Questioning the price of Pinot Noir

Pinot Noir is New Zealand’s most widely planted red grape variety, but why do we always have to pay a high price for the decent stuff?

There is cheap pinot available from NZ and elsewhere, but it’s usually instantly forgettable. While it lags behind only Sauvignon Blanc in New Zealand plantings, which accounts for over 50% of national vineyard coverage, pinot only has a share of around 15%.

Not only that, producers of fine Pinot Noir will only harvest 4-5 tonnes of fruit per hectare. Okay, that might mean nothing to you and me, until you hear that double that will be harvested from the higher yielding Sauvignon Blanc vines. So now you start to get a picture of why there is a premium to pay.

In this post, I run through the stages of Pinot Noir production, from vine to bottling. This provides a better insight again of why pinot attracts the premium it does. From intensive vineyard management to expensive oak barrels, the most noble of all red grape varieties gets the most tender love and care because it simply doesn’t work without it. As Miles also points out in the attached video from the 2004 movie Sideways.

Find the right site

Of the most traditional varieties, pinot is the fussiest of them all. It won’t grow just anywhere. Free draining soils with low fertility are the hallmarks of the best sites. Low rainfall is another key characteristic, and the right amount of heat and sunlight are required to ripen the fruit to perfection. In California and Australia, it’s all about finding cool climate sites. In New Zealand and Burgundy, it’s about finding micro-climate hot spots. And just to be extra fussy, pinot needs adequate protection from frost and wind.

Choose the clone & root stock

Without getting too technical, winemakers have quite a broad choice of Pinot Noir clones to use in their vineyard. This is important because they will each have different characteristics, so you can tailor your choice for the particular plot you wish to use. Many of these clones are just numbers, for example 10/5 clone is a late ripener so it will do well in the warm years, or in the vineyards in warmer climates.

To complicate things further, some vines may not perform as well as they could in some soils because their rootstock in unsuited. Grafting vines to American rootstock has become the standard method to make them more resistant to phylloxera. Again there’s plenty of choice.

Canopy management

Leaf plucking gives sunlight more direct access to the fruit, aiding ripening, but the most critical thing is yield management. If the yield is not controlled, you’ll lose concentration, tannin ripeness, colour and aromatics, so clusters of grapes are removed early to allow the vine to concentrate on what it has left.

When to pick

New Zealand has the advantage of relatively settled autumns, therefore harvest gets underway when the ripeness is just right, as opposed to when the weather feels like behaving. The fruit is tasted and the skins and seeds tested for flavour. As the skins are thin, the seeds provide most of the tannins. High brix (sugar) levels can lead to high alcohol, so some like to trim the leaves on the vines, which in turn restricts sugar development within the fruit.

Sorting the harvested fruit

The harvested fruit is brought to the winery where the unwanted grapes and branches are thrown away from the sorting table. Some wineries go with ‘whole bunch fermentation’, with ripe stems providing structural elegance and long, fine tannins. Many, however, prefer to destem, especially in cooler years when the stems are under-ripe and bring too much of a greenness to the wine.

Cold soak & fermentation

The fruit goes into vats cold enough to hold off fermentation (8-10 degrees C). This lasts up to 10 days, with sporadic plunging to bring out the fruity flavours and dense colour. The cold soak also helps smooth out any harsh tannins. Fermentation can be started by raising the temperature and allowing indigenous yeasts to transform the grape sugar into alcohol. Otherwise, cultivated yeasts can be used to inoculate the must. Ferment usually lasts between 5 and 12 days, the hotter it is the bigger and richer the resulting wine will be.

Oak treatment

After around a month in stainless steel tanks (in contact with skins), by which stage it can be called wine, most winemakers will transfer the pressed liquid into expensive oak barrels. Like the terroir, or the use of indigenous yeast, the type of oak used can bring a real individual character to the wine. French and American oak, and depending from whereabouts within those regions, will bring different flavours. To add more variation, coopers within each region can influence how ‘toasty’ their barrels will make a wine, as the inside of the barrel is charred to varying degrees. New Zealand winemakers tend not to put 100% of the wine into new oak, as they might in Burgundy. It is feared that the light, delicate style might be out-muscled by too much oak.

Clarification & bottling

Once malolactic fermentation has occured (either naturally or manually), which helps softens the wine by transforming tart malic acid into the softer lactic acid, the wine is removed from barrel and fined, using egg whites or milk, to remove any remaining free radicles and help further soften any harsh tannins. Filtering brightens the fruit characters of the wine, but can lower life expectancy. The best pinot is unfiltered, resulting in a more grubby, characterful, textured wine. Most NZ producers today prefer to bottle with screwcap, the best and most reliable closure available today.

To see our range from New Zealand, with 20% off until the end of October, click here.

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