Winemakers generally dislike Pinot Gris: it’s not that aromatic, normally has low acidity and let’s face it, it doesn’t set anyone’s world on fire in the same way as Riesling or Pinot Noir.
But it sells. And that means it’s a money spinner which keeps the wine business in business. Last week I ended up in a bit of a debate with a Master of Wine and a few other journalists about Pinot Gris. It ain’t my grape of choice but if people like drinking it, who am I to argue?
My friends love it: they’re successful, smart women in their late ‘20s and early ‘30s and Pinot Gris or Grigio is an easy-drinking wine that doesn’t cause any major issues to their palates. It’s great with food, makes some fabulous late harvest wines and I’m happy to drink it. I admit I’m not the biggest fan and this trend may be a passing phase before we move on to the next grape du jour but getting snobby about it makes the wine industry seem very far-removed from reality.
What’s more, in Alsace Pinot Gris is considered one of the four noble varieties. When I was speaking to Paul Pujol, winemaker at Prophet’s Rock (see blog 15 March 2010), and former winemaker at Alsace producer Kuentz Bas, he said: “The big discovery in going to Alsace was tasting older Pinot Gris. I was surprised by how it tastes if it’s grown in the right sites.”
We may try to sell Riesling and Pinot Noir to wine drinkers but we’re fighting an uphill battle. Let’s educate the consumer, says the wine industry, but most people have more pressing things to do with their time than learn about grape varieties. If people are drinking Pinot Gris then at least they are drinking wine and not beer or bourbon. They can then move on to the delights of other varieties in time.
I haven’t met many Kiwis who can hold a decent conversation in French but Paul Pujol is one of them.
The winemaker at Prophet’s Rock has a French father and became the first non-family winemaker at Kuentz Bas in Alsace since it was established in the late eighteenth century. He’s now brought a little piece of Alsace to Central Otago, producing pure Riesling and Pinot Gris, as well as the signature grape of Central - Pinot Noir - from low cropped vines and wild ferments.
Allowing the ferments to occur naturally does not sit easy with many New (and Old) World winemakers. It takes about 10 days for the fermentation to start and is likely to take three months to complete. If I were a winemaker, I’d be too scared of it all going pear-shaped.
The winery’s distributor in New Zealand, Ryan Quinn of Merchant Wines, also thinks it’s brave winemaking. “Having a bunch of wild ferments on the go requires big balls,” he said.
He claims that New Zealand has been lacking enough winemakers with the balls to really do some crazy stuff. I’ve met a few along the way already: Andrew Hedley at Framingham and Mike Weersing at Pyramid Valley are just two of many. Perhaps there needs to be a few more of them but wineries need to make money and taking risks isn’t always a great commercial strategy.
Quinn added: “It has been imperative that the New Zealand wine industry throws out some wineries that push boundaries a bit further.
“Missing from the equation is a new generation of fanatics. What I recognise in Prophet’s Rock is some of that fanaticism.” Of course he would say that - he’s trying to promote these wines but I take his point.
The recent releases: the ‘09 Dry Riesling has a lovely purity and perfume with lime, lavender and minerality. It is light and nimble on the palate with lively acidity and a refreshingly low 11.2% alcohol. Clean as a whistle. 18.5/20
The ‘09 Pinot Gris was only bottled three weeks ago but no signs of bottle shock. Attractive pear and apple puree notes on the nose with some white rose in the mouth. This is really lean for a Pinot Gris – it’s not broad or fat at all – likely due to a lower pH than you’d normally see from a Gris (pH 3.25 for you MW geeks). While there’s 14g/l of residual sugar it only seems just off-dry thanks to that refreshing acidity. 18.5/20.
Burgundy is the world’s top dog when it comes to making Pinot Noir but at today’s tasting New Zealand fared much better in a blind line up of Pinots from around the world. Of course we’re in New Zealand so the tasting might have been a bit skewed but there were some real surprises.
There’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 could’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 “bus timetable”. 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 ‘Let’s Get It On’ wine. Unfortunately he wasn’t so complimentary to Russian River’s Littorai Pinot, likening it to a song from Flight of the Conchords, ‘Sugar Lumps’, in which Bret and Jemaine compare their testicles to the sweet cubes. I think I’d rather have Marvin Gaye.
It was good to see the NZ Pinots performing so well but one of the UK’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 £8.93. Patrick McGrath MW, managing director of Hatch said, “I don’t think you want that premium to go any higher because you want to introduce Pinot to the greater public.”
“There’s a huge opportunity for it to become mainstream,” he added.
Tim Atkin MW agreed with McGrath. “ I believe Pinot Noir is a huge opportunity. Under £20 I would rather drink a New Zealand Pinot Noir. If you can crack the £9.99 market then the future in the UK export market is very bright.”
I’m not sure that’s what producers wanted to hear about their precious red grape variety.
If you’re planning on having a conference, stretch the budget to Saatchi & Saatchi’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. “You 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: “Most people have websites that bore you into submission,” 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 ‘brand’ to make it a ‘Lovemark’, meaning a brand that is both respected and loved, eg the ipod. You could buy another MP3 player, he argued, but you don’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 ‘Made with Love in New Zealand’ should be its new strapline. Hmmm, not so keen on that one. Maybe we could take a poll on that.
I wouldn’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. “You 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 don’t stuff it up,” he said.
Less talk, more tasting
The morning’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 doesn’t look to make a wine that reflects regionality but his individual terroir. But that’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 I’ve saved it for my blog. There’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.
And the winner of the 2009 New Zealand export championship is…Sauvignon Blanc.
Yes, a whopping eight out of 10 bottles of wine leaving Kiwi ports are Sauvignon Blanc. Not altogether surprising you might think but its dominance is pretty worrying if an ‘Anything But Chardonnay’ backlash shifts to Sauvignon.
According to the latest figures from New Zealand Winegrowers, overall exports were up 34% to 130 million litres. It’s difficult to know how much of that increase can be attributed to bulk Sauvignon shipped out in flexitanks to be bottled as an anonymous supermarket brand but there would certainly be plenty of it. Unfortunately, there’s no value figures available yet so I’ll just have to speculate that value rises will be nowhere near the 30% mark. It’ll be interesting to see the year-on-year price per litre too.
On a more positive note, it appears the Kiwis have invaded China in the past 12 months. China didn’t even feature in the 2008 top ten export destinations and it is now sitting pretty in position number 5 with more than 1.2m litres shipped. With the Far East’s penchant for reds, Hawkes Bay and Central Otago are ideally positioned to take advantage of this market.
A Gris day
The other major mover in the export charts is Pinot Gris. Anyone visiting the country’s wine regions can’t fail to notice that most producers now have a Gris in their range. A surge in plantings has been followed by a 63% rise in exports in the past year to 2.4m litres. Winemakers tell you they hate making this rather neutral, low acid, high alcohol variety but people sure do like drinking it. It’s a pretty startling rise when you consider that as late as 2006 only 400,000 litres of Gris were exported. My GCSE maths tells me that’s a sixfold increase - Carol Vorderman has nothing on my numeracy skills.
It’s sad to see that Riesling hasn’t shared in the success of Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Gris. Exports have remained pretty stagnant and it’s had to watch a lesser variety (in my opinion) leapfrog over it. Booooooooo.
Anyway that’s enough numbers from me. I’m off to the much-anticipated Cabernet/Merlot forum and Syrah Symposium on Friday and Saturday. I’ll be posting blogs on the hot topics plus keeping you updated everyday at Pinot Noir 2010 in Wellington next week.