The Age of Pinot Noir

The 2003 “Seven Years On” aged pinot noir tasting at the Pinot Noir 2010 Conference has proven interestingly controversial for the industry.

As discussed in the session, the proven ability of a good quality fine wine to age well under cellaring does seem to correlate to some degree with its market pricing.  From a purely economic perspective, the opportunity to grow the New Zealand industry’s share of the top portion of the wine price pyramid and thereby improve financial returns may well be determined by future market perspectives on the ability of our best wines to age. 

One issue that has tended to be raised by way of both explanation, and also a degree of concern, is the age of the country’s pinot noir vinestock.  It is widely accepted that pinot noir, at least as much if not more than many other varieties, needs vine age to be able to produce wines with international standard qualities in terms of flavour complexity, etc.   It is surely not immaterial to note that top quality-oriented producers in the variety’s benchmark region of Burgundy will de-classify young vine wines rather than labelling them as Grand or Premier Cru under their top appellation wines.

It is also occasionally postulated that older vines are more likely to produce wines that will age well in bottle than younger vines do.

What is clear is that top Burgundies do age well, often for decades, so that if New Zealand seriously considers itself a qualitative threat to even premier cru level Burgundy it is not unreasonable to consider that it has to make progress on the aging front.

The 2003 tasting featured wines from four different districts.  The resulting assessment of ageability was controversial to say the least, with only a handful of the wines receiving at least some sort of consensus of plaudits as to their condition. Disregarding the other clouding issues (such as the impact of screwcaps versus corks – which appeared unclear on the samples of the day), one thing I have never heard mentioned prior to the “unclothing” of the wines and their relevant data was the fact that there might be considerable variation of vine age between the different wines.  Four of the 10 wines, including the two that seemed to attract the most overall compliments (Felton Road Block 5 and Pegasus Bay Prima Donna), were from vines with a minimum of 10 years’ age.

So to the statistics.  Using NZ Winegrowers annual vineyard survey data I have back calculated the age of vines planted over the last 10 years in the five largest pinot noir table wine regions: Wairarapa, Nelson, Marlborough, Waipara and Central Otago.

This data also illustrates the scale of potential production in each district (subject to regional variations, of course). 

Producing ha 2000 2001 2002 2003 2004 2005 2006 2007 2008 2009 2010
Wairarapa 101.0 139.2 205.4 309.0 414.3 448.5 434.9 452.0 462.2 462.1 464.6
Nelson 33.7 54.3 85.2 99.3 125.5 139.5 160.7 183.0 177.5 190.7 206.1
Marlborough 527.8 651.9 744.0 991.4 1251.6 1429.1 1517.9 1656.8 1737.8 1760.5 1779.8
Waipara 54.3 66.8 75.5 121.8 138.9 182.6 225.2 261.3 300.0 305.2 305.7
Central Otago 136.3 183.6 344.5 478.4 606.7 753.3 969.6 1104.1 1196.0 1196 1205.1
                       
Ann. Increment = Youngest vine age (ha)* 13+ 12 11 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3
Wairarapa 101 38.2 66.2 103.6 105.3 34.2 -13.6 17.1 10.2 -0.1 2.5
Nelson 33.7 20.6 30.9 14.1 26.2 14.0 21.2 22.3 -5.5 13.2 15.4
Marlborough 527.8 124.1 92.1 247.4 260.2 177.5 88.8 138.9 81.0 22.7 19.3
Waipara 54.3 12.5 8.7 46.3 17.1 43.7 42.6 36.1 38.7 5.2 0.5
Central Otago 136.3 47.3 160.9 133.9 128.3 146.6 216.3 134.5 91.9 0 9.1
                       
