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Pinot noir

Part 2 of a New Zealand tasting

by Thor Iverson

[vines at felton road]Here’s part two of a New Zealand Winegrowers trade tasting; the first part covered sauvignon blanc, this will deal with pinot noir, the third installment will run down a few rieslings, and everything else will appear in the fourth installment. Notes are of the hit-and-run variety due to the format, so please read them in that context.

Matua Valley 2008 Pinot Noir (Marlborough) – Green leaves (perhaps beet greens) with a powdery underbelly. Hardly undrinkable, but tastes more like an experiment than a pinot noir. (3/09)

Saint Clair “Vicar’s Choice” 2008 Pinot Noir (Marlborough) – Dry red fruit. Underripe. (3/09)

Saint Clair 2008 Pinot Noir (Marlborough) – Clean red berries and Juicy Fruit™ gum. Candy’s rarely a positive descriptor for pinot noir. (3/09)

Palliser Estate “Pencarrow” 2007 Pinot Noir (Martinborough) – Tart. Rhubarb and cranberry. Smoke and a little minerality, with hints of depth on the finish. Very crisp. Not entirely balanced. (3/09)

Palliser Estate 2007 Pinot Noir (Martinborough) – Beet, plum, and weedy tannin. This wine throbs at a baritone pitch, never really adding anything other tones of interest. Disappointing. (3/09)

Dashwood 2007 Pinot Noir (Marlborough) – Black cherry, sour dill, and severe char. Vile. (3/09)

Stoneleigh 2007 Pinot Noir (Marlborough) – Light black fruit with clarifying acidity. Juicy and pleasant. (3/09)

Babich 2007 Pinot Noir (Marlborough) – Sweetish candy notes. Black plum, orange rind, golden beet, and a hint of anise. This doesn’t entirely escape a certain synthetic character, either. Iffy. (3/09)

Oyster Bay 2007 Pinot Noir (Marlborough) – Flat. Seashell and dirty asphalt. Yuck. (3/09)

Nobilo “Icon” 2007 Pinot Noir (Marlborough) – Pretty fruit; a blend of black, red, and purple. Soft and clean. There’s nothing here but fruit, and while it’s good in that style, it’s a little more like juice than wine. (3/09)

Nautilus “Opawa” 2007 Pinot Noir (Marlborough) – Golden beet and concentrated weed…both the invasive plant and the kind you smoke…with a short, bitter finish. Thoroughly underripe. (3/09)

Matua Valley 2007 Pinot Noir (Marlborough) – Prune, black cherry, and burnt coffee. Short, and that’s probably for the best. (3/09)

Vavasour 2007 Pinot Noir Awatere Valley (Marlborough) – Sharp and short, but what’s here is tasty, fun, and crisp. Red berries, mostly. (3/09)

Allan Scott 2007 Pinot Noir (Marlborough) – Green grass and high tides forever. Actually, maybe just the green grass. And dill. Dull. Dull dill. (3/09)

Babich “Winemakers’ Reserve” 2007 Pinot Noir (Marlborough) – Pure red fruit, apple, clementine. Crisp, with a sandy texture. Good basic pinot. (3/09)

Nautilus 2007 Pinot Noir (Marlborough) – Sugary red and black plums, finishes like some bizarre sort of candy. (3/09)

Saint Clair 2007 Pinot Noir Pioneer Block 4 “Sawcut” (Marlborough) – Cran-grape juice. Light, sour, and underripe. (3/09)

Staete Landt 2007 Pinot Noir (Marlborough) – Reserved, dry, and difficult, with chalky minerality. Very long, though. A little bizarre, perhaps, but it might be worth holding for a while, to see what happens. (3/09)

Spy Valley 2007 Pinot Noir (Marlborough) – Plummy. Short, simple fruit. Clean. (3/09)

Wild Earth “Blind Trail” 2007 Pinot Noir (Central Otago) – Beet, blood orange, and luminescent red fruit with hints of herb. Fun, with good quality for its price. (3/09)

Amisfield 2007 Pinot Noir (Central Otago) – Smoked dill, heavily-filtered dark fruit, and some heat. Long, but to little purpose. An absent wine, and just no good. (3/09)

Woollaston 2006 Pinot Noir (Nelson) – Black fruit with a candied edge, coal at the core, and hints of additional minerality. Coarse and short, but intense while it lasts. Not all that much fun to drink. (3/09)

Montana “Brancott” 2006 Pinot Noir “Reserve” (Marlborough) – Butter soup. Awful. (3/09)

Whitehaven 2006 Pinot Noir (Marlborough) – Stale nuts. Flat. Horrid. (3/09)

