by Tim Atkin

A Hedonist’s Paradise

No one needs an excuse to go to Wellington, New Zealand’s most cosmopolitan, food-loving city, when it’s central heating and thermals time back in Europe. But throw in the chance to attend a three day conference dedicated to Pinot Noir, the hedonist’s grape variety of choice, and there’s no better place to be. Even Wellington’s notoriously windy weather was becalmