The Best Pinot Noir's in New Zealand 2023

, from Issue #109. May 05, 2023
The Best Pinot Noir's in New Zealand 2023

It’s New Zealand’s most important red grape and our experts sipped through a smorgasbord of styles to find the greatest tasting examples for you to try this winter. 

When we hosted our first-ever dish pinot noir panel 11 years ago it was for this very issue. Winter was creeping in, crockpots were being dusted off and electric blankets checked for dodgy wiring. Deer and duck were appearing on menus across the motu and daylight savings was a distant memory. Like now, it was well and truly pinot time. Time to slake our thirst for that beguiling mix of red fruits, exotic spices, lush, slippery textures and eyes-to-the-sky enjoyment of one of the hardest wines to describe, and one of the trickiest grapes to grow. But boy are we growing it! At almost 6,000ha it’s our second-most planted grape and every year our medal tally at international competitions keeps increasing. So judging by the whopping 23 gold medals awarded in this contest, we’re clearly mastering it. Our two first-equal wines were both from Martinborough, one of three sub-regions of the Wairarapa which contributes just a tiny percentage of the nations’ annual grape crush. They were also $60-odd a bottle. Clearly, gold medal examples of the ‘heartbreak grape’ are going to cost you, yet two of our top-ranked wines did weigh in under $30 so they represent outstanding value. 

It might surprise younger fans that pinot also has a bit of Gen Z energy. “The first Kiwi pinot of any note that I tried would have been Danny Schuster’s 1982 St Helena from North Canterbury,” said judge John Hancock of the first award-winning pinot noir from New Zealand. “It was a great step forward for local pinot, winning awards and recognition for Danny, one of our real industry visionaries.” Yet due to it being notoriously finicky to grow and make, it took a long time for Kiwis to wake to its charms. 

“I didn’t start drinking it until I started making it,” added Ant Mackenzie, “and that was in 1997!” Nowadays pinot noir is grown across the land, but there are key differences in those from our key regions and they were all on show during our tasting. “Martinborough and the Wairarapa pinot is often broader on the palate, more savoury and earthy while Central Otago is intensely pure-fruited – more linear with a supporting backbone of acidity,” explains judge Michael Henley MW. “Marlborough can be a number of different things depending on where in the valleys it’s grown, while North Canterbury is the interesting, forgotten region.” 

Almost half our gold medal winners came from the 2021 vintage, “with very few exceptions the 2021s showed incredible concentration, balance and drinkability,” noted Ant, but 2020 and 2019 wines had some strong contenders. That we had a whopping 115 entries from across the country is a great sign, and the outlook for our most important red grape is super-positive. 

“Where pinot is being planted is becoming more defined and subsequently the wines are becoming more distinctive,” said John. “Consumers are now more demanding and discerning, which is great.” “Different styles are also starting to develop and emerge,” added Mike, “like the use of whole bunches, less oak in most cases, and the ability for the site to come through is all improving.” 

One thing our judges did note in some wines which didn’t score so highly was too much ‘chew’. “I’m always questioning the appropriateness of tannin in pinot noir. I much prefer seeing softly-textured pinot noir and there’s no need for overly extracted tannin now that most producers use screwcaps.” 

Post-tasting, I asked our judges if they have a perfect ‘pinot moment’? “I’ll drink pinot noir any time the taste for it strikes me, because it’s bloody hard to make – so every grape that makes it into the bottle should be celebrated.” Right now, Mike’s pairing his pinot noir with some perfect television. “I’m loving 1923 (the Yellowstone prequel) and pinot suits that mood.” Whereas it’s a feast of classic, spit-roast pork “with heaps of crackling and cranberry sauce” for Hancock. And any advice to pinot noir newcomers? 

“Don’t compare pinot noir to other red wines,” urges Ant. “Appreciate it for its amazing aromatic spectrum and easy drinkability.” It’s also not possible to make great pinot noir cheaply, adds John: “So don’t just pick any old pinot off a supermarket shelf thinking it’s going to be amazing. Trust the recommendations from our best wine critics and competitions.” “Take your time with pinot and have patience,” added Mike. “Not every pinot will give you what you’re after, but when it does you’ll know it.” And with that, welcome to our gold medal winners... 

