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.
Why does Waitaki deserve its win?
Monday 25 June
The Waitaki Valley in New Zealand’s North Otago region has come of age this week: a Pinot Noir from this marginal region has been named the International Wine Challenge’s best Kiwi Pinot.
The region’s first vineyard, Doctor’s Creek, was planted in 2001 on limestone soils not dissimilar to Burgundy, and the first wines showed a mineral streak that attracted international praise. Since the initial rave reviews, many vineyards have sprouted up on lesser sites funded by absentee landlords, which don’t show that lovingly-nurtured mineral streak, but all the wines have a leanness and restraint that make this region stand out.
Yet it is still a small area and is often overshadowed by Pinot-producing Martinborough and Central Otago. But this week, it is having its time in the sun: John Forrest’s 2009 Waitaki Valley Pinot Noir took the title of best New Zealand Pinot Noir.
It’s affirmation that the region’s pioneers needed. Most New Zealand wine producers wouldn’t plant in the Waitaki Valley if you paid them. The region is nail-bitingly marginal and many of the country’s most successful companies have decided the risks are too high. But others who are braver, or possibly slightly unhinged, have put their money and love into this remote area of the south island.
As I wrote in the New Zealand Herald last year, the region excels at both aromatic whites, which include Riesling, Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminer, as well as reds from Pinot Noir. Production is small scale - at the last count there were just 110ha of vines in the whole region compared to Marlborough’s - which means these wines don’t come cheap. What’s more, Waitaki producers have to contend with hostile weather: rain, frost, wind and hungry birds make ripening rapes a risky business. If the handful of producers in the Waitaki Valley make it to harvest unscathed, the resulting wines show a restrained perfume, elegance and palate-cleansing acidity.
I am an unashamed fan of the handful of producers that are battling adversity to make some interesting wines. It’s also a part of New Zealand that remains unspoilt. Off the beaten track, the former post office in the small town of Kurow has been transformed into a tasting centre for the region’s producers and is worth a detour off State Highway 1 next time you’re in North Otago.
Monday 23 April
New Zealand has held a Pinot workshop in the spa town of Hanmer for more than 20 years. Following Pinot 2010 in Wellington, Marlborough producers decided to set up their own workshop to get serious about this fickle grape.
While Hanmer has sumptuous hot pools, Marlborough producers hold their get-together at a school campground! Whoever thought it would be a good idea to hold wine tastings at a centre with an adventure playground was asking for trouble. I am reliably informed injuries have been sustained in the name of Marlborough Pinot Noir.
Ben Glover, winemaker at Wither Hills, says: “This is modelled on the Hanmer experience but we really need to encourage our own region to take Pinot seriously.”
Indeed, Marlborough Pinot Noir has an image as simple and juicy. Serious Pinot drinkers have looked to Martinborough or Central Otago for complex, structured Pinot Noir. But Marlborough producers aren’t content with the status quo.
Anna Flowerday, co-owner of Te Whare Ra, says: “Marlborough gets accused of being too fruity and not complex but that’s a vine age thing. Now we have really good clones and really good sites and that’s why I think Marlborough Pinot has improved.”
Certainly older vines and sites, particulary in the southern Wairau Valley such as Benmorvan and Clayvin vineyard, are showing promising results but this year’s campground convention concentrated on stems in Marlborough Pinot Noir.
Flowerday explains: “We have a whole day when people bring trial wines. This year everyone brought stem trials from the 2011 vintage. We did some really great flights with no stems, 20% stems vs 50%. We found some interesting stuff.”
“Some people swore blue murder that they would never used stems and now they are considering it,” she adds. “Stems is more of a finesse thing giving wines an extra layer. You get secondary characteristics. The stems give the palate width and a floral perfumed character.”
Across the road at Wither Hills, Glover has also been experimenting with grape stems. He was cautious at first, worried that stems would bring green flavours and astringency. Today, the winery’s standard Pinot generally has 5-12% stems in the ferment. He has also done barrel trials with up to 100% stems. “It was pretty cool. It really swung the pendulum, giving the wines white pepper, lifted notes…It kept the bright fruit at bay.”
While I personally love stems in my New Zealand Pinot Noir, providing structure and line to the soft fruit, it doesn’t always work. Let’s face it, no-one wants astringency in a Kiwi Pinot. Flowerday adds: “We need to do it very cautiously on younger vines because they don’t have the concentration of fruit.”
In addition to vine age, the weather also appears to play a part. “Lignification is seasonal; a Frenchman would say it’s terroir. Personally, I think longer hang time is conducive to lignification,” says Glover. He also notes that some blocks tend to lignify early while others don’t. Clay soils, in his opinion, inhibit lignification too.
With the 2012 harvest now in full swing, those “serious” Pinot producers will again be doing stem trials to take back to the 2013 edition of Marlborough’s campground convention. Let’s hope someone packs the first aid kit.
This blog has also been published on Pinot NZ 2013
Eden Valley’s message on a bottle
Monday 28 November
Eden Valley Riesling producers have launched a proprietary bottle, embossed in the same vein as Chateauneuf du Pape. And the first vintage using this bottle - 2011 – is hitting shelves now.
The green flute has a symbol on the front representing the rolling hills of the Eden Valley and the region’s name is also embossed. It gives the region’s wines much better on-shelf presence and gives confused consumers a better idea what to expect if they’ve tried an Eden Valley Riesling before.
While it’s early days for the bottle, the region’s two biggest producers, Yalumba and Peter Lehmann, have not come on board for the first release. The price per bottle - some quote 90 cents, others more, others less - is perhaps a little high, particularly in the current economic climate when producers are looking to cut costs. However, a special mould had to be created to produce the bottles hence the high cost. What’s more, the Eden Valley is not a mass producer so the economy of scale is certainly not there to bring costs down.
Yalumba’s Louisa Rose, explains their decision. “The issue for us is that it’s quite expensive and our brands are much bigger than most. It’s a commercial decision at the moment but I think it’s a great idea.”
And Ian Hongell, winemaker at Peter Lehmann, adds “We are not using the Eden Valley bottle because we have our own proprietary bottle.”
Yet, if the biggest producers came on board, they would have the economy of scale, and the project would have more clout.
One of the area’s most renowned producers, Henschke, has bottled its 2011 Julius Riesling in the proprietary bottle but Stephen Henschke admits, “Not enough are using it but I think more people will be influenced to start.”
I certainly hope more producers do come on board. It is a small region that is technically part of the Barossa zone and there is very little awareness of the area.
Thus far the Clare Valley has achieved a higher profile status for its Rieslings but with greater unity and widespread adoption of this bottle, there is an opportunity for the area to become known as the premium Australian Riesling region. It should take a leaf out of Central Otago’s book, which has become known as the leading new world Pinot Noir producer through its collaborative marketing efforts.
There is a real opportunity for the region: Eden Valley Rieslings offers fresh wines that are clean and modern, and would suit the current consumers’ appetite for vibrant, unoaked styles. With moderate alcohol levels (12-12.5%), lemon, lime and lavender aromatics, they would appeal to a wide audience.
Yet it is relatively unknown: as part of the Barossa, it often gets overshadowed by its bigger brother. The proprietary bottle is a good start to increase its recognition, but it shouldn’t stop there.
*Packaging manufacturer Amcor produces the proprietary bottles. I have contacted them, asking for details on production costs, price per bottle and units sold thus far but they have not responded to my calls.