There’s no escaping Burgundy when you’re at a Pinot Noir conference. The French region makes the world’s finest examples that most of us can’t afford unless we forego several mortgage payments. It’s inevitable that any Pinot Noir producer would like to achieve the heady heights in terms of quality.
This is benchmarking – the process of determining who is the very best, who sets the standard, and what that standard is. Any ambitious producer in any industry – wine or not – is right to do this because to live in a world where there is no context is to be drifting aimlessly on a sea of bulk wine.
Yet there has become an aversion to comparing Pinots from New Zealand and elsewhere to Burgundy.
Ted Lemon of Littorai Wines in Sonoma and Burn Cottage in Central Otago made it clear that he thought comparisons to Burgundy were unhealthy for New World producers in a speech at the Mornington Peninsula International Pinot Noir conference two weeks ago.
“Look inward,” he said. “Do not measure all things against the Old World. And above all do not see Burgundy as a measuring stick. We must be like Odysseus, lashing ourselves to the mast of the ship in order to resist the siren song of the maidens of Burgundy.”
I agree with Ted that New World producers should not set out to make a Burgundy-like wine if they’re in New Zealand, Australia or Oregon.
Yes, it should be about getting to know your land better and the wines it produces but for those of in the world of communication and education, it’s another matter.
I compared the wines of the Omihi subregion of Waipara to Pommard at Pinot 2013 and it was as if I had talked about Lord Voldemort at Hogwarts. Tumbleweed moment. I make no apology for it. It provided context. These wines are powerful, dense and meaty and when you compare them to Pommard, those not familiar with the wines of Omihi (which are a fairly sizeable group) gain an immediate sense of style.
I agree that wine producers and wine writers should not put Burgundy on a pedestal – let’s face it, the region makes a lot of crap. Take a 10 euro prix fixe lunch at a restaurant in Beaune and you’ll be able to taste wines that aren’t worthy of salad dressing.
I agree that New Zealand Pinot Noir cannot be anything else but New Zealand Pinot Noir – just like Oregon, the Mornington Peninsula and friends. They’re recognizable, inimitable and can be bloody good. But for those of us trying to describe what the wines are like to a wine savvy audience that needs a benchmark, I’m afraid the region-that-shall-not-be-named is the best benchmark we have for the foreseeable future.
In time, we’ll be able to kick those comparisons to the kerb but we are not there yet.
I’m looking forward to that day and thankfully it doesn’t seem too far away for Kiwis. The New Zealand wine industry’s growing maturity was evident at the Wellington Pinot conference in January. There’s a burgeoning sense of self and an attitude that says “This is who we are, this is what we do, and if you don’t like it, plenty of other people do.” There’s a confidence and a pride that has emerged, which wasn’t in evidence at the last Pinot conference in 2010. Long may it continue.
This week the producers of the Waitaki Valley have been on the road, touting their wares.
Despite two of its producers receiving the accolade of New Zealand’s best Pinot Noir at the International Wine Challenge and best Pinot Noir at the Shanghai International Wine Challenge in the past month, most people look perplexed when you mention its name.
It’s in North Otago, in case you were wondering, 160km northeast of Central Otago’s Cromwell. Consultant Jeff Sinnott, winemaker for Shanghai trophy winner Ostler has spent the past 11 years in Central Otago and now having a foot in both camps made a useful comparison.
“Waitaki is slightly warmer than the Gibbston Valley [the coolest part of Central Otago’s subregions] but Waitaki has warmer temperatures in the late autumn which equals longer hang time allowing the tannins to ripen.”
In the warmer regions of Central Otago, such as Bannockburn and Alexandra, the long hang time isn’t usually possible as autumn frosts often dictate harvest decisions. “In Central Otago I don’t think I have ever made a completely tannin ripe wine and I have been making Central wines for 10 years. You are getting two brix a week from veraison to picking the fruit and so it is picked within five weeks [although that is about normal for Burgundy].”
“Then you are tempted to add water to get the alcohol down.” I think this temptation might become too much to bear for some!
Central Otago’s reds are generally sweetly fruited and fuller-bodied than the rest of the country’s Pinots. Final alcohols of 14 or 14.5 percent are quite normal. I mention that I’ve seen a growing tendency for a powerful, log-fire like oak-derived char to become an element of Central Otago’s wines – almost becoming a hallmark of the region.
