Pinot Noir: the summit of the learning curve

Author: Andrew Jefford
Source: The Financial Times
Review Date: Sep 2010

If winemakers have a final frontier of achievement, it’s Pinot Noir. Dressed in the velvet of burgundy, red wines from this ancient French grape occasionally achieve a grandeur that seems beyond even Bordeaux. There’s an incandescence in those rare, sublime bottles; just one is enough to light the fuse of a lifetime’s obsession. Much burgundy, by contrast, barely ignites; the grape is famously capricious. This may be why making convincing Pinot is regarded as the equivalent of a tertiary degree around the rest of the winemaking world. It’s the summit of the learning curve.

Both Australia and New Zealand have embarked on this quest with gusto. They have every reason: average Pinot prices are higher than for any other varietal. Moreover, the future of any region that could challenge Burgundy would be gilded. The chance to attend New Zealand’s triennial Pinot Noir conference earlier this year, while I was based in Adelaide researching Australian wines, helped me compare the two nations’ offerings.

Zealand is the only southern hemisphere wine-producing nation whose primary vocation, by dint of latitude and location, is for white wines rather than red. That’s perfect for Pinot, which loves to be teased through a nuanced, cloud-flecked summer rather than roasted to ripeness under a glowering sun.

Unsurprisingly, then, New Zealand has a much more consistent hit rate for Pinot than Australia, and Kiwi Pinots usually exert an easier sensual appeal and carry more attractive flesh on their bones, too. In the right hands, that comeliness of form can acquire an inner structure and an intricacy that makes them world Pinot benchmarks, even if they don’t yet seem to have either the tannic grip or the mineral force of good red burgundy.

Don’t write off Australia, though. There are many cool spots, ventilated by the Great Southern Ocean, where Pinot can tiptoe towards ripeness. Australia’s soils are much older and more weathered than New Zealand’s, which seems to help its best Pinots acquire the structure (if not yet the tannin) that sometimes eludes their trans-Tasman neighbours. Australia’s key Pinot winemakers, too, understand the aesthetics of fine burgundy, so their wines are rarely over-extracted or crass. By contrast, the sensual side is often missing in Australian Pinots. Many are now early-picked to give finished alcohol levels of just 12.5 per cent or so (a reaction against Shiraz excess): at that adolescent stage, the wines have rarely acquired enough flesh to be comely. Australian technical fastidiousness, too, often leaves the wines cleaner and harder than European palates might wish. Pinot is a peach: easily bruised by handling.

Owner Nigel Greening and winemaker Blair Walter at Felton Road in Central Otago are widely regarded as New Zealand’s Pinot leaders, and justly so: their single-vineyard offerings are characterised by a perfume, a width and a classicism that few can match. The 2008 Block Five Pinot lives up to expectations, with its billowing black fruits held deftly in check by a deep, vinous keel. Early Pinot efforts from the Marlborough region further north were sometimes wiry and stringy, but the best wines from these gravel-and-clay soils now look remarkably complete.

The black fruits hidden inside the brilliant 2007 Clayvin made by Hätsch Kalberer for Fromm are lacquered with warmth and spice, while glycerol, tar and ample tannin take the wine well away from the plush fruitiness that typifies simple New Zealand Pinot. Bell Hill in North Canterbury is a third outstanding producer: expressive, mouth-coating yet nervy Pinot with deft vintage differentiation grown on limestone slopes. The wines of the biodynamic Pyramid Valley in the same region (also on limestone) are lighter, more graceful and more floral, with sweeter-toned fruit.

Australia’s leading Pinot producers are widely separated in terms of geography and style. Tasmania is evidently propitious, as the fresh, crisply defined red fruits of Andrew Pirie’s Tamar Ridge Pinots from the Kayena vineyard in the northern part of the island demonstrate: these offer perhaps the clearest varietal benchmark in the country at present. Brian Franklin at Apsley Gorge in warmer eastern Tasmania makes bigger, more statuesque Pinots using rigorously Burgundian techniques.

Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula and Yarra Valley are the focus of intense Pinot activity, with the wines of the Yarra tending to have more backbone and those of Mornington prettier flesh. South Australia’s Adelaide Hills is another potentially fine Pinot-producing area, led by the complexity and structured freshness of Stephen George’s work at Ashton Hills. A dark horse in the Pinot stakes is veteran Brian Croser’s newish vineyards at Foggy Hill at the southern tip of the Fleurieu Peninsula: poised, graceful and intricate, leaping in quality with every new vintage.

There’s much to excite Australian and New Zealand hopes, then – though a useful corrective to over-exuberance came in the final tasting of the Pinot Noir conference in January, when a sprinkling of New Zealand and Australia’s best was ranged against bottles from Burgundy, California and Oregon. In the opinion of most of the 400 or so tasters, it wasn’t the local wines which triumphed – but nor was it those from Burgundy. Instead, it was the North Americans (especially the refined and intense 2006 Au Bon Climat Isabelle from California and the perfumed, supple 2006 Elk Cove Reserve from Oregon). This is a race, of course, which will never end.

Pick of Antipodean Pinots

Ten of the best from Australia

Apsley Gorge (eastern Tasmania), Ashton Hills (Adelaide Hills), Coldstream Hills (Yarra), De Bortoli (Yarra), Lubiana (Central Tasmania), Marchand & Burch (Porongurup and Mount Barker), Picardy(Pemberton), Stonier (Mornington Peninsula), Tamar Ridge (northern Tasmania), Tapanappa Foggy Hill (Fleurieu Peninsula)

Ten of the best from New Zealand

Bell Hill (North Canterbury), Escarpment (Martinborough), Felton Road (Central Otago), Fromm (Marlborough), Mountford (Waipara), Pyramid Valley (North Canterbury), Rippon (Central Otago), Seresin(Marlborough), Quartz Reef (Central Otago), Villa Maria reserve and single vineyard (Marlborough)

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