Why New Zealand Pinot Noir Works: A Pioneer’s Story

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Rippon Vineyards in New Zealand

Who would have thought, 30 years ago, that New Zealand would be producing Pinot Noir with an international reputation? It has all happened in an incredibly short time, so that several of the original pioneering winemakers are still involved in the industry. And a recent tasting in London and New York demonstrated just how successful Pinot Noir is in New Zealand.

This was a tasting that I could not possible miss: three decades of Rippon Vineyards Pinot Noir, beginning with the 1990 vintage, which I tasted as a vat sample the very first time that I went to New Zealand. Rippon Vineyards in Central Otago was one of the first New Zealand vineyards that I visited. It is the most fabulously beautiful spot, with breathtaking views over Lake Wanaka toward the Southern Alps. Central Otago lies on the 45th  parallel, which makes its vineyards some of the southernmost in the world — there is not much land between Otago and Antarctica.  Whereas most New Zealand vineyards are on the country’s east coast, Central Otago enjoys a continental climate, with harsh winters and warm summers. Schist is the dominant soil at Rippon.

These days, Nick Mills makes the wine at Rippon, but it was his father, Rolfe, who was the true pioneer. Rolfe’s grandfather bought the land in 1912, and Rolfe began planting vines in 1975.

“It was all very much a learning curve, experimenting with many different grape varieties,” Nick said. “Pinot Noir was just one of several. And nothing was known about different clones.  You got cuttings from other growers, and there was a strong element of self-sufficiency and indeed isolation.”

The first commercial wines of Rippon were made in 1989, and in 1990 a talented Austrian winemaker, Rudi Bauer, took over for a few years. (He now has his own estate, Quartz Reef.) Back in 1990 there were just six wineries in Central Otago; nowadays there are 120 wine growers, though not all with their own winemaking facilities.

New Zealand Pinot Noir has regional variations blossom

At the time that Rippon was getting started, Chard Farm and Gibbston Valley were also experimenting with Pinot Noir, among other grape varieties, in Central Otago. And at the bottom of New Zealand’s North Island, Larry McKenna, who had arrived in Martinborough in 1986, was busy putting Martinborough Vineyards on the map for Pinot Noir, alongside his neighbours at Ata Rangi and Dry River.

Nick Mills and his wife, Jo, at Rippon.  Credit: Briar Hardy-Hesson

Nick Mills and his wife, Jo, at Rippon.
Credit: Briar Hardy-Hesson

Elsewhere on the South Island, there were pockets of Pinot Noir in Nelson, Waipara and Marlborough. Today, Pinot Noir is the most widely planted red variety in the country, and the regional variations are becoming more apparent. I generally find that wines from Central Otago are riper and richer, from enjoying long hours of summer daylight, while those from Martinborough are more savory and maybe more structured.

But back to Rippon. Carrying on the family tradition, Nick studied winemaking, including a course on biodynamics, in Beaune and worked with winegrowers in the Côte d’Or. Sadly, Rolfe died in 2000, and in 2003, Nick’s mother suggested that it was time for Nick to come back to Rippon and take over responsibility for the winemaking.

He talked of how his winemaking has developed. “There are so many things to consider. Whole bunches? Do you add the stems? Are they ripe? You need to understand your fruit.” He certainly shows that he does with this range of wines, which tell the story of the family land.

Read the detailed tasting notes.

Top photo: Rippon Vineyards. Credit: Briar Hardy-Hesson


Zester Daily contributor Rosemary George was one of the first women to become a Master of Wine in 1979. She has been a freelance wine writer since 1981 and is the author of 11 books. She contributes to various magazines and also writes a blog on the Languedoc region.

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