“One of the most successful Pinot producers in Central Otago is also a barrel importer,” he answered.
“Central Otago is in danger of becoming a parody. It’s turning wines into cartoons and we are trying to make oil paintings here.”.
In the Waitaki, ripening is much slower – almost dangerously slow. The time between veraison and picking can be as much as 10 weeks! I imagine that the local producers must have very short fingernails.
“This is right on the edge of possibility,” adds Sinnott. “A lot of people will follow the line of least resistance but that isn’t available for Waitaki winemakers. I’d say in terms of difficulty, Central would be an 8 and the Waitaki would be a 9.5.”
You’re likely to see more vintage variation as a result. The 2010s are much warmer in profile, with sweeter fruit, lacking the tautness, elegance and minerality of the cooler years, like 2011.
Yields are low – in part due to hostile weather: rain, frost, wind and hungry birds make ripening rapes a risky business. Having experimented with yields as low as 2 tons to the hectare (around 14hl/ha), they’ve found that low yields doesn’t necessarily mean better fruit, as the abundant 1982 vintage in Bordeaux also demonstrated. “We are finding the sweet spot is 4t/ha and any lower you get strong tomato leaf-like character,” says Sinnott.
Black Stilt Pinot Noir 2011
Pure and elegant nose with fine pepper and black cherry fruit aromatics. Light bodied, fine grained, chalky-textured tannin – likely derived from limestone. Racy acidity leaves a clean palate. Not particularly complex but shows the Waitaki’s characteristics and cool climate Pinot Noir typicity. 17/20
Not so cheap but bloody delicious:
John Forrest Pinot Noir 2009
Pure, focused, with a plummy core of fruit overlaid with clove and cinnamon spice. It has fine grained tannins, a chalky texture on the finish with fine acidity and great linearity Complex and elegant. 18.5/20.
Otiake Gewurztraminer 2011
I don’t like Gewurz – it’s just that it’s usually over the top and a bit fat. But this is pure and tight without overt florals. Instead it shows fruit salad, lime, lemon and incredible freshness for a low acid variety. It’s dry and finishes clean. 18/20
Ostler Lakeside Vines Pinot Gris 2011
This is almost Alsatian in style with restrained savoury notes, spice and pear on the nose. It is medium in body, is richly fruited yet retains a tautness of structure. On the long finish there’s white flowers, bruised apple and lavender. Worthy of a 17.5/20 at the very least but shows potential to be as good as premium Alsatian Pinot Gris in the future with vine age.
Pasquale Riesling Shrivel 2011
I have partly fallen in love with this wine because of Pasquale’s owner Antonio, who told me that this was a good wine to have for a lovemaking session before breakfast Clean and pure with intense lemon, mandarin aromas. It is piquant, zesty and perfectly balanced despite 160g/l residual sugar – that’s probably thanks to a T/A of 9! Hearing that I was newly married, Antonio gave me a bottle to take home – I haven’t yet opened it.
In August’s edition of Decanter, I asked is Burgundy a one horse-race when it comes to investment? The answer was yes – at the moment – but names like Jayer, Rousseau, Roumier and Dujac are worth a dabble in the top years.
The conclusion was backed up by an auction at Bonhams last week, selling a case of Romanee-Conti 1990 vintage for £126,500. That’s more than £10,000 per bottle or £1,750 a glass – although I suppose that depends on the size of your glass!
Another case of Romanee-Conti, this time from 1988, sold for £74,750.
Interestingly, both cases were bought by a European buyer and it will be interesting to see how they perform in the Far East when the auction house sells more cases of the 1988 and 1990 vintage in Hong Kong in November.
The price of Romanee-Conti has shown, on average, a rise of 50% over the last year, according to Liv-ex.
August is a quiet month for the wine industry – most of France, Italy and Spain go on holiday. Yet, there’s been plenty to write about this week at Decanter.com, where I’m acting as news and commissioning editor. So here’s a digest of the main news stories in the wine industry this week…
The Champenois have announced the yield for the 2011 vintage – 12,500kg – which is approximately 20% more than last year due to increased demand for bubbly. The Champagne houses wanted a higher yield with their sales up 13% last year but the growers weren’t so keen, and this was the compromise.
