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John Shearlock reports from the Pinot Noir NZ 2013 conference

Published:  05 February, 2013

John Shearlock from the Drinking Well heads to New Zealand to uncover the world-class Pinots on show at the Pinot Noir NZ 2013 conference.

John Shearlock from the Drinking Well heads to New Zealand to uncover the world-class Pinots on show at the Pinot Noir NZ 2013 conference.

As I stood on the Wellington waterfront in shorts and a T-shirt, basking under the cloudless sky in temperatures of around 28°C, the snow-laden grey of London seemed a dream-like distant memory. The doors to the public tasting of Pinot Noir NZ 2013 were about to open on no less than 110 producers, and as I wiped the Pavlovian drool from the side of my mouth, I pondered whether my flight from London had actually crashed, and I had died and gone to heaven.

Started in 2001 when the number of hectares under Pinot was considerably smaller, the fifth triennial Pinot Noir Festival is testament to the rise of Pinot in this small yet perfectly formed country, and the development of a strengthened brand identity that is now recognised and admired throughout the wine world. As a showcase, it runs over four days, attracting world-renowned winemakers and commentators, challenging a "fresh thinking" approach to the innovation and developments in New Zealand's five predominant Pinot-producing regions.

New Zealand Pinot is very much on the up, and although it may never prize the coveted crown of New Zealand's national wine from the hands of Sauvignon Blanc, that's never been Pinot's thing. It's a mystery, an enigma, in the same way that Burgundy thrives playing second fiddle to Bordeaux, New Zealand Pinot thrives as the club for those in the know, and with an exclusive joining fee in many cases.

Most winemakers were showing their 2009, 2010 and 2011 vintages, which in many cases were strikingly different and provided fabulous contrast. The 2010's were the standouts; a cool vintage that came good towards its conclusion, allowing for racy acidity but also expressive fruit and ripe tannins. This variation was strengthened further by the trend of separate bottling from different vineyard sites and sub-regions. This is canny stuff; there's a flavour profile for everyone and improved consistency through an increased likelihood of one plot thriving in the vintage.

Valli, based in Otago and made by the legendary winemaker Grant Taylor, epitomises this approach. Elegance and complexity from the schist-based cooler-climate Gibbston Valley, opulence and body from the warmer Cromwell Basin and leaner minerality from the lesser-known limestone of Waitaki, also known as North Otago. The latter appealing to the European or perhaps Japanese Burgundophile and the former showing a rich New World typicity. Magical stuff.

There seemed a collective respect among the winemakers towards the inherent personality of Pinot, with many a claim that the Pinot they made was a simple equation of soil, climate and grape, with little manmade design on profile. This modest philosophy, that the wine simply makes itself, is nowhere better displayed than by Pyramid Valley based in Waipara. Biodynamic from inception, its approach is almost natural in style; minimal sulphur, natural yeast cultured from the vineyard, natural malolactic, minimal new oak interference, racking without fining or filtration, tiny yields and 100% hand destemming. This all comes at a price, but the results are worth it.

So it would seem a minimalist approach to intervention is pushing experimentation in the vineyard, which is promoted further by the absence of appellation rules as in most of Europe. This, in turn, is causing a diversity of styles within regions, making it harder to pinpoint strict regional identities. Marlborough is the perfect example - lean Pinot from its alluvial soils versus structured Pinot from its clay. I don't think this trend is a bad thing, New Zealand Pinot currently has a vibrancy and life not found in many other national wine styles.

However, it's not all plain sailing. Considerable headwinds from the overvalued New Zealand dollar are causing a headache for all but those at the very top end. For some, the UK is currently a loss leader and keeping it open is simply about retaining market share. The only positive for New Zealand winemakers on this front is the potential for cheaper French oak, but as one Marlborough producer pointed out, suppliers have simply put prices up, mitigating any benefit from the exchange rate.

The winemakers were an exceedingly accommodating and passionate bunch, and I left the tasting a contented man, with a generous smile plastered across my face that had been encouraged further by a distinct paucity of spittoons. Of what my taste buds got to tangle with, I thoroughly enjoyed Framingham, Julicher, Clos Marguerite, Valli, Felton Road and Pyramid Valley - but there were simply too many wines and not enough time to do all the producers justice. Having moved to New Zealand, with a tour of its wine regions starting imminently, I can rest assured that my hunt for the perfect Pinot has only just begun. Watch this space.

To find out more about the Drinking Well check out its website here.