1. Palliser Estate Martinborough Pinot Noir 2021 ($62) - Gold Medal and Top of the Tasting

With its lush, plush, incredibly inviting aromatics, flavours and textures, our judges unanimously agreed the Palliser team had done an excellent job of capturing the classic florals and cherry intensity that you expect in great Martinborough pinot noir. Awash with spice and lifted hints of black tea and rhubarb, it’s refreshing and lithe with a gentle, slippery finish. 

2. Decibel Wines Testify Martinborough Pinot Noir 2019 ($65) – Gold Meal and Top of the Tasting

“Dense, dark, funky and earthy with a sweet, silky palate and supple tannins,” said Ant, and Mike agreed, adding that its smoky masculinity and power really packs a punch and makes it instantly impressive, while its “lovely dark plum, cherry and cassis intensity and velvety textures” had John at the first sip. An excellent example.

3. Peregrine Central Otago Pinot Noir 2020 ($50) – Gold Medal 

Bursting with baking spices, red fruits and rich, lush tannins, this made an immediate impression on Ant, and John was wowed with its black-fruited perfume and attractively furry tannins. “A very well-made wine with cherry intensity and beautiful oak integration,” added Mike. A superbly supple and stylish Central Otago pinot.

4. Nga Waka Martinborough Pinot Noir 2020 ($40) – Gold Medal 

John was impressed with the mouth-filling generosity of this wine and Mike agreed, adding it had delicious dark-fruited intensity and textural poise. With soothing spices, cranberry complexity, and forest floor lushness on the finish, it’s a stunning thing to sip.

5. Hunter’s Marlborough Pinot Noir 202 ($28) – Gold Medal 

Yvonne was instantly wowed by it’s incredibly aromatic layers of cocoa, dried herbs and raspberry, while John and Ant also both leaned toward its lovely savoury richness, hints of caramel and mocha and its long, chalky finish. Complex and concentrated.

6. Three Miners Vineyard Warden’s Court Central Otago Pinot Noir 2021 ($42) – Gold Medal 

Wow! This is an absolutely stunning wine. Ant, Mike and John all felt it roared with ripe red fruits and hints of spruce and tar which gave it savoury, smoky complexity and Yvonne added that it erupts with black forest gateaux goodness, intense fruit concentration and unputdownability. An energetic and excellent example. 

7. Marisco The King’s Wrath Marlborough Pinot Noir 2021 ($28) – Gold Medal 

Mike immediately jumped on its cleansing, pure, finesse and fruit intensity while John felt it had amazing depth and a lovely lacing of oak. Ant enjoyed its tannins and spice. Juicy, cherry-stacked and seriously smooth, it has savoury notes, soft spices, and redcurrant characters that bring confidence in every sip. 

8. Driven Snow Bendigo Central Otago Pinot Noir 2021 ($39) – Gold Medal 

A really exciting style erupting with black tea, rhubarb and cherry, it also has a soothing, slightly smoky tone and a vein of perfectly prickly textures to finish. “It’s lush and lovely,” added Yvonne. Notes of sweet red fruits, dried herbs and grippy tannins impressed our team. 

9. URLAR The Mediator Gladstone Pinot Noir 2020 ($32) – Gold Medal 

With its soft, creamy vanilla and exotically- perfumed spice layers complementing bright red fruits, it immediately impressed John and Ant, while Mike loved its savoury, meaty notes. A seam of exotic, gamey spices, a cushion of cocoa, lacy acidity and long tassels of taut tannins make this a dreamy thing to drink. 

10. Black Estate Netherwood North Canterbury Pinot Noir 2020 ($75) – Gold Medal 

This wild and woolly pinot boasts a sneaky seam of shiitake mushroom, soy and black pepper amongst herbal and cocoa characters. “Dense, savoury and not overly ‘worked’,” added Ant, while Mike loved its herbal edge and grippy tannins. The acidity is fresh and followed by a burst of tamarillo, black tea, and sweet berries on the finish. 

11. 7th Heaven Bannockburn Central Otago Pinot Noir 2017 ($36) – Gold Medal 

“Huge!” said John. Ant and Mike agreed, both also commenting on its rich masculinity and dark fruit saturation. Yvonne loved the tension between the cranberry, redcurrant and cherry alongside berry tea notes, adding its vibrant, clean, maturing beautifully and commanding respect. 

