Pinot lessons from masters

Talking about Pinot Noir used to require a certain amount of reverence. The fact that its best examples come from Burgundy and require an extensive knowledge of Côtes, vineyards and producers, not to mention a willingness to invest a substantial amount of money means that it has to be taken seriously.

Larry McKennas low trained vines at Escarpment

But now Pinot’s soft, seductive flavours can be found in several corners of the world, such as Chile and New Zealand. These wines all have their own character and are not Burgundy-substitutes, but if you are looking for a way of climbing the Pinot Noir ladder they provide an excellent introduction.

Unlike Cabernet Sauvignon, which will happily be transplanted to almost anywhere in the world, real success with Pinot Noir is dependent on a whole raft of conditions, from soil drainage and clone selection to the right variation between day and night temperatures.

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Too hot and the fine structure of Pinot disintegrates into warm, fruity jam; too cold and the wine remains insipid. But if the conditions are right there are enough fans of Pinot Noir around the world prepared to pay good money for a taste of the ripe, strawberry fruit and truffly tones of great Pinot. Here are some of my favourites.


My all-time favourite bargain entry-level Pinot has to be Bicicleta Pinot Noir 2012 from Cono Sur. Currently £7.49 at Tesco, it frequently goes on offer at around £5.99 and provides straightforward strawberry, cherry and plum fruit with just a hint of spice on the finish. This is the kind of wine to have in stock for those chilly autumn evenings to go with chicken, roasted fish or light pasta dishes.

Move up the scale to Cono Sur Reserva Especial Pinot Noir 2012 (£9.99, Waitrose) for more depth, concentration and real silkiness on the palate, perfect to partner game and duck. Its grapes come from the cool-climate Casablanca valley.

The top of the range, Cono Sur Ocio Pinot Noir is also from Casablanca but here winemaker Adolfo Hurtado has adopted some old-style Burgundian techniques by foot-treading the vats during fermentation. The result is a dark-fruited, elegant wine, seriously concentrated with a lift of herbs on the finish.

The Wine Society has the 2008 vintage, which should be developing nicely.

Also good from Chile is the robust, herb-strewn, dark cherry fruit of Undurraga Terroir Hunter Pinot Noir 2011 from the Leyda Valley (£15.99, Majestic) and the clear elegance of Viña Leyda Cahuil Vineyard Pinot Noir 2011 (£14.99, Waitrose).

New Zealand

Now that New Zealand has made Sauvignon Blanc its own, the winemakers are now turning their attention to Pinot Noir and have discovered that it does remarkably well in several areas.

At the southern end of North Island, the town of Martinborough has seen its fortunes change as its sheep-farming country has become one of the world’s leading quality regions for Pinot Noir.

Climate is key. Tucked behind hills, separating it from the blustery capital city, Wellington, this is a sheltered place, with low rainfall and long, dry autumns that allow the grapes to ripen slowly.

Clive Paton at Ata Rangi was one of the first to make an impact with its organic viticulture and deep-flavoured, complex wines. I tasted the 2010 Ara Rangi recently and was impressed by its dark-fruited earthy, flavours with supple yet structuring tannins. It still has time to go. Find it at Hic! Wines, Castleford (01977 550047) at £37.

Harrogate Fine Wine (01423 522270) also has the single vineyard McCrone Pinot Noir 2008 (£44.99) which I tasted with Clive a couple of years ago. This is the first vintage from a newly acquired vineyard and it produces elegant, redcurrant and cranberry style wines with layers of spice and anise. This is just hitting the mark right now.

Another favourite from this region is Larry McKenna, who trains his vines low and cuts yield drastically to gain concentration. Top-notch winemaking includes some whole bunch fermentation, gently plunging the cap of skins under the fermenting juice using long-handled plungers and a period of oak ageing, although this is carefully balanced to show the fruit, not the wood.

The first level Escarpment Pinot Noir 2009 (£19.95, Martinez, Ilkley) is made from a blend of all the blocks on the property and has great open-hearted black cherry fruit, a good structure and layers of complexity developing on the finish. Kupe 2010 (around £29.95) comes from the low, close-planted vineyard and is a fabulous expression of fruit, complexity and silky tannins with a definite French accent.

Marlborough is not just famous for Sauvignon; there is good Pinot Noir there too at slightly more affordable prices than Martinborough. Start with the readily available Brancott 2011 (£8.99, Majestic on multibuy) for bright cherry and summer berry fruit then trade up to The Ned Pinot Noir 2012 (£13.99, Majestic) for more complexity and depth.

New Zealand’s newest wine area, Central Otago is still developing but is really making Pinot Noir its signature grape. Flavours here are brighter, with lively fruit and warmth of flavour. My favourites include the finely balanced, elegant lifted fruit of Felton Road Block Five 2010 made from biodynamic grapes (£45, Field and Fawcett) and the less intense but equally well-made Felton Road Cornish Point 2011 (£34.60, Field and Fawcett).

Quartz Reef is also very good. Start exploring this region with a taste of the spice-edged, bright cherry and raspberry fruit of Quartz Reef Pinot Noir 2011 (£17, Majestic on multibuy).