The Champagne region is now recovering from a blip during the economic crash of late 2008 and if sales continue on the upward curve it is now on, they’ll have a shortage. The industry is currently undertaking research to figures out a way to manage supply and demand. With a restricted area that is planted to bursting point, they will struggle to make more, so it will be interesting to see what solution they come up with.
In Burgundy, five grands crus vineyards are banning the use of machine harvesting from the coming vintage. I spoke to president of the Union of Burgundy Grands Crus, Louis-Michel Liger-Belair, during his holiday in Tuscany to ask him why they’d done this. There are 5% of the grands crus that use machines and it gives us a bad image. Hand harvesting does cost a bit more but the quality is much better,’ he said.
At the end of the week, Domaine de l’Arlot’s winemaker of 13 years has also left to establish his own domaine down in the Ardeche. More on that next week, I hope.
Over in the US, there have been acquisitions aplenty. At the start of the week, Fiji water billionaire, Stewart Resnick bought Chardonnay specialist Landmark Vineyards of Sonoma. It’s the second purchase for his company Roll Global in eight months.
Roll Global is one to watch, as is Alejandro Bulgheroni. While most magazines reported his acquisition of Renwood Vineyard from the company’s press release, there seemed to be more to this one. A 20-minute chat with Alejandro, revealed he was not only a charming businessman that has made his millions in oil and gas, he’s also got grand designs for a wine empire, aspiring to run six wineries, including what’s thought to be the world’s southernmost vineyard.
London rioters stormed Michelin-star restaurant The Ledbury at the start of the week, smashing windows and stealing personal items from customers. The Ledbury’s kitchen staff managed to chase away the rioters, armed with a variety of kitchen items. While it must have been terrifying for diners, The Ledbury offered them all Champagne to ease their anxiety.
Further restaurant news in London: Spanish chef Jose Pizarro will be opening a Cava bar at his new restaurant Pizarro. It is in Bermondsey Street – the same road as his newly-opened tapas and sherry bar. It should open in October. Should….
The lines of Burgundy’s famed wine villages were drawn by a cartographer’s pen but do they accurately reflect a wine’s sense of place?
This question was asked at the Central Otago Pinot celebration and but we never quite managed to get a definitive answer out of the illustrious panellists Sylvain Pitiot, director of Clos du Tart in Morey St Denis, and Sophie Confuron of Domaine Jean-Jacques Confuron. Ultimately, you have to make up your own mind.
It queried our acceptance of the existing lines drawn in Burgundy, which separate Volnay from Pommard, for example, or Nuits-St-Georges from Vosne-Romanee. Meursault Chardonnay is defined as fuller and more buttery than next door Puligny-Montrachet yet some Pulignys taste more Meursault-like. Can we really pigeon hole the styles so simply?
Well, these broadly generalised styles by village do serve us well but should not be relied upon.
A tasting of three Cotes de Beaune wines and three Cote de Nuits wines, some in the heart of the appellations, and others on the fringes illustrated that the sweeping statements that Pommard is structured while Volnay is perfumed and silky does have legs but it also has to be pointed out that the vintage and the hand of the winemaker can dramatically affect the wine style.
In addition, we all knew what was in each glass. If it had been a blind tasting, would we have been claiming the Nuits-St-Georges was so classically styled?
If you really wanted to try and get to grips with the differences between appellations in Burgundy, it’s a good idea to get three wines from the same producer from three different appellations over a number of vintages. But then you’d also need deep pockets…
The delicious, and well selected, wines were:-
Domaine Comtes Armand, Volnay 1er Cru, Les Fremiets 2007
Floral with cherry, minerality. Silky and supple, with moderate acidity and balanced alcohol. Fine grained tannins – almost imperceptible. Voluptuous, charming.
Domaine de Courcel, Pommard Premier Cru, Les Fremiers 2007
Made by a blood relation of Jacques Chirac, this was a firm, austere wine. Damson skin and black fruits, violets and warming clove/nutmeg type spice. Good mid palate weight. Structured fruit and stem tannins yet still incredibly fine and fresh acid. Alchohol perfectly integrated. Sinewy
Domaine de Montille, Pommard Premier Cru, Les Rugiens 2007
Described by Nick Mills of Rippon Estate as more silk scarves than wellies, this producer’s Pommard had plenty of weight and lots of new French oak spice. Muted cherry and subtle savoury character. None of that new world sweetness on the front palate, good mid palate concentration, finely woven tannins giving some structure – expected more ruggedness and a little more structure for a Pommard – is the fruit and oak perhaps masking the structure? Needs time.
