Benchmarking New World Pinot Noir
Thursday 21 February
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.
The Waitaki Valley and why Central Otago is “turning wines into cartoons”
Friday 3 August
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.
Domaine de la Romanee Conti: yours for just £10,000 a bottle!
Monday 12 September
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.
The week that was at decanter.com
Friday 12 August
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….
Sunday 30 January
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.