As % Of Total PN Vines 13+ 12 11 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3
Wairarapa 21.7% 8.2% 14.2% 22.3% 22.7% 7.4% -2.9% 3.7% 2.2% 0.0% 0.5%
Nelson 16.4% 10.0% 15.0% 6.8% 12.7% 6.8% 10.3% 10.8% -2.7% 6.4% 7.5%
Marlborough 29.7% 7.0% 5.2% 13.9% 14.6% 10.0% 5.0% 7.8% 4.6% 1.3% 1.1%
Waipara 17.8% 4.1% 2.8% 15.1% 5.6% 14.3% 13.9% 11.8% 12.7% 1.7% 0.2%
Central Otago 11.3% 3.9% 13.4% 11.1% 10.6% 12.2% 17.9% 11.2% 7.6% 0.0% 0.8%

 *For the purposes of estimating vine age an allowance of 3 years (from the spring of planting) has been added to the current year increment of producing vines as a proxy for the age of the vines entering production. Some vines may have produced a crop with 2 years age, although these would be exceptional.  There may also be instances of top grafting.  Other vines may, of course, enter production with even more age so that this measure is overall more likely to be on the low side.  Note that based on the survey information there have been odd periods where producing hectares appeared to decline.  This may be the net consequence of losses/replacements or of survey errors.  No adjustment has been made, although it is considered that any consequential errors are immaterial overall.

Something that must be remembered about this analysis is that the proportion of young vines will always appear highest at the end of the most rapid period of new plantings, and lower when the volume of new plantings has dipped for 2-3 years.

The consequence of this data may be observed in the following synopsis of the last four harvests and the change of the percentage of 10 year plus vines between harvest 2007 and harvest 2010.

 % Less than 10 years 2007 2008 2009 2010
Wairarapa 75.5% 69.5% 55.3% 33.5%
Nelson 72.4% 59.8% 51.2% 51.8%
Marlborough 63.4% 61.0% 57.1% 44.3%
Waipara 67.7% 76.3% 75.1% 60.2%
Central Otago 80.3% 84.0% 70.7% 60.3%

 Note that by this year the Wairarapa region has the lowest percentage of young vines.  That figure would be even lower  but for the large new plantings before and after the millenium in the Te Muna Road area and locations further from the Martinborough township by Escarpment, Craggy Range and others.

The fact that in 2007 Marlborough had the lowest proportion of younger vines reflects two factors: (1) a lesser overall planting rate of new pinot noir vines during the decade than in the other regions evaluated (in part, presumably, because pinot noir has been less attractive to plant than sauvignon blanc from the economic perspective of contract grape growers); and (2) the first two years’ data include grapes grown for sparkling wine.  However, during the last decade the feature of most new plantings in Marlborough has been the shift to the hillsides and to higher clay content soils (itself interesting, and perhaps ironic, in that most vineyards in Martinborough and Waiarapa are on the kind of free draining old riverbed gravel soils abundant in Marlborough).

Another factor that might be reflected on is that just under 10 years ago when the then Allied Domecq acquired Montana Wines, one of the factors it cited was the fact that within a short space of time Montana was set to become the single largest producer of pinot noir table wine in the world, and possibly the best placed to economically produce pinot noir wines that actually taste like pinot noir for a grape variety sorely missing an affordable yet authentic entry level.

The more recent growth in plantings in Central Otago has a number of explanations, not the least important of which is the fact that only 10 years’ ago there was still a view in the industry that it was only possible to plant on a small (i.e. uneconomic) scale in the region, and that the climatic conditions made it suited only for the brave (i.e. foolish).  There is a sense that the overall perspective on both issues has altered somewhat, so that in addition to newcomers some of the larger industry players have also started to move in to play “catch up” for fear of missing out.

New Zealand pinot noir is becoming of age.  However, this is a process that takes time, one year at a time in fact.  It can be observed from the data that the heaviest period of new planting (depending on the district) was from about 2001 to 2006 with an obvious slow down since.  This suggests that by 2016 the vast majority of New Zealand pinot noir will be from vines of 10 years age or more.  Of course there will be pockets of Marlborough, Waipara and Central Otago with 20 years+ of vine age, and several properties in Martinborough with vines over 30 years old.

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