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Extolling the exasperating Pinot Noir
By John H. Isacs

THE first love of wine aficionados is seldom Pinot Noir. Like many of the gourmet world's greatest treats, this delicate and difficult grape tends to be an acquired taste as one's palate develops.

While Burgundy is still the unquestioned motherland of Pinot Noir, making some of the most sought-after and expensive red wines, a growing number of precocious New World producers are starting to uncover the secrets of making excellent Pinots. While fans of Pacific Northwest Pinot Noirs may beg to differ, a case can made that the most exciting New World Pinot Noirs are coming from New Zealand.

This difficult-to-cultivate grape also has an exceedingly complicated and mysterious history. The family of similarly named grapes that include Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Teinturier and others all have identical or nearly identical DNA profiles, but which grape came first has spawned a debate similar to the perplexing issue of the chicken and the egg.

What we do know is that Pinot Noir was mentioned in Roman documents dating back to AD 1 and over the centuries the Romans, medieval monks and more modern winemakers have evolved their skills and understanding of this perplexing grape.

Pinot Noir is quite prone to mutation and there are over 50 recognized clones in France and more than likely many undocumented clones elsewhere. Different clones make wines with a diversity of styles and the slightest variances in soil, climate and winemaking also have profound effects on the style and qualities of the resulting wine. Add it all up, and this is one exasperating variety, but when done right, it results in some of the world's greatest wines.

Pinot Noir is now New Zealand's second most-planted variety after the ubiquitous Sauvignon Blanc that helped bring New Zealand winemaking to global prominence. With the exception of the most northern regions on the North Island, Pinot Noir is an important grape in several of New Zealand's leading wine regions.

Ideal for cultivation

Each region in New Zealand is of course different, but in general the combination of ample sun, dry and cool climates with large day and night temperature differentials that results in long growing seasons makes several New Zealand regions ideal for cultivating Pinot Noir.

Marlborough is New Zealand's most important wine region and Sauvignon Blanc comprises nearly 80 percent of plantings, according to the 2012 New Zealand Winegrowers Vineyard Register Report. A distant, yet important second is Pinot Noir with about 10 percent of plantings.

Typical characteristics of Marlborough Pinots are deep cherry and plum aromas and flavors with hints of spice. Some of my favorite Marlborough Pinot Noir producers with wines readily available in Shanghai are Spy Valley, Forrest Estates, Highfield and Kim Crawford.

The new, or relatively new, star in making Pinots is Central Otago. This is the world's most southern important winemaking region, with an extreme climate and breathtaking natural beauty. The natural wild beauty of the region has attracted the filmmakers of the Hobbits and Lord of the Rings movies, and at least for me, more importantly, a growing number of highly skilled winemakers.

There are some fine aromatics, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay grown here, but in Central Otago Pinot Noir is king. The exhilarating fragrant and concentrated Pinots with lush red and black fruit have rightfully captured world attention for their seductive combination of elegance and power. I highly recommend Central Otago Pinots from Mount Difficulty, Tiki, Gibbston Valley and Tatty Bogler. All will generously afford you the unique Central Otago Pinot experience.

In China, also look for the Martinborough Winery and Escarpment as their wines provide a quintessentially elegant and balanced Martinborough Pinot experience.

Earlier this month I worked with New Zealand Winegrowers and New Zealand Trade and Enterprise to organize the first ever Level Two New Zealand Wine Certification Program here in China.

Presenting most the material was Mr New Zealand Wine himself Bob Campbell. A highly accomplished writer, teacher and taster, Bob is considered by many the foremost authority on New Zealand wines.

Over several days we discussed many wine-related topics, but when the subject came to Pinots Bob reminded me not to forget about Martinborough.

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