Domaine Lechenaut, Nuits-St-Georges 1er Cru, Les Pruliers 2007
A relatively deep Pinot with a lot of new French oak coming through on the nose. Fleshy yet delicate on mid palate. Dense and tight tannin structure, with fresh acidity and a linear finish.
Domaine Jean Jacques Confuron, NSG 1er Cru Aux Boudots 2007 (on the border with Vosane Romanee)
Perhaps the wine of the day for most delegates. Silky and elegant on the mid palate, with a tight linear structure, sinewy finish, and fresh acid.
Domaine Grivot, Vosne Romanee 1er Cru, Les Chaumes 2007 (right on the border with Nuits St Georges)
Generous and fleshy on entry compared to Nuits St Georges, the tannins are mouthcoating and ripe rather than tight and drawn out.
The latest herbal remedy renaissance is resveratrol. I can’t walk into a chemist to buy a packet of plasters without being confronted by an all-singing all-dancing resveratrol offer. Yesterday there was an ad on the radio extolling the virtues of it and I found myself telling the radio it should just have a glass of wine.
Obviously, a radio can’t hear me nor drink wine, and the men in white coats have been alerted of my latest penchant for talking to the radio. But come on, there’s a global wine glut. Why do we need to take a tasteless pill for something we can obtain from a delicious glass of wine? Beats me.
So what wines should you look for if you want to up your resveratrol intake? Reds should be top of your list. Research has found red wines have ten times more resveratrol than whites â€“ damn, there goes my excuse for having another glass of Riesling.
In the red corner, Muscadine has the highest concentration of resveratol of all grape varieties but how often do you see Muscadine on the shelves outside of the USA? And if you did, would you want to drink it?! Pinot Noir also tends to have high levels of resveratrol whereas Cabernet Sauvignon has lower levels. According to the bible, a.k.a The Oxford Companion, cooler regions tend to produce wines higher in resveratrol, so think Burgundy, Washington and New Zealand – not Australia or India.
If there’s a market for selling resveratrol pills, then surely there’s a gap in the market for wines high in resveratrol. Well, so it seems, but that gap has already been identified by a Hunter Valley winery. Pendarves has created a Resveratrol Enhanced Wines that contains between 1,500% and 10,000% of the ‘normal’ levels of the antioxidant resveratrol. It claims resveratrol levels in its ‘Wine Doctor’ red wines are increased from 3-6mg/l to about 100mg/l, and those in its white wines are also increased from 1mg/l to about 100mg/l.
But does it taste any good? I’ll seek out a bottle and let you know. If you’ve already tried it and been impressed/distressed, let us know.
If you had a Central Otago monopoly board, who’d be your Old Kent Road and who’d be your Mayfair?
I’ve had a few Old Kent Road Pinots but I shall spare them the Hall of Shame today. However, Felton Road (the road, not the winery) is probably the Mayfair – or â€œPark Laneâ€ â€“ says Duncan Forsyth, ‘the big cheese’, at Mount Edward.
Likewise, according to Matthew Jukes’ official classification, two of New Zealand’s top three Pinot Noir producers are based along this Bannockburn roadway: Mt Difficulty and Felton Road.
While Mount Edward is a Gibbston Valley-based producer, it bought an orchard here in 2007 at an â€œexorbitantâ€ price (lucky there were no houses or hotels or it would’ve cost even more). But it’s worth it in Forsyth’s eyes.
â€œAs time goes on I think it will vault ahead of everyone else,” he says. “It is the Park Lane of Central Otago.”
The first vintage of ‘Muirkirk’ Pinot Noir (well, all 65 cases of it) has already been released, made from existing vines planted in 1997. It’s more Oxford Street at the moment but as the vines get older, you can imagine that it could move up to Park Lane.
