New Zealand’s Latest Red Releases: Growing Up


New Zealand turned up late to the wine party. It was a millennium behind the Greeks and Italians. Even in the context of the New World, New Zealand gave Argentina and Chile a 250-odd-year head start. Despite being slow off the mark, it’s finally rallied, picking up the pace since the turn of the century and taking its place in the leading pack. Its current crop of winemakers is writing its own history for wine at the bottom of the earth.

The Akitu vineyard was planted in 2002 and is a short drive from Lake Wanaka in Central Otago. Its 2021 Pinot Noirs may be the best yet.

Wine grapes have been grown on and off in New Zealand since a Yorkshire-born clergyman arrived with vines in 1819. When Romeo Bragato, a Croatian-born, Conegliano-trained viticulturist, toured the country in 1895, he reported that grapes could be grown successfully from the warm climes of Hawke’s Bay down to the Alpine conditions of Central Otago. He concluded that Black Hermitage (Syrah), Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Dolcetto and Pinot Noir would thrive alongside whites, including Riesling, Pinot Blanc, Tokay and White Hermitage. He discovered Pinot Noir in the Wairarapa, which comprises Martinborough. The region has enjoyed a renaissance and now deserves its position as one of the most prized areas for the variety. French-born wine writer André Simon would later take the journey to the southern hemisphere, visiting Te Mata in Hawke’s Bay in 1964 and tasting its 1912 red blend. “Remarkable, quite remarkable,” he said. “One would not have thought it would have kept this long. This really is quite good.” During the visit, winemaker Tom McDonald had the audacity to put his 1949 Cabernet Sauvignon against 1949 Château Margaux. Simon declared that the Cabernet was "rare and convincing proof that New Zealand can bring forth table wines of a very high standard of quality.”

However, New Zealand grape growing and winemaking staggered its way into the second half of the 20th century. When Simon visited the country, it had a taste for sweet, fortified wines. It was hardly a wine-friendly environment: restaurants had only been given the green light to serve wine with a meal four years earlier, pubs still closed their doors at 6pm, and at every general election, voters didn’t just choose a party and politician; they had the opportunity to state whether they wanted the country to go dry, a legacy of a losing vote on Prohibition in the same year as the US vote in favor: 1919. The nation was asked their opinion on temperance when they went to the polls until 1987.

In this abstemious landscape, it’s a wonder any wine was made. Thankfully, pioneering individuals swam against the tide. In 1973, the first vines of the modern era were planted in Marlborough. Martinborough followed in the late 1970s and Central Otago in the 1980s. While New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc made a splash in the UK in the mid-1980s, there were still only 10,000 hectares of vines covering the country’s vast rural landscape at the millennium. In the past 24 years, however, plantings have quadrupled. The mass of planning in the early noughties meant the countryside was adorned with young vines, typically creating simpler reds for earlier drinking. However, there are now plenty of 20-something vines and more senior, earlier plantings that impress far beyond simply being varietal. Red Burgundy lovers would be wise to pay attention to its Pinot Noirs, while northern Rhône fans could find a few new wines to add to their collection from Hawke’s Bay.

The country’s greatest success story also proves to be its Achilles heel: New Zealand’s international wine reputation has thus far been based on a fresh, fruity, early-drinking variety: Sauvignon Blanc. Yet the treatment of this variety by large retailers as a fast-moving consumer good has had a negative impact on perceptions of the country’s reds: if its whites should be supped immediately, so too should its reds. There’s no denying that plenty of quaffing, drink-young Pinot Noir is produced and priced for supermarket shelves, but that’s true of any wine region. However, focusing on that tranche of the country would mean missing the real story.

When I refer to growing up, it’s not only the vines but the grape growing and the winemaking. Time has brought better knowledge of sites, the nuances of their vineyards, and how they should be treated best. Fine-tuning is taking place across the country: at a sub-regional level, the improvements in Marlborough Pinot Noir have been exponential with the maturation of vineyards in the richer loams of the hillsides of the Southern Valleys versus the initial plantings on the free-draining, valley floors which provide fruity wines with little structure and depth. When it comes to fine-tuning on a micro-level, Felton Road is an exemplar, introducing PCR DNA technology to measure spores in their vines to predict the likelihood of mildew before it happens rather than after, leading to proactive rather than reactive behavior in the vineyard.