Hans 2006 Pinot Noir (Marlborough) – Beet, asparagus, and bitterness. Yuck. (3/09)

Wild Earth 2006 Pinot Noir (Central Otago) – Mixed berries and dark soil studded with morels. Deep, with the first stirrings of complexity. Medium-length finish. Very good. (3/09)

Isabel 2005 Pinot Noir (Marlborough) – Green berries. Tart and weedy, with watermelon Jolly Rancher on the finish. Short. A disappointment. (3/09)

Wither Hills 2005 Pinot Noir (Marlborough) – Black fruit tarted up like candy lozenges. (3/09)

Palliser Estate 2007 Pinot Noir (Martinborough) – Green beets (rather than beet greens) and pinkish fruit, with a powdered cotton candy texture. (3/09)

Gladstone 2007 Pinot Noir (Wairarapa) – Biting, skin-bitter, and high-toned. Lavender aromas. Weirdly interesting, though I think it would be difficult to identify as pinot noir. (3/09)

Waimea “Spinyback” 2007 Pinot Noir (Nelson) – Dirty (in a good way), but the palate is soapy and the finish pure Styrofoam. (3/09)

Te Mania 2007 Pinot Noir “Reserve” (Nelson) – Quite volatile and high-toned, with pinkish-purple fruit, plus a great deal of bite and chew. Spicy. Perhaps a touch woody, but it should integrate if so. (3/09)

Montana “Brancott” 2007 “T” Pinot Noir “Terraces” (Marlborough) – Red cherry, strawberry, raspberry. Simple fruit, but there’s not much else. Very light, with good balance. (3/09)

Huia 2007 Pinot Noir (Marlborough) – Sour dill and other herbs with a chalky finish. Awkward. (3/09)

Muddy Water 2007 Pinot Noir (Waipara) – Black cherry and black truffle with a heart of darkness. Elegant and pure. Lovely. (3/09)

WJ Coles Successors “The Crater Rim” 2007 Pinot Noir Blacks Lot 7 (Waipara) – Promising at first, but then…? Plummy fruit without a finish of any kind. Where’s the rest of the wine? (3/09)

Valli 2007 Pinot Noir Waitaki (Central Otago) – Intense blueberry. Very juicy. Pulses at the core. Piercing at first, but it’s all upfront; the wine’s finish goes nowhere, leaving only a lingering hint of tannin. (3/09)

Mud House “Swan” 2007 Pinot Noir Bendigo (Central Otago) – Smoky/musty raspberry, beet, and sugarplum. OK, but there’s a candied element that detracts. (3/09)

Carrick 2007 Pinot Noir (Central Otago) – Toast and char. Extremely ungenerous. Hard throughout. Whatever killed this wine – and it’s most certainly, if prematurely, dead – must include the barrels. (3/09)

Pinot noir is New Zealand’s second most planted variety. That’s sort of staggering to think about; more than any of the Bordeaux grapes, more than syrah, more than pinot gris, and even more than chardonnay. If sauvignon blanc is the grape on which New Zealand’s commercial fortunes rest, pinot noir is the grape in which its qualitative reputation is almost solely invested. (At least for now, that is; syrah has shown great promise, though finding a market for it will be a different issue.)

But while a good deal of international hype has been whipped up over the quality and potential quality of the country’s pinots, there are four factors that hold it back: ripeness, price, quantity, and identity.

New Zealand’s top pinot noir producers have concluded that pushed-ripeness (“overripe,” if one prefers a value judgment) pinot noir is, at best, a controversial product. For many, the quest is not for more, but rather for less, and some even bottle their reserve bottlings only in what might, by the rules of Burgundy and other regions, be considered the “lesser” (that is, cooler and less ripe) years. Of course, good wines are produced at many different conceptions of ripeness. Yet most winemakers acknowledge that it is all too easy for them to make monster pinot noir, and many feel that it is not in their interest to do so. (On this point I agree with them, but that’s obviously based on my personal preferences.)

Price is a persistent issue with pinot noir from anywhere; the tariff for entry into the realm of quality pinot noir is usually fairly high, and attempts to find cheaper alternatives are rarely met with success. This is no less true in New Zealand, and the above notes bear this out; a little less than half the wines are under $20, and the vast majority of those range from nearly-undrinkable to, at best, drinkable simplicity. Among the country’s best pinot noirs (not, in general, represented in these notes), prices ranging from around $40 to the higher double-digit realms are the norm; the triple-digit super-cuvées with which a few overreaching New Zealand producers have experimented haven’t found traction here, as yet.

