Pinot Noir Programme

June 2018

Discovering what's possible in pinot noir production at Plant & Food Research

Pinot is grown around the world – and associated chiefly with the Burgundy region in France. It is the primary varietal used in sparkling wine production.

Pinot Noir is predominantly grown in the cooler southerly regions of New Zealand: the Wairarapa, Marlborough, Nelson, Canterbury & Waipara, and Central Otago. The diversity in climates and soils enables a wide range of styles from these main Pinot Noir producing regions.

New Zealand pinot noir has risen in popularity with 12.2M litres exported to June 2016. (NZ figures). Total production for the 2016 season was 36,000 tonnes. It is estimated there are approximately 6,000 ha of pinot noir vines in the country.

The New Zealand wine industry has identified an opportunity to meet increasing international demand for pinot noir from countries such as USA, Australia and China for the cool climate red wines. They also want to protect the industry from a perceived over-reliance on sauvignon blanc.

Sauvignon blanc still dominates our industry - close to 40% of the UK market and nearly 30% of the US market. Some have drawn parallels with forestry and its reliance on pinus radiata, and kiwifruit and that industry’s reliance on Hayward (the green kiwifruit) in the early days.

Pinot noir is second only to sauvignon blanc in terms of wine production in New Zealand but is a difficult vine to grow and manage. It has a tendency to produce tightly packed clusters making it susceptible to rot and disease – needing good canopy management.

Damian Martin says the aim of growers is to make the best wine possible at an affordable price. Internationally, pinot noir is regarded as a difficult grape to grow and a challenging wine to make. He says the industry has identified a big opportunity in the market.

The research programme will attract over $9M of Government investment in the next five years to look at ways to increase production of pinot noir while maintaining the quality of finished wines.

The aim of the research is to identify how industry can break the productivity- quality link through four areas of interconnected research. The longer-term aim will hopefully be major expansion of the areas growing pinot noir grapes and long-term export returns to New Zealand. The research will span the pinot noir wine value chain and incorporate four areas:

  1. Quality and liking:

If consumers were asked “A high quality pinot noir wine is one that … ?”, what would the answers be?

  1. Viticultural and winemaking factors

What are the biological controls and chemical signatures of pinot noir quality?  

  1. Grape and wine chemistry

How do we best measure the complex chemistry of pinot noir?

  1. Validation wines and machine learning

What are the linkages between viticultural and winemaking factors, chemistry data and consumer perceptions?

Vineyard Management

Damian says one of the reasons pinot is so challenging is that of all grape varieties it is the most sensitive to where and how it is grown. Part of the challenge of growing any vine crop is to get the balance between vegetative and fruit production right. The idea is to balancing the canopy and leaf area with the crop.

There is an apparently inextricable seesaw link between productivity and quality; industry needs methods to produce 10 tonnes /hectare of grapes while maintaining the quality standards only achieved at 6 tonnes/hectare productivity.

Damian says researchers and winegrowers want to answer questions such as -

What does an ideal pinot noir vine look like? For example, what is the leaf area to crop load? He says the canopy density, essentially how porous the “hedge” is, is also an important question to answer. In addition, they want to look at how actively the shoots are growing at various stages of the season to produce a certain style of wine.

Growers also know that within a pinot vineyard block there is a lot of vine-to-vine variation. Once they’ve worked out the ideal, the next challenge is getting all the vines to perform that way.

At the end of the research they are hoping to provide winegrowers with tools to decide which management strategies, which will give them ideal vine performance, and provide a good basis for genetic selection.

Damian says that in general sauvignon blanc responds well to big leafy canopy – whereas pinot noir doesn’t. It needs good light penetration. “ We don’t know what is the optimum - where the sweet spot is.” Once they’ve done that, they can work out what the optimal crop load is and roll that information out into vineyard establishment.

Winery Challenges

The challenges in wine making with Pinot Noir are related to vine management. When a company targets a vineyard block for its high value pinot – they tend to do intensive vineyard management. That includes hand harvesting in small batches, which is labour intensive. He says winemakers tend to do whole berry crushes and whole bunch ferments - with long and slow maturation of the wine. Essentially he says we are doing it “the old world traditional way.” The question for New Zealand winemakers and researchers is can we look at the wine making practices  - including machine harvest and how the fruit is handled in the winery and come up with a New Zealand way of making the wine.


Giesen Wines – Clayvin Vineyard

Geisen’s Clayvin Vineyard has a number of 24 year-old vines, grown on clay soils. The vineyard has been certified organic by BioGro. It was planted in 1991 in the tradition of a French vineyard, planting high-density vines with multiple rootstock and clones. The pinot from Clayvin is handpicked and then basket pressed – it is left to ferment naturally and then matured in French oak.

Giesen’s wine maker, Nikolai St George, is very enthusiastic about the pinot noir programme. He agrees the variety is challenging to grow. He is interested to see what can be learnt both about the quality and the quantity of the grapes grown. He says their pinot blocks have traditionally been low cropping and he’d be interested to learn what he can about improving yield without compromising quality.