Experimentation in the winery and growing confidence to take their foot off the gas have created wines that no longer speak of the winemaker and the technical tricks they learned at university but a realization that less can be more. This hands-off approach, whether it’s an indigenous fermentation, a single punch-down per ferment, or older oak rather than new or larger format barrels, shows greater sensitivity to their wines, which can be felt in the increasingly refined textures emerging from the country’s reds.

New Zealanders are not fighting what nature gives them. In wine, as in life, one of the joys of getting older is accepting who you are and where you come from. The Southern Pacific climate provides vibrant fruit with its intense UV light and its diurnal temperature swings. For too long, fruit has been viewed negatively in wine despite being made from grapes. It is an integral part of the New Zealand style and should be celebrated. “Fruit is not a dirty word,” says Jen Parr of Valli in Central Otago. “We get fruit in spades. You can’t change your essence, so I celebrate this fruit purity, but I am also looking for non-fruit.” This natural abundance of pure fruit can also provide the drinker with an impression of sweetness, which isn’t unattractive. Still, there’s a growing realization that you don’t need to add more sweetness on top of nature’s bounty, and one way this can be achieved is by reducing the toast levels of the barrels used for maturation, which is a common trend.

However, in a country where wine culture is still taking root, relatively few restaurants possess noteworthy cellars and library stocks. And, with a population of just five million, the international market is imperative to this wine industry at the bottom of the earth: despite producing just 2% of the world’s wine, New Zealand is the sixth largest wine exporter by value, according to figures from the country’s wine association. Its Sauvignon Blanc flies off the shelf, but the cellars of London or Manhattan fine dining establishments hardly fall over themselves to collect and cellar New Zealand reds. In overseas restaurants, New Zealand red wines are drunk before they are close to their apogee. In a bid to show their wines at their best, a growing number of producers are developing late-release policies and library collections, particularly those wines destined for the on-trade. For example, Prophet’s Rock releases its Retrospect Pinot Noir five years after the vintage. When it was first launched, it had few peers, but it is slowly being joined by others who realize that their wines are consumed before reaching their true potential. In Marlborough, for example, Te Whare Ra has just released its 2019 Pinot Noir. Its co-owner and winemaker, Anna Flowerday, explains: “When you show them young, you can see what they are going to be, but everyone falls in love with it in the last six weeks of stock. Since Pinot Noir only makes up 20% of our production, our white and Rosé help our cashflow so we can hold back the Pinot Noir and release when it has some bottle age.”

Five years seems like a reasonable age to start taking the pulse of a bottle of a New Zealand Pinot Noir. Still, experience suggests that seven to 12 years allows the wines to develop additional layers of tertiary complexity, particularly since the wines develop more slowly under screwcap. This closure accounts for more than 90% of New Zealand’s bottled wines. However, the continually increasing vineyard age and the evolution in vineyard management and winemaking practices means there is no historical precedent to base drinking windows. You might compare the 2022 vintage in Central Otago with 2014 or 2012, which some of the region’s winemakers reference, but the vineyards, as do its personnel, have another decade’s worth of maturity. Bordeaux and Burgundy critics can refer to 1945, 1982 and 2003. Still, New Zealanders can only look back 10 or 15 years at the most to find references to contextualize the vintages that arrive. Educated guesswork is our best friend, but if you want to do your homework, it’s not difficult to find older vintages of New Zealand reds, particularly Syrah and Bordeaux blends, without paying a premium since they are sadly – and unfairly – not as coveted as its Sauvignon Blanc or Pinot Noir and thus take longer to sell through, giving you the benefit of bottle age without the storage headache.

Red wines remain a small part of the New Zealand wine scene, but they are vital to fulfilling the country’s desire to be taken seriously as a producer of fine wines that age gracefully. The vines have matured, and winemaking has become increasingly refined, but one thing is for sure: New Zealand’s winemakers remain young at heart with their youthful outlook, curious nature and flamboyant shirts.

2022 Vintage – Pinot Noir

After the pandemic, New Zealand’s borders remained closed to the world until August 2022. The rest of the world’s population had removed its facemask and taken off on international flights, but Kiwis stayed in South Pacific isolation. The highways were no longer congested by camper-van-hiring Europeans, but they were sorely missed as harvest approached. In Marlborough alone, the country’s main winemaking region, more than 1,000 extra staff are required at harvest, and they traditionally come from overseas, fresh from completing a winemaking degree or previous cellar hand experience. In 2022, the borders were closed, and those international workers stuck in New Zealand in 2021 had gone home. It left wineries begging and borrowing local staff and using inexperienced hands where they could get them. As if that wasn’t enough of a headache, the Omicron variant of the coronavirus reared its ugly head, forcing people to isolate with the total number of COVID cases reaching over one million by May, equivalent to one in five New Zealanders, including the-then Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and the country’s COVID-19 Response Minister.


