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.