While old world winemakers and connoisseurs might still see Australian Pinot Noir as the bratty little sister who always steals your makeup, or New Zealand Pinot as the dorky teenager whose just had her braces taken off – the winemakers who first planted Pinot Noir grapes in the Southern Hemisphere have a different view.
Once the ‘young guns’ of the Australian and New Zealand wine industries, now greying with the challenges they’ve faced over the past two decades, these trailblazers say their Pinots are now coming of age – like sprightly university graduates, armed with just enough wisdom and youthful enthusiasm to take over the world.
Clive Jones, winemaker at Nautilus Estate, is just one of the pioneers who got serious about Pinot Noir in the Marlborough region in the late 90s, and admits that while it’s been a challenging process, New Zealand Pinots are now looking better than ever.
Starting on Sauvignon Blanc and Bordeaux-style blends at Selaks Wines in the early 90s, Clive was involved in constructing a custom made Pinot Noir winery at Nautilus – a learning curve which he admits was about as steep as Auckland’s Liverpool Street.
“When I joined Nautilus in August 1998, there was a distinct focus on moving toward making Pinot Noir – the only problem was I’d never made Pinot before, so it was a bit of a challenge to say the least.”
After taking on a vintage in Oregon in 1999 Clive returned to New Zealand with a renewed understanding of the Pinot Noir making process.
But it was New Zealand’s own Southern Pinot Workshop in Marlborough that really ramped up Clive’s knowledge of the great grape.
“The Southern Pinot Workshop was an invaluable resource for me in those early days. It’s a winemakers workshop open to anyone making New Zealand Pinot Noir,” he said.
“You basically take along your current barrel samples to be critiqued by your peers – who at the time included the young guns of Central Otago and the old hands from Martinborough. They were all there to share their knowledge, trials, tribulations and lessons learnt the hard way.
“It’s been a really important tool in the New Zealand wine industry – it’s a very open forum and gets everybody up to speed quickly.”
Following his Northern and Southern Pinot education, Clive jumped into creating a custom Pinot cellar for Nautilus – the first of its kind in the Marlborough region. “We built the Pinot cellar in early 2000 to gear up to making a commercial quantity of Pinot,” Clive said. “It brought with it the need to streamline our processes to ensure quantity didn’t get in the way of quality.
“I firmly believe that the more you thrash Pinot around the less like Pinot it becomes – it’s about treating the fruit as gently as possible and the subsequent wine as well.
“Because of this the cellar was constructed to avoid pumping where possible by using gravity flow. This was a major challenge in the beginning because our winery is on a flat site, so we employed the use of gentle peristaltic pumps where gravity wasn’t an option.”
And while the cellar is no longer unique, Clive said a number of long-term goals have now been achieved over the past 16 years, as a result of this early preparation.
“We’ve come a long way in a relatively short period of time,” he said. “We’re now making premium New Zealand Pinot Noir that we can be really proud of, we have the right clones planted on the right sites and a lot of those sites have now had 15 years of vine age.
“From a winemaking point of view, we’re really coming of age and seeing a difference in what we’re producing as a result.
“In the early days with young fruit, the wines were often propped up with oak, but now with a bit of maturity on our vines, we’re getting a lot more structure from the fruit itself, and the oak is falling back into more of a supporting role.”
Clive admits he’ll never stop learning, which means the best vintage is often his most recent.
“We’re constantly trying new things, like incorporating a whole bunch component into our ferments, as a way of adding layers of complexity to the blend,” he said.
“It’s been nice to see the evolution – we’ve made significant steps each year, so the combination of that and vine age, as well as learning how to react to different harvests and seasons as they come along, means we’re now producing Pinot we can be really proud of.”