Despite a recession and a halt to planting throughout the rest of New Zealand, Forsyth planted another 4ha there last year. â€œI think we were the only fools to plant last year,â€ he laughs. Well, you’ve got to be a little bit crazy to become a winemaker in the first place.
Burgundy is the worldâ€™s top dog when it comes to making Pinot Noir but at todayâ€™s tasting New Zealand fared much better in a blind line up of Pinots from around the world. Of course weâ€™re in New Zealand so the tasting might have been a bit skewed but there were some real surprises.
Thereâ€™s a whole number of reasons why the Burgundians looked rather unimpressive today: the 2006 vintage was patchy, the selection of wines was rather tight and closed, and you need more than a splash of wine to make a true assessment of them. They couldâ€™ve done with a nice game dish to accompany them too.
Nevertheless Oz Clarke was so unmoved by the 2006 Camille Giroud, Chambertin Grand Cru that he said he found it as exciting as a â€œbus timetableâ€. I awarded it a very average 16.5 out of 20 and thought it was a village level Burgundy. At the prices Grand Cru Chambertin commands, this wine shrieked daylight robbery.
In contrast, my favourite wines of the tasting were the 2007 Ata Rangi and the 2007 Felton Road Block 5. Both had beautiful purity, concentration and structure. The tannins were certainly a lot riper and the wines were much more approachable in their youth than Burgundy. The panel of speakers started getting carried away with comparisons to song lyrics in their tasting notes and critic Neal Martin claimed the Felton Road Pinot was his â€˜Letâ€™s Get It Onâ€™ wine. Unfortunately he wasnâ€™t so complimentary to Russian Riverâ€™s Littorai Pinot, likening it to a song from Flight of the Conchords, â€˜Sugar Lumpsâ€™, in which Bret and Jemaine compare their testicles to the sweet cubes. I think Iâ€™d rather have Marvin Gaye.
It was good to see the NZ Pinots performing so well but one of the UKâ€™s leading importers Hatch Mansfield warned producers not to set their sights only at the premium end of the market.
The average price for a bottle of New Zealand Pinot Noir in the UK is currently Â£8.93. Patrick McGrath MW, managing director of Hatch said, â€œI donâ€™t think you want that premium to go any higher because you want to introduce Pinot to the greater public.â€
â€œThereâ€™s a huge opportunity for it to become mainstream,â€ he added.
Tim Atkin MW agreed with McGrath. â€œ I believe Pinot Noir is a huge opportunity. Under Â£20 I would rather drink a New Zealand Pinot Noir. If you can crack the Â£9.99 market then the future in the UK export market is very bright.â€
Iâ€™m not sure thatâ€™s what producers wanted to hear about their precious red grape variety.
If youâ€™re planning on having a conference, stretch the budget to Saatchi & Saatchiâ€™s CEO Kevin Roberts. It may have been 8.30am, an ungodly hour for a wine conference to start, but he managed to wake the industry without the help of caffeine.
The advertising guru certainly gave the industry food for thought when it comes to its image. â€œYou have the most sensual business in the world yet you insist on using packaging that makes it look like toilet cleaner. Following that classic comment up with another criticism of the industry: â€œMost people have websites that bore you into submission,â€ he said. Sad but probably true.
He also called on the New Zealand government to get behind the industry with funding to back the New Zealand wine â€˜brandâ€™ to make it a â€˜Lovemarkâ€™, meaning a brand that is both respected and loved, eg the ipod. You could buy another MP3 player, he argued, but you donâ€™t because Steve Jobs and the clever people at Apple have created a cult following. The Kiwi wine industry needs to do the same thing.
Instead of Pure New Zealand, he also suggested â€˜Made with Love in New Zealandâ€™ should be its new strapline. Hmmm, not so keen on that one. Maybe we could take a poll on that.
I wouldnâ€™t have wanted to be the one to follow Roberts but UK journalist Matthew Jukes did a pretty good job. Following the pretty average 2007 and 2008 vintages in Burgundy, he claimed New Zealand has the chance to attract a new legion of Pinot followers, particularly in the UK. â€œYou have a long time gap between now and the release of the 2009 Burgundy vintage. There is a window of opportunity and it is only going to happen once so donâ€™t stuff it up,â€ he said.