Of course, wherever there’s good pinot noir, there’s not much of it. The very best wines are, like the best pinots from pretty much everywhere else, small-production entities. (Site-specific bottlings aren’t yet a major factor; New Zealanders’ caution in this area is warranted and admirable, since many vineyards are far too young to have clearly separable terroir signatures, and clonal identities are, in many wines, far more dominant at the moment.) The most cultish bottlings are snapped up by locals via long-closed mailing lists, and the rest must service not only the homeland, but also many other markets in which New Zealand has had a longer presence than it has had in the States. So to speak of high-quality, limited production pinot noir is one thing, but to actually acquire a selection is another. The promotion challenges are considerable; if there are only a dozen cases available for the entire United States, and some of that must be opened for otherwise-unfamiliar retailers, sommeliers, and press, there’s not going to be much wine to sell. And thus, there’s not much chance of marketing traction for the wine, the brand, or the grape. Larger-production wines do better at this, but as the above notes indicate, many of those wines aren’t very good, which is a brand-building danger of its own.

All of these factors contribute to the difficult question of New Zealand pinot noir’s identity in the worldwide marketplace. The wines that are available everywhere are “cheap for pinot”, but in reality aren’t all that cheap…and, mostly, aren’t all that good either. Many better wines are only anecdotally available, and most certainly aren’t cheap. The existence of the former damages the case for the latter, but the general unavailability of the latter makes it impossible to counter this effect.

And that’s not even the biggest problem. Putting aside “commoditized” pinot noir for a moment, quality-oriented wines from this grape must compete in a world marketplace that is rather laden with options from elsewhere, priced pretty much the same. Lovers of a riper, more full-throttled “Californian” style will find wines from New Zealand that fit their palate, but in tiny quantities and equivalent prices, so what – other than pure curiosity – is their impetus to explore the category? Lovers of a more restrained, “Burgundian” style will find wines made with that philosophy in mind, whether or not the wines actually taste Burgundian (mostly, they don’t; if there’s any region with which the wines have a vague kinship, it’s the Willamette Valley), but this is an audience that’s very, very resistant to New World pinot noir…and again, the prices for wines of equivalent quality are not particularly divergent. So again, what’s the motivation to shift funds from one to the other?

Given that most (though certainly not all) New Zealand producers’ best pinot noirs are deliberate attempts to scale back New World-style ripeness, it’s crucial that these wines be placed in front of critics, traders, and consumers who dislike the more powerful style. Only then will any market presence be enhanced. The wines will always be a difficult sell, but here is where their low quantities become a virtue; the audience doesn’t have to be huge to sell through the wines.

And further progress must be made on the “bargain pinot” front. There is evidence that pinot noir of quality, if not necessarily much complexity, can be made in New Zealand. Many of the best producers bottle a forward, fresh, “drink now” bottling specifically targeting this market; these wine, rather than wretched mass-market cheapies, must come to represent New Zealand pinot noir in the popular mindset, or consumers will always be wary of “trading up” to the pricier wines. Nothing from this tasting better exemplifies the necessary qualities than the Wild Earth “Blind Trail” from the Central Otago, which often retails for under $20. No, it won’t make anyone forget Chambolle-Musigny, or for that matter Domaine Drouhin Oregon, but then again it’s not supposed to.

Unfortunately, the rather high percentage of wines in this tasting that come from Marlborough does not represent the best path towards this goal. There aren’t many regions in the world where pinot noir and sauvignon blanc grow to high quality side-by-side, and based on the evidence thus far Marlborough isn’t about to add itself to that list. To be sure, there are quality pinots made in the region (and a tiny number of real stars), but there are very few versus the total number produced. Overall, 45% of New Zealand’s pinot noir comes from its most industrial region, followed by 28% from the hype-heavy Central Otago (rife with young vines and untested potential, despite the hype), just 11% from its (so far) best region – the Wairarapa, including Martinborough – and a relative trickle from Nelson, the Waipara, and elsewhere. This is not a recipe for progress.

Within the confines of this tasting, it would be a rather lengthy process to list the failures, for they are numerous. Of special note, however, have to be those wines that grossly under-perform at their price points; those include Spy Valley, Amisfield (a perennial underachiever), Whitehaven, Palliser Estate, Huia, Isabel, and – most shockingly for me, since I’ve liked the wine in the past – Carrick. There are some surprising names on that list.

The successes? At the lower end – which is relative for this grape – Palliser Estate “Pencarrow”, Stoneleigh, Nobilo “Icon”, Vavasour, and the Babich “Winemakers’ Reserve” perform well, though all are surpassed by the quality/price ratio of the Wild Earth “Blind Trail”. At the higher end, Wild Earth and Muddy Water are the only real standouts.


Copyright © Thor Iverson.