Pinot Noir rivalry across the ditch

Australia and New Zealand have long enjoyed a healthy sibling-esque rivalry. Whether it’s on the rugby field, pavlova plate or our film and TV screens, there’s no stopping the friendly ribbing that takes place between our sunny southern isles.

But over the past 10 years a contentious debate has arisen between the Alluns and Steves of the world – the serious subject of who makes a better bottle of Pinot Noir.

For both countries Pinot Noir is a fairly recent phenomenon, with the first commercial bottling of Pinot taking place in Australia in 1970 – and across the Tasman, in Martinborough, toward the end of the 1980s and early 90s.

But the question remains – who does it better?

To settle the score once and for all, Pinosity spoke to leading Aussie and Kiwi Pinot lovers for the truth behind the great divide…

The Master

In an article for Decanter in 2014, New Zealand: a Pinot Noir paradise, New Zealand based Master of Wine, Bob Campbell, said that over the past 30 years his home country’s Pinot Noir has gone from strength to strength, to become a serious player on the world stage.

In true fighting fashion, Bob told Pinosity the best way to settle the argument on whose Pinot Noir is of better quality, is by looking at the results from the Six Nations Wine Challenge.

“Both countries go head-to-head in a blind tasting. New Zealand has won the class 12 times and Australia, just once,” he said.

And he makes a good point.

The Six Nations Wine Challenge is no ordinary wine show. Perhaps ironically, launched as an initiative of the Association of Australian Boutique Winemakers in 2003, the best wines from the top six ‘new world’ wine producing countries – Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Chile, Argentina and the United States – are blind tasted by a panel made up of the leading wine writers from each country.

Bob, who incidentally represents New Zealand in the Challenge, said he finds that New Zealand Pinot Noir tends to be fruitier, whereas Australian wines tend to be spicier and possibly even more “austere”.

“Both countries have come a long way in the past decade,” Bob said. “Kiwi producers are tending to use higher percentages of whole bunches in the ferments now, which is giving their wines more structure, longevity and complexity.”

The Influencer

While Bob might think that New Zealand is on top of the world for Pinot production, leading Australian wine writer, Andrew Graham, of the Australian Wine Review, says Aussies are further ahead than their trans-Tasman friends in the great Pinot Noir contest.

“Australia has a wider breadth of Pinot Noir styles compared to New Zealand,” Andrew told Pinosity.

“In New Zealand there are only three main regions where Pinot Noir actually works – Central Otago, Martinborough and Marlborough – compared to Australia where we see everything from relatively ripe styles in the Hunter, to light and delicate styles in the Macedon Ranges.”

Just like Australia, Andrew said our neighbours across the Tasman have become a lot more serious about Pinot Noir over the past 10 years – but he feels they are still developing their Pinot industry.

“Before they started getting into Pinot Noir, Kiwis were driven by producing Sauvignon Blanc, so they’re still learning where the best Pinot sites are,” Andrew said.

And while he’s adamant that Aussies are doing better, Andrew believes there’s still room for improvement.

“One of the challenges with Pinot Noir is achieving delicacy. There are plenty of Australian Pinots that have lots of flavour – but they are more dry reds than delicate or beautiful Pinot Noirs,” he said.

“Fortunately, in the last couple of years we have seen that change quite a bit – we’re now seeing many more Pinots with that delicacy in Australia.

“Tasmania is at the forefront of exploring where to find ripe flavours, without being excessively heavy. Tassie is really at the pointy end of Australian Pinot.”

The Leader

Phil Handford, Managing Director of Grasshopper Rock winery, located in Central Otago, New Zealand, said Pinot Noir can be grown anywhere, but if the climate is too warm the wine can be confused with Syrah.

“New Zealand’s best examples are coming from the coolest sites and Australia’s best examples are equal to our best examples,” he said.

“I think New Zealand can more consistently produce excellent Pinot due to less climate variation from year to year.”

The Maker

But perhaps the most balanced perspective is from Peter Caldwell, Vigneron at Dalrymple Vineyards in Tasmania, who also produced wines in New Zealand from 1999-2007 at Te Kairanga Winery, Martinborough.

“In the late 90s – early noughties, New Zealand Pinot Noirs (especially in the Otago region) were driven by market trends in the USA as Americans loved rich Pinot with strong fruit characteristics,” Pete said.

“The local Otago winemakers had found a way to sell wine and make money – they were getting about USD$60 a bottle, which was extraordinary – the region was flourishing.”

Pete said while Otago was very much driven by the US market demand and investors, Martinborough, located 65 kilometres east of Wellington, saw the local vignerons take to wine making as a lifestyle choice, creating the wines they desired.

“They were producing – and still do produce – subtle and elegant wines, that are more restrained,” he said.

“Their Pinot Noir was more traditional – like the wines from Burgundy.

“Martinborough’s Ata Rangi Pinot Noirs won the Bouchard-Finlayson Trophy for Best Pinot Noir at the International Wine and Spirit Competition in London in 1995, and again in 1996 and 2001 – it’s a coveted award and recognised their wines on the world stage.”

But while he may be a little bias, Pete still believes Australian Pinot Noir traditionally has more flavour and greater texture and perfume, resulting in a more complex and elegant wine.

“Pinot Noir is certainly New Zealand’s red wine while in Australia we come from a long history of Shiraz and Cabernet,” he said.

“That’s now changed and it’s great to see that Pinot Noir is becoming the centre of attention in Australia.

“I expect there is enough room in most cellars for an Aussie and a NZ Pinot – just for argument’s sake!”