Less talk, more tasting
The morningâ€™s 2007 blind tasting was an interesting chance to identify regional differences. The Central Otago Pinots were pretty easy to pick from the blind line-up for their powerful structure, dense fruity core, dried herb note and lovely line of acidity. While I picked the two Marlborough Pinots in the line up, it was mainly because they were fruit forward but lacked structure and length. Biodynamic Pinot producer Mike Weersing of Pyramid Valley (see previous blog on Pyramid) pointed out he doesnâ€™t look to make a wine that reflects regionality but his individual terroir. But thatâ€™s an argument for another day.
The 2003 line up this afternoon was a bit disappointing. The tannins had dried out on most wines and the acid and oak were sticking out like a sore thumb. The 2003 Felton Road Block 5, Pegasus Bay and Rippon Estate seemed to be standing the test of time better than the rest. Neal Martin, a UK-based reviewer for Robert Parker, had the honesty and guts to stand up and tell the room of 400 delegates what he thought. I wish I had had the balls to get up and say it but Iâ€™ve saved it for my blog. Thereâ€™s less chance of getting something thrown at me.
Wine of the day
This was a toss up between two 2007 Central Otago Pinots – Valli vs Peregrine.
Both would easily get a gold medal and 18.5+ but I’ve plumped for the Valli. What’s so good about it? It has great depth of colour with plum, cherry and signature Central Otago dried herbs. It’s silky in the mouth with a lovely chalky texture on the finish and a vibrant line of acidity. While some NZ Pinots lack structure, this isn’t one of them and the 14% alcohol is beautifully integrated.
So, my Wine of the Week is Pyramid Valley’s 2008 Earthsmoke Pinot Noir. Itâ€™s quite unlike anything Iâ€™ve tasted from New Zealand but then theyâ€™re doing things a little bit differently here.
The Burgundy-trained Californian, Mike Weersing, has been biodynamic since planting in this virgin territory in 2000. Before coming to New Zealand, he lived in a camper van â€œcadgingâ€ jobs off his heroes: Alsaceâ€™s Jean Michel Deiss, the Moselâ€™s Ernie Loosen and Burgundyâ€™s Nicolas Potel. People thought he was mad leaving his winemaking job at Neudorf to set up in the unknown Pyramid Valley but he seems to have proven the sceptics wrong.
What is it that makes his wines so different to the rest of the country? Perhaps itâ€™s the soil. Weersing said, â€œWe could not locate the combination of clay and limestone anywhere else in Waipara.â€
Or could the explanation lie in low crops? The two-hectare vineyard planted with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay is planted at an Old World density of 1m by 0.8m with only 400g of fruit per vine. Elsewhere, itâ€™s common to see 3.5kg of fruit on a vine â€“ and 5kg for Sauvignon Blanc. The concentration comes through in the wines.
Whatâ€™s more, 95% of his vines are ungrafted and he has found that those that are grafted on to American roostocks are the first to suffer drought. Heâ€™s also discovered that the roots of the ungrafted vines can penetrate the limestone whereas the grafted ones get to the limestone and stop burrowing down, missing out on all the mineral goodness of the limestone. While most would worry about the threat of phylloxera, this vineyard is pretty isolated and Weersing has little concern about the vine louse.
Weersing doesnâ€™t irrigate either unlike many other New Zealand grape growers. In Marlborough, some producers on free-draining gravel soils have told me they irrigate twice a day with 400mm of water at the height of summer. But this goes against his idea of terroir. â€œYou are not just expressing the soil, you are expressing the season,â€ he says, â€œ and if thereâ€™s a bit of drought stress then so be it. For example, if you love Chambolle Musigny Les Amoureuses, you want to see it in all its manifestations.â€
He makes his wines in a shipping container rather than a swanky winery. He doesnâ€™t add anything including sulphur (until bottling) and when he does bottle his reds, he doesnâ€™t fine nor filter, so expect a slightly cloudy wine but with all the good bits still in it. Considering his wines have a high pH (4.1 for his 08 Pinot Noir), this should mean that the wines are really unstable and prone to microbial spoilage. It goes against all the wine books that his wines should work. But they do.
Some people might think Weersingâ€™s a hippy. Perhaps he is, but who cares? The wines are impressive and Iâ€™m slowly coming around to biodynamics. The proof is in the glass.