Pinot noir is accordingly our most exported red and second-most exported wine overall, with 10.6m litres heading overseas in 2012, up from 4.1m in 2006. It is a major part of our industry, contributing significantly to our reputation for premium quality wine.

Pinot noir is grown the length and breadth of the country but Marlborough is the most significant producer with over half the country’s crop planted across its valleys (though a lot of this finds its way into sparkling rather than still red wine). Central Otago has around 22% of vines and the remainder of plantings are predominantly in Martinborough, Waipara and Nelson. One of the attributes that excites ‘pinotphiles’ is the grape’s expressive nature – it’s an excellent reflector of terroir, and it’s here that Central Otago really shines. The region’s cool climate and kaleidoscopic soils combine to create distinctive, highly aromatic and silky-textured wines. The boutique scale and near-obsessive approach of many producers also helps cement its reputation for finely-crafted wine. Together with a very united, consistent approach to marketing, Central Otago pinot duly basks in global critical acclaim. Martinborough, Nelson and Waipara are also lauded for quality, regionally-expressive pinot noir but their tiny production sees them more often fly under the radar of all but the most dedicated wine lovers.

Marlborough has always produced a number of top quality pinots, but with a lot of the initial plantings on flat, stony soils, from less-suitable clones and frequently cropped too high (all areas where pinot is especially sensitive) many wines were light, stemmy and offered little consistent regional expression. The iconic sauvignon blanc meant there was also never a strong consumer association between Marlborough and pinot noir. The flipside of the vineyard area and producer numbers/size that allows Marlborough its scale economies meant it has been hard for consumers here and abroad to get a strong perception of just exactly what Marlborough pinot is all about.

Yet with producers across the board taking great care with their vineyards and winemaking, its bright red-cherry-and-spice style is increasingly well-executed, and at wine shows and consumer tastings, Marlborough pinot noir is impressing. Despite this, Marlborough continues to suffer image problems. Liz Wheadon, GM of retailer Glengarry says, “Customers think Central, then the winery whereas with most other wine, it’s often the case that they know the winery but don’t know where it is in fact from. I think that the top pinot noir from Marlborough are some of the very best made in NZ… I’m a big fan. It annoys me immensely that if you advertise Central Otago customers flock to our doors yet with Marlborough pinot noir we essentially give it away.” Add another retailer’s recent promotion of a high-profile, multi-award-winning Marlborough pinot was, ‘If you think that only Central Otago can make good Pinot Noir – try this and you’ll be convinced otherwise!” and you can see how makers of Marlborough pinot rather have their work cut out. Perhaps unsurprisingly, a number of Marlborough producers look outside their region for pinot noir (Cloudy Bay’s Bannockburn investment is a recent high profile example).

The aforementioned promotion wine’s RRP is $36.99, its sale price $24.99. A quick glance online shows a wide selection of pinot under $30, from across all the regions. There are plenty of ‘virtual’ wineries in the mix but there are also some big names at bargain prices. On the face of it, this might seem to be good for the consumer and there’s no doubting recent cashflow woes have given people a taste for good pinot well below its usual price. But at some point the piper must be paid and as one Central Otago producer explains, “On the surface the place is blessed because it can make outstanding pinot quite easily if you have the right site and management. But dig in to economics and profitability is a challenge for many. Most fruit is being sold of necessity, i.e. cashflow. Nobody sets up a vineyard to sell fruit – not like in Marlborough. The sustainability is therefore questionable.” Notwithstanding the success of the long-term, carefully managed Central Otago ‘super seconds’ (e.g. Mt Difficulty’s Roaring Meg, Akarua’s Rua, Chard Farm’s Rabbit Ranch, etc) the general agreement is that it’s extremely difficult to make decent pinot there for anything under $30 a bottle.

Is this then where Marlborough’s advantage lies? Its relatively warmer climate and more consistent vintages suggest it may. The fact that most wine purchased is under $25 means it’s inevitable someone will fill that niche but the trick is maintaining ‘pinosity’ in terms of what’s actually in the bottle and the grape’s quality associations. There are those who (probably unfairly) contend that such is sauvignon’s pliable nature, many Marlborough winemakers are now conditioned to make wines to a ‘recipe’ and will struggle to get the best from pinot noir. Certainly, if you’re committed to defined volumes and price points, pinot’s fussy nature means quality would be an inevitable sacrificial lamb. Matt Dicey of Mt Difficulty, who has plenty of experience walking this tightrope, comments, “Even in the affordable price category you still want to be crafting a wine which actually talks about something – its place, its maker – it does need to have a voice. If you push too far on yield or cost-cutting measures to cheapen the price, pinot is a cruel mistress and will bring you to your knees with wishy-washy wine that can’t speak clearly to anything.”

As the sauvignon blanc glut showed, even the strongest can falter and it’s difficult to recover lost ground, not to mention profitability. Mass-market wines of any persuasion must be carefully managed to maintain New Zealand’s premium image, which is essentially what our export industry trades on. Particularly in the key UK market, this quality halo is crucial to our high average price point, even if we must provide a ‘value for money’ proposition somewhere. Indeed, NZWine’s 2011 Strategic Review explicitly states, “All NZ wines benefit, directly or indirectly, from a premium positioning and that is why these premium wines should remain the focus for both the industry and for NZW.” If you think all that sounds a little melodramatic, consider the fate of Australian chardonnay…

Despite all this, Marlborough’s position as engine room of the industry, well-established players at local and global levels, and current critically-acclaimed wines all give this region a fair wind. Veteran Marlborough winemaker Ben Glover, whose recent move to Mud House has him overseeing pinot noir from throughout the South Island, takes a positive view of Marlborough pinot, each year seeing smarter producers, better wines and consumers increasingly overcoming any qualitative reservations they may have. All of which can only be good news for pinot drinkers – everywhere.

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