Like a new immigrant struggling for acceptance, pinot noir faced dirty looks and derisive whispers when the grape arrived on the southern tip of New Zealand in the mid-1980s. John Wallace, the winemaker at Chard Farm, a top estate in Central Otago, recalls one early jab. "I overheard someone in a bar saying, 'Chard Farm is a bloody good waste of merino land.'"
The reference was to merino sheep, a breed prized by Italian tailors and makers of high-end athletic wear for its soft, ultrafine wool. For decades, merino farming was the lifeblood of this spectacular mountain terrain because of the region's arid, wool-enhancing climate. Visitors can still see postcard views of flocks grazing on verdant slopes, especially at shearing time when their cartoon-like overgrown exteriors can make them seem like puff balls with faces. But over the past 25 years, many slopes have been turned over to produce a new and more lucrative commodity - wine for people who can afford merino suits.
In just a generation, New Zealand has emerged as a new Eden for pinot noir, the signature red grape of Burgundy and the rapture of wine geeks everywhere. The variety can produce glorious juice, usually lean and lightly tinted yet with eye-opening complexity. In the best renditions, an unmistakable essence of fresh berries comes laced with earthy notes of beetroot and mineral. They are consummate and versatile reds for food.
But the vines tend to travel poorly, like Texans complaining about hotel amenities in Paris. With few exceptions, notably cool pockets in California and Oregon, few regions outside Burgundy have managed to earn serious vineyard cred with this fragile, thin-skinned grape.
I used to be one of those Burgundy-or-bust bores, even though my budget crashed every time I'd splurge $50 or more to land a transcendent one. The more I taste Central Otago pinot noir, though, the more I come to believe that New Zealand is the place this grape was destined to unpack its suitcase.
That's the reason I came to the southernmost wine region on the planet, and the reason I paid a visit to Chard Farm, among other boutique estates. Perched arrestingly above a steep gorge next to the spindly old Kawarau Bridge - home to the world's first commercial bungee-jumping operation - the winery at first seems like it could do brisk business selling hearty red in Dixie Cups to insane bridge acrobats in need of liquid courage. But that's not the purpose of fine pinot noir, a grape that turns farming into an extreme sport.
In contrast to the moist, maritime climate that prevails in much of New Zealand, Central Otago's inland slopes and basins sit in the dry rain shadow of the Southern Alps. Clear skies prevail, which ensures full ripening most years, an asset Burgundy can only dream of. "Central Otago pinot has fruit to burn," Mr. Wallace said of the wines' resulting intensity.
Just as vital where pinot is concerned, growing seasons are marked by sharp daily swings in temperature known as diurnal shifts, with warm days and cool nights. This is high ground that's as far south as Niagara is north, after all, and pinot loves sweater weather when the moon comes up, the better to preserve acidity and give the wines lift and balance. Well-drained alluvial soils also produce a naturally low yield of grapes per vine, concentrating flavours in the bunches.
Chard Farm's Mata-Au Pinot Noir 2009 (score: 92), a $45 gem likely to arrive in small quantities in Canada, was a highlight of numerous Central Otago pinots I tasted. Jammy and soft, with supple tannins, it culminates with vibrant acidity. Another highlight was Quartz Reef Bendigo Estate Pinot Noir 2008 (score: 93), from one of New Zealand's greatest pinot and sparkling-wine estates. It's pricey at about $65 in Canada when it eventually becomes available in select, big-city markets, but it oozes succulent dark-fruit flavour, firmed up by a spine of astringent tannins and acid.
Available now in Ontario are the gently spicy Carrick Pinot Noir 2007 (score: 92, $34.95) and sour-cherry-like Amisfield Pinot Noir 2008 (score: 90, $44.95). Though difficult to find - as with virtually all Central Otago wines - other names to seek include Felton Road, Gibbston Highgate, Mt. Difficulty and Two Paddocks, the last owned by actor Sam Neill.
A question hovers over every region that dares to produce good pinot noir: Can the stuff age like great Burgundy? If the 2002 Felton Road Block 3 pinot I sampled from the cellar of proprietor Nigel Greening is an indication, the answer is yes. Seductively evolved, with soft tannins and notes of cherry and bacon, it fills the mouth with good weight and still seems fresh. "Our wines have aged quite well," Mr. Greening said proudly. "We haven't killed one yet."
Though a few of the lower-priced wines left me less impressed, the general quality of Central Otago reds is all the more remarkable considering the relative youth of the vines. Virtually all the region's quality pinot vines, as opposed to the workhorse clones initially introduced for quantity over flavour, are no more than a dozen years old. Pinot vines tend to produce their best fruit when they're between 25 and 45 years old, as the plants settle into middle age and become more parsimonious, yielding fewer but more flavourful berries. "Come here in 20 years' time," Chard Farm owner Robert Hay urged.
I think I'll be returning sooner than that.