New Zealand’s growing pinot noir country

Tuesday, May 22, 2018 5:54 PM

Attention pinot noir lovers. Your preference may be Sonoma, Oregon or Burgundy, but you probably have yet to try the up-and-coming region of Central Otago, New Zealand.

While we all know that that country’s greatest contribution to the world of wine is their infamous sauvignon blanc, their pinot noir has been making large strides in quality and recognition over the past 20 years.

Central Otago lies on the southern end of New Zealand’s South Island. The region boasts the most southerly wine region in the world, just south of the 45th parallel, the threshold for growing grapes in both the northern and southern hemispheres.

It is also the country’s only continental climate – defined by greater diurnal and seasonal temperature fluctuations. In some instances, the difference between daytime highs and nighttime lows can reach 55 degrees. What makes this region viable is how dry and long the days are. This far south, the sun is out a long time, which leads to ripe fruit. Conversely, the cool, dry nights help the grapes retain acidity. The resulting wines display depth, concentration and high-toned, vibrant acidity.

Vineyards this far south need to be on north-facing hillsides. It sates the vines’ thirst for sunny mornings. Hillside vineyards receive more direct sun than vineyards on the valley floor. Also, valley floors tend to pool cold air at night and make vines more susceptible to frost.

The second most important aspect is drainage. Rainfall drains away from them and won’t pool below the soil’s surface and drown the roots. Vines thrive when they are thirsty and searching for water, not when they have an endless supply. Central Otago actually receives on average just 20 inches of rain annually, half of what Burgundy, France, receives.

Within Central Otago, there are more than 20 sub-appellations, each vying to become the best. Pinot gris, chardonnay and riesling are also planted here, and thanks to their cold-hearty nature, they are also doing well. Albeit, these other varietals make up less than 15 percent of Central Otago’s wine. It is clear that like sauvignon blanc up north, Central Otago is officially pinot noir country.

In terms of style, these wines are typically darker in fruit profile than Oregon and Burgundy, yet lighter and lower in alcohol than California. All things considered, these wines do not fetch the more expensive prices of California, Oregon or Bugundy, but they do begin at $20, which is a steep starting point.

Alan Cuenca is an accredited oenophile and owner of Put a Cork in It, a Durango wine store. Reach him at