The region’s wine producers won’t thank me for this, but I wouldn’t hurry out and buy 2022 Pinot Noir from Marlborough. In fact, I’d sit it out. The aim of wine is to provide pleasure, and in many cases, that’s sadly lacking. The wines are very pale with some premature orange hues. The season produced large berries – a result of the second wettest February the region has seen in more than 90 years – and that’s partly responsible for the lack of color. What’s more, there’s an austerity to these wines with firm acidity that highlights the tannins, giving them an edginess. During the harvest month of March, drier conditions prevailed, but humidity and a lack of sunshine created the perfect environment for fungal diseases to thrive, which meant picking decisions weren’t based on ripeness but on the health of the fruit. There were other factors that have impacted the final style and quality of the 2022 reds. According to the Marlborough Vineyard Report for the vintage: “With labor shortages, high disease pressure, a large crop and risk of COVID-19 infections reducing the already limited number of available vintage staff, harvest was commenced early and at lower brix levels than usual, to ensure all fruit could be harvested. Many receivers applied concessions on ripeness criteria.” Coming off the back of a tiny but small-berried harvest in 2021, it was a relief to have a bigger crop, but when it comes to fine wine, 2021’s small yields have created much more complexity and depth. There’s a stark difference in color, intensity and tannin between the consecutive seasons. Drink the 2022s early and leave the 2021s in bottle.

Veraison takes place in an organic vineyard in Martinborough.


Heading across the Cook Strait to Martinborough, home to the likes of Ata Rangi, Dry River, and Kusuda, 2022 was “the most challenging vintage I have ever worked,” according to Escarpment’s winemaker Tim Bourne. Following a good flowering, leading to much-improved yields compared with the paltry crop of 2021, there was reason for optimism. But it all turned to custard in February when 280mm of rain fell on the vineyards compared with just 26mm the previous year. It was caused by ex-tropical cyclone Dovi that swept across New Zealand’s north island between 9 and 14 February and caused widespread flooding and damage. The overcast weather that followed didn't promote ripeness but encouraged fungal disease. Picking had to be quick and highly selective. It’s no surprise, based on the conditions, that the Pinot Noirs are a contrast to the deep, dark, tannic expressions of 2021. Color is generally pale, although some used the saignée method, bleeding off some liquid to concentrate the wine’s hue. Whole bunch percentages fell to avoid green flavors and chewy tannin, although that’s not always been successful. Meanwhile, several single vineyard cuvées have not been produced with fruit declassified to lower-grade wines. There are some good, softer-styled wines, but it is far from a highly recommended vintage and should be consumed before the 2021s.

Central Otago

While the rest of the country battled downpours and humidity, Central Otago sat in blissful isolation, sheltered from the remnants of cyclone Dovi. It did have an early February downpour, but the season was far more benign than elsewhere, with the classic diurnal variation in the month leading up to harvest, maximizing flavor ripeness while retaining freshness. The wines are tender and open, fully ripe but not jammy. They are not big on volume, unlike 2021, for example, but they have the essence and go about their business in a quiet, assured style. While some of the leading producers are yet to release their 2022s due to variations in release policies across the region, the jury is still out; I think this might be a vintage that is initially overlooked because it is more subtle, but it will prove to be very attractive towards the end of the decade.

Hawke’s Bay

Moving away from Pinot Noir to Syrah and Bordeaux blends produced in the more temperate climes of Hawke’s Bay, it’s still a little early for the 2022s to hit my tasting table. When they start to roll out, the procession of bottles will be a trickle rather than a flood, with many of the top wines either not being made – such as La Collina Syrah – or made in such small quantities that they will be difficult to obtain. Never fear! The 2021 vintage is an absolute cracker, and based on the challenging conditions of both 2022 and 2023, you won’t regret stocking up. The slightly warmer and drier-than-average 2021 season led to ripe, concentrated, small berries, resulting in rich, intense wines. The dry autumn allowed picking decisions based on ripeness rather than the weather forecast. What’s most appetizing about these wines is that they remain fresh and precise despite their evident readiness. The 2021 vintage marks a trio of superb vintages for this East Coast region, with the best having long aging ability.

I tasted the wines in this report at several New Zealand Winegrower tastings in London and in my office.

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