At the New Zealand Consulate in Brentwood last week there was a wine tasting of that country's pinot noir. There were just 18 wines in the seminar, curated by British Master of Wine Tim Atkin; and yet this amounted to a quietly nuanced performance, demonstrating the strides that country has made with the heartbreak grape.
New Zealand pinot noir is relatively new to the American market, and what's here often feels obscured from view beneath the wave after wave of sauvignon blanc that inundates the market, the herbaceous white that is, for better or worse, that country's largest export wine by far. This simple bracing white which Atkin described variously "a bungee jump into a gooseberry patch" and, more simply, "bitch diesel," is not without its pleasures, despite the fact that it much of it more or less tastes the same.
That cannot be said about New Zealand pinot, however. Rarely in the world has so peripatetic a grape been so well-matched to such a peripatetic place, a place where the alpine communes with the ocean, where continental and coastal influences coexist, where extremes of sun, cold and wind are everyday occurrences. Climate and soil speak with unrelenting clarity in New Zealand pinot noir.
In this market, most of pinot noirs you'll find come from one of four subregions: Martinborough, Marlborough, Waipara, and Central Otago. The best known of these are Marlborough and Central Otago, both on the south island and both dramatic in their fruit expression. Marlborough receives blasts of ocean winds from its northerly position on the south island, hard by Cook's Strait and the Tasman Bay; Central Otago is more continental, set virtually in the shadow of spectacular Southern Alps.
This is the more extreme place, and the wines show it: a dark red fruit medley with elements of smoke and herb, an intensity marked not so much like depth as persistence and focus. The Marlborough wines are prettier but no less complex, scents of fruit blossom and forest floor accents, a silky texture carrying a red fruit core that seems to have been delivered with a gale-force breeze. Both places -- indeed, all places -- deliver such clean lines and purity of fruit they'll make most California wines seem more like a puddle than a stream.
5 Pinot Producers from Central Otago to Drink Now: Peregrine, Rippon, Felton Road, Mt Difficulty, Wild Rock.
5 Pinot Producers from Marlborough to Drink Now: Villa Maria, Seresin, Cairnbrae, Fromm, Spy Valley.
A good selection of New Zealand Pinot Noir can be found at Hi-Time Wine Cellars, Costa Mesa, (949) 650-8463 www.hitimewine.net; The Wine House, 2311 Cotner Ave., Los Angeles, (310) 479-3731, www.winehouse.com; Woodland Hills Wine Company in Woodland Hills, (818) 222-1111, www.whwc.com; and K&L Wine Merchants, 1400 Vine St., Los Angeles, (323) 464-9463, www.klwines.com.