In search of the perfect Pinot Noir

- John Nielsen, For John Nielsen, luxury hospitality and tourism has been part of his life since he recalls. Having been fortunate to travel extensively during his childhood in Denmark, it was almost a natural choice for John to join the Scandinavian travel company, Spies Travels in 1983. This journey and a beginning of his career, took John to Madeira & Portugal, where he gained his love of luxury hotels. From there three years were spent studying in Switzerland, then to South Korea at Hotel Lotte, to Hong Kong with hotels including the Mandarin Oriental and Grand Hyatt Hong Kong, Hyatt Carlton Tower in London, Ritz-Carlton Kuala Lumpur, Crown Towers in Melbourne and Grand Hyatt Melbourne. Throughout the years in senior management John developed a passion for wine and in 1998 co-founded Liquid Assets Wine Storage in Melbourne. In 2006 John joined Kiwi Collection as a Regional Director in Asia Pacific and today continues to consult as well as contribute to WOW Travel. John recently completed his Master of Business with an added Master Degree in Tourism. These days John is based in Melbourne with his family, working for the Australian PGA Links company as General Manager of Hospitality. The travel bug will forever stay and with family based across three continents, there is always a good excuse to seek out new destinations and new wines.

As I was standing by the quaint bar at Mollies luxury hotel in Auckland, an American gentleman inquired about the available Pinot Noir by the glass? I have over the years become slightly obsessed by the perfect Pinot Noir so we quickly struck up a conversation. He was taking a well-earned break from the New York share market and was following the New Zealand Pinot Noir trail to Central Otago.

After a while we embarked down the streets and into Auckland’s prime dining area, Ponsonby. My challenge was to convince him that excellent New Zealand Pinot Noir could also be found in Martinborough and Marlborough. The Spanish themed wine bar provided a great venue with a first rate wine list and hours later we returned both having been convinced that New Zealand makes plenty of good Pinot Noir!

The new world has for many years struggled to perfect Pinot Noir compared to the great Burgundy wines. It is really only in the last 15 years that Australia and New Zealand have emerged to join Oregon in the US as premium Pinot Noir producers. Winemakers often describe the grape variety as the “most difficult grape to perfect”; it requires ideal growing conditions, warm to cool climate and the right clone. The wines can be like silk running through your mouth with superb depth and flavours, on the other hand they can be thin and taste like bad Ribena! The variance is massive, as are the vineyards and regions globally. The regions of Central Otago, and Martinborough lead the way in New Zealand with Marlborough & Canterbury hot on their heels.

Martinborough is located 40 miles east of New Zealand’s capital Wellington. The drive takes you through the countryside and into the region; my reward was the stunning Wharekauhau lodge that is based on a 5000 acre working sheep station overlooking the spectacular Palliser Bay. The Lodge is imbued with a warmth and character seldom found in a modern hotel.

The design, sumptuous furnishings, exquisite tableware and outstanding cuisine all combine to satisfy the senses. The indoor lap pool and gym is a great additional feature, especially after the cuisine. My trip around the region offered a wonderful diverse range of vineyards.

Top of the list is the founder and creator of Martinborough Estate, Larry McKenna, who today has established the Escarpment Vineyard and maybe the best of all! The depth and complexity, but still elegance of his wines confirms his greatness as a Pinot Noir winemaker. Even lovers of the great Burgundy wines would have to admit that these wines are outstanding. Have I just found the best of both worlds?

A quick flight over the Cook Straight and I arrive at the town of Blenheim. As we descend into the airport I see the endless sight of vineyards. The region of Marlborough has become the queen of Sauvignon Blanc, but Pinot Noir is now a real force. My choice of hotel is the luxurious Hotel d’Urville, which used to be the old Public Trust building and was built in the art deco style in the 1920’s.

Located in the centre of Blenheim the hotel is very different to the traditional lodges. The vast vineyards and landscapes are spectacular, the cloudy bay label of endless mountains and blue sky crate a magic setting. The quality and value for money on offer is just brilliant, where else can I buy high quality Pinot Noir for under $30. The price is often what scares people off from venturing into good Pinot Noir, but here that is not the case.

This is the region of the big companies, from Nobilo, Montana, Stoneleigh to Cloudy Bay, all making very smart wines. I depart after a few wonderful days and drive south, following the stunning countryside to Christchurch and into “Lord of the Rings country. The snow-capped mountains create a beautiful image as I arrive into the Canterbury region.

I have arranged to stay over at the newly renovated Otahuna Lodge, the hosts; Miles Refo and Hall Cannon greet me on the driveway. As I settle in I am enthralled with the beauty the have recreated. Dinner is a delight and I doze off in front of the fire as I dream about my next few days.

Long, dry summers, abundant sunshine and relatively cool growing conditions are a feature in Canterbury, which is sheltered from the coast by a low range of hills, can be significantly warmer. Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are the most widely planted grape varieties, together making up nearly 60% of the region’s vineyard. I loved the Chardonnay’s, classic rich styles, but the stand out Pinot was the Giesen Reserve 1999, with Muddy Waters and Pegasus Bay well placed.

As I head south along the coast my views of the Pacific Ocean and the plains turn towards the magic mountains of Mount Cook. The awaresome nature of South Island and the Southern Alps are a sensational sight, the sun shines from clear blue sky’s making it a picture perfect drive. I slowly begin to arrive into world’s southernmost wine region of Central Otago, and arrive into Queenstown. I love this town, full of action with snowfields, water sports and every dreamable outdoor activity, including Pinot tastings!!

I settle in to the elegant Sofitel Queenstown Hotel and Spa for my first night and watch the town come to life. The central location means a short walk to everything, my choice is the superb bar at Eichardts Private Hotel where a Tapas style dinner is served. Next day I head off to visit and taste my way around, the area of Bannockburn is often said to have the best and that is quickly confirmed. The Olssens Slapjack Creek Reserve is quite brilliant. The Amisfield winery at Lake Hayes and Gibbston Valley are both wineries that dreams are made out of. The location, cellar door design and wines are excellent, confirming why the region has such a strong reputation. My only slight feeling is that many of wines have very similar flavors, where as Martinborough had more distinctive and individual flavors, but overall the quality is brilliant.

It is with heavy feet that I board the plane and head home, as the plane gains altitude over the snow-clad mountains, I ponder if I have found the perfect Pinot Noir? A few stand out, but overall New Zealand has produced a sensational countryside with great accommodation and simply stunning wines!

No wonder they are well respected on the global Pinot Noir map. My search will have to continue; next stop the southern states of Australia!

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