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Pinot Noir – The New World

Pinot noir is a beguiling grape in all its guises whether drunk as a single varietal wine, as a rosé or as part of the blend of grapes in champagne.

Pinot noir’s long Burgundian history helps its prestige. The French region’s Benedictine and Cistercian monks first ‘discovered’ pinot noir’s pleasures a millennia ago. Louis XIV (the Sun King) is recorded as being a fan of champagne and burgundy; and kings, emperors, statesmen and wine historians alike shower pinot noir with emotive phrases such as ‘iron fist in a velvet glove’, and ‘like a peacock’s tail’, contributing further to its mystique.

Pinot’s perfumes entice, its juicy, red fruit flavours fill the mouth and its subtle, satisfying tannins add a flourish to the finish.

Let’s venture into the New World of pinot noir which basically covers everywhere apart from the traditional European wine producing nations.

New Zealand pinot noir
Australia has more than three times more land under vine than New Zealand, but the production of pinot noir is similar – less than 6,000 hectares in each country. New Zealand wine production is centred on a small number of highly individual microclimates.

The Kiwis’ can-do approach, coupled with a bunch of new, high-quality clones, saw local pinot noir rapidly move from fledgling variety in the 1970s and 80s to a pinot planting boom in the late 1990s.

The past decade has been spent cementing its reputation. Vine maturity and confident winemaking has seen Martinborough on the North Island, and Nelson and North Canterbury on the South, carve out quite a niche.

Marlborough has the largest area of pinot noir production both for sparkling and still wine, but it’s Central Otago with its unique (continental) climate that enthrals consumers. Intense flavours meshed with a subregional diversity anchor Central Otago’s claim to fame. A serendipitous combination of extreme sports and dramatic snow-capped scenery only serves to add spice to the region’s superfine pinots.

Victorian pinot noir
Victoria holds the high ground when it comes to Australian pinot noir with the ‘dress circle’ of Melbourne at its heart. Take a loop north of Melbourne to the Macedon Ranges, then head clockwise east to Gippsland, then the Yarra Valley and on to the Mornington Peninsula. Hop across Port Phillip Bay to Queenscliff and continue up the Bellarine Peninsula to Geelong and you will have covered the key pinot regions of Victoria. Add in Beechworth, and it’s easy to understand Victoria’s parochial passion for pinot.

Victoria’s cool, benign climate is perfect for this capricious variety with Yarra pioneers such as Dr John Middleton at Mount Mary and Dr Bailey Carrodus at Yarra Yering kick-starting the pinot push back in the 1960s.

The 1970s saw Bannockburn planted in Geelong, and Phillip Jones take a risk planting vines in the cool, damp Gippsland region. Brian Stonier was an early champion of pinot noir on the Mornington Peninsula in the 1980s, with James Halliday moving from Sydney to plant pinot at Coldstream Hills in 1985.

These pioneers set the scene. The momentum is now building as Victoria’s pinot vines mature, new clones are planted and the experienced ‘old hands’ pass on their knowledge to a new generation. Victorian pinot is on a roll. Climb aboard and join the fun.

Tasmanian pinot noir
Look out Victoria, Tasmania is coming. The Apple Isle was renamed The Sparkling Isle a decade ago, based on its marvellous pinot noir and chardonnay based bubbles, but the new energy around Tasmania’s still pinot noir table wines may yet see it re-branded ‘The Pinot Isle’.

The volumes are minuscule (Tasmania produces less than one per cent of Australia’s wine), but the quality is top notch, led by winegrowers such as Stefano Lubiana celebrating a 30-year history with a swathe of awesome pinots. The fact that Steve and Monique Lubiana have bought the mature Panorama Vineyard in the Huon Valley tells of their faith in the future of Tasmanian pinot noir.

Tasmania is just one Geographical Indication (GI) without any defined subregions. However, there’s a distinct difference between the maritime-influenced areas to the north of Launceston – the Tamar Valley and the Pipers Brook/River area – and the drier vineyards on the east coast at Freycinet and Coles Bay.

Perhaps the most significant area for pinot production is closer to Hobart, in the rain shadow created by Mount Wellington. The Derwent Valley and Coal River Valley produce outstanding pinots with vines replacing apples in the Huon Valley. The excitement is palpable. Tasmanian pinot noir is on the move.

International pinot noir
Burgundy remains the benchmark for pinot noir – its highly categorised offerings both compelling and confusing. The entry level is bourgogne (blanc for chardonnay and rouge for pinot noir) made with grapes sourced across the tightly defined region. The next step up is the village appellation with popular names including Volnay, Nuits St Georges and Gevrey Chambertin.

Within each of these village appellations is the possibility of premier and grand cru ranking – special sites rated on a quality basis with prices that reflect elevated status.

Pinot noir pops up in other regions of France under its varietal name with most coming from the south western engine-room appellation of Languedoc-Roussillon.

Further afield, the Americas (north and south) have been bitten by the pinot bug. California and Oregon lead the way in the US with Chile the dominant producer in the south. Look out for pinot noir from Patagonia, the barren landscape to the south of Chile.

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