12. Giesen Single Vineyard Clayvin Marlborough Pinot Noir 019 ($56) – Gold Medal 

Dark berry and cherry aromatics merged with soft baking spices, delicious oak notes and supple tannins impressed Ant, while Mike loved its lacing of liquorice and John its fullness, generosity and incredible freshness. “Great energy and red fruit complexity, it’s superb,” noted Yvonne. 

13. Takapoto Estate “The Blend” Central Otago Pinot Noir 2019 ($44) – Gold Medal 

Boasting bay, wild thyme, cherry and black guava, super-fresh acidity and heady concentration, one word was written across all our judges’ notes – “intense”. Attractive vanilla and savoury, smoky layers flesh out the finish and add finesse. 

14. The Boneline Waimanu Waipara Pinot Noir 2022 ($55) – Gold Medal 

For a brand new wine to exhibit such immense flavour saturation was such a delight for our judges. “Very pretty and beautifully balanced,” noted Ant, “it has luscious red fruits, richness and a savoury edge.” Silky and plush, with a lick of leather and lithe, elastic tannins, it’s a very very exciting pinot. 

15. Church Road Grand Reserve Central Otago Pinot Noir 2021 ($40) – Gold Medal 

“I really love this wine,” wrote Mike, right upfront. “Fine tannins, savoury, earthy complexity and great length,” followed. With exotic aromas of spice, potpourri, pomegranate, earthy oak, cherry ripe chocolate bars and a thyme-laced edge to the finish, it’s a wine with personality. John agreed. 

16. Nautilus Clay Hills Vineyard Marlborough Pinot Noir 2019 ($68) – Gold Medal 

Imagine aromas of cherries and rosehips falling on the forest floor alongside fresh spice and wild rhubarb flavours. Ant enjoyed its hints of mocha and Mike felt it was developing nicely with delicious, brooding complexity. Earthy, leather-licked layers add to its lithe, chewy finish. 

17. Cherry Block Central Otago Pinot Noir 2019 ($23) – Gold Medal and Best Buy 

A skillfully crafted, cherry-crammed pinot with plum, cherry, anise, cola, juniper and dried herbs that instantly wowed our judges. “Richly structured, pure, earthy and rich,” noted Ant, while John and Mike were impressed with its fine-grained, grippy tannins and sweet oak saturation. Very delicious drinking.

18. Colere Fractal Marlborough Pinot Noir 2020 ($60) – Gold Medal 

Classically cloudy from not being fined or filtered, this organically grown tamarillo-scented pinot boasts pure, uninhibited roast rhubarb flavours that are restless and looking to dance. Expertly handled astringency lurks on the insides of your upper lip through fine-grained, grippy tannins. For the adventurous. 

19. Black Estate Home North Canterbury Pinot Noir 2020 ($45) – Gold Medal 

This funky, smoke-scented, organically grown pinot is drenched in dried herbs, pepper, tree bark, soy and soft leather layers. It’s plump, smooth and the tannins are stretchy and have a gorgeously grainy texture. “Big, bold and savoury,” added Ant, and Mike felt it was beautifully balanced. 

20. Hunter’s Offshoot Marlborough Pinot Noir 2020 ($34) – Gold Medal 

“Someone definitely knew what they were doing when this wine was being made,” commented John. Ant agreed, adding he loved its plush, silky textures, warm baking spice layers and generous finish. “Nicely poised, with great concentration and the finesse is amazing!” commented Mike. “I love this style!” So there you have it. Unanimous gold medal from our judges. 

21. Nga Waka Lease Block Martinborough Pinot Noir 2021 ($55) – Gold Medal 

Nga Waka have created a very friendly, spicy, gently textural pinot with complex notes of black tea, cherry and baked raspberry, and chewy tannins up the wazoo. “Luscious floral and berry aromas, silky and beautifully balanced,” added Yvonne. “It’s a juicy wine with marathon-like length of flavour.” 

22. Wairau River Reserve Marlborough Pinot Noir 2021 ($40) – Gold Medal 

Bright, fresh and fully focused, this pinot boasts classic notes of hedgerow fruits and blackberry, as well as great spice saturation. “Ultra- aromatic,” said Yvonne. “Delicate yet flavour-stacked and elegantly styled, I love it!” Ant was impressed with its light, liquorice notes and linear, pure palate. “Very very good!”