How quarantine 50 years ago positively impacted New Zealand Pinot Noir

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This blog article is dedicated to those who enjoy the more nerdy side of wine but hopefully gives some interesting insight for everyone why wine is such a fascinating subject.

Sometimes unusual circumstances can give positive results. Back in the late 1960´s the New Zealand wine industry was in its infancy.  New Zealanders were travelling the globe, finding inspiration from Europe and experimenting planting different grape varieties.  New Zealand was also however, an early adopter of implementing ways to protect its natural environment from exotic pests and diseases, and as early as the 1890s, quarantine officers were checking imports at various ports.  In the 1970s, one chance finding by a quarantine officer who was also a winemaker, established one of New Zealand Pinot Noir´s most important tools – the Pinot Noir clone Abel.

Photos copyright New Zealand Wines

Pinot Noir is known as quite an elusive grape, the prima donna of grape varieties that neither likes to be too hot or too cold.  It is extremely sensitive to its local surroundings and the soils where it is grown. It´s often  subject to terrible beatings from frost and hail, yet at the same time can show at its best in these harsher cooler more marginal climates.  In the winery it has to be handled with great care care, treated gently to coax aromatic flavours from its delicate skins. Too harsh treatment of the skins and tannins and you will lose all traces of elegance. At its best, it can be incredibly provocative aromatically and leave a long lasting impression in your mind as well as your bank balance. From its home in Burgundy, and in particular among the best sites in the Côte de Nuits, Pinot Noir has travelled around the globe.  Many winemakers have attempted to emulate some of the great red wines of Burgundy.  Today however,  there is a slightly different focus internationally.   It´s more about a long-term process to understand each individual vineyard site, how this impacts the vines in an effort to  produce the best possible Pinot Noir from these sites, and fully expresses their unique thumbprint that can be recognised internationally, rather than copying Burgundy.  

New Zealand and cool-climate

One of the key reasons New Zealand with its southerly latitude (from 36′ S – 45′ S) is ideally suited for Pinot Noir is it´s cool climat and that it is an island.  In more northern regions for example in the Wairarapa Wine Region located in the south of the North island, and the Marlborough Wine Region located in the north of the South Island, a maritime climate keeps the temperatures down and allows slower ripening to accumulate more flavours in the grapes.  The wind however can be really strong, this reduces crop size as well as the size of the grapes, so finding the right site and ripeness balance is essential.  In the most southern wine regions of Waitaki and Central Otago however,  the world´s most southerly vineyards benefit have a continental climate with mountains cradling protected valleys to retain heat, and lakes provide reflection of sun radiation that helps the  grapes ripen.

The Wairarapa Valley. Photo copyright New Zealand Wines

New Zealand, the “Abel” clone and the impact on quality

The “Abel” clone, is often mentioned as one of the gumboot clones that were brought over from Europe in the 1970s following casual visits to vineyards, and the resulting vine cuttings were brought back hidden in the traveller´s boots.  The name Abel comes from the New Zealand Customs Officer Malcolm Abel, who coincidentally happened to be an Aukland winemaker. When he heard the confiscated vine cuttings were rumoured to come from Domaine de la Romanée-Conti (DRC) – the most hallowed name in Burgundy, he paid for the cuttings to be put through quarantine, and when they were released with a clean bill of health he planted them.  Cuttings from this new clone soon spread and it is that this clone has had a major impact on the quality of New Zealand Pinot Noir.  The Abel clone is particularly known for its ability to make excellent intense and complete wines.  

Jane Cooper, a Consultant winemaker and co-owner of Alexia wine brand and based in Wairarapa commented that the Abel clone has benefitted positively from global warming.  It generally ripens two weeks later than the Dijon clones.  With a slightly warmer growing season, grape ripeness has really improved, allowing the excellent qualities and fruit characters of this clone to really come through.  This means that during the winemaking process they are able to make more use of the ripe fruit tannins from the skins rather than rely heavily on tannins that come from ageing wines in oak.  (Note: If Pinot Noir is under-ripe, the tannins can feel quite green and grainy therefore in less-ripe years winemakers try to limit tannin extraction and focus on the fruit content and rely more on oak to give more tannin structure to the wine.)

In Wairarapa, the Abel clone is used with rootstocks such as 3309, 3306, 101-14 which all work well on the stone river bed terraces.   The Abel clone can also be found in Pinot Noir vineyards in Australia

Discover Pinot Noir from Wairarapa in Vinmonopolet HERE

Oslo Wine School: Learn about grapes and grapevines

What are clones?

When planting a vineyard, a viticulturist has to not only think about which grape variety they will plant, but which particular clone of a grape variety will be best suited to the local conditions.  Grapevine clones may vary in their colour, aromas, sensory quality, crops size, ripening period and disease resistance

What are rootstocks?

Following the devastating effects of the Phylloxera grapevine blight in the late 1880s which wiped out the majority of vineyards worldwide –  including more than 2 million ha of European vineyards, the replanting of vineyards was done using American rootstocks which are resistant to phylloxera.  This means that a vine consists of 2 joined parts – a base (the roots) and the top part – a vine of a chosen grape variety. The two parts are joined together either in a vine nursery prior to planting, or alternatively the rootstocks are planted first, then after a year a grapevine is added to the rootstock in a process called grafting.


New Zealand wine regions you should definitely explore Pinot Noir!

New Zealand produces high-quality Pinot Noir from many different regions and each regions has its own specific characteristics. 

North island: Check out the wine regions of Aukland, Wairarapa, and Martinborough 

South island: Check out the wine regions of Nelson, Marlborough, Waipara, Waitaki and Central Otago 

Visit the official website for New Zealand Wines HERE

Bli med Jane Nisbet Huseby og lær mer om vin!

Oslo Wine School eies og drives av Jane Nisbet Huseby. Jane har jobbet internasjonalt i mange år og har mer enn 15 års erfaring innen vinbransjen. I tillegg har hun jobbet som vindommer i blant annet “The International Wine Challenge” som er den mest rigorøse vinkonkurransen i verden – basert i London, og “The Berlin Trophy” basert i Tyskland. Hun har Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET) Diploma, og er verifisert WSET-lærer. For tiden studerer hun målrettet for å oppnå den prestisjetunge tittelen “Master of Wine” som er den mest vanskelige og krevende vintittelen å oppnå i verden. Hittil har hun bestått teoridelen ved første forsøk, mens blindsmakings eksamenene med 36 viner over 3 dager ble utsatt til 2021 på grunn av Covid19. I verden er det i dag kun 394 Masters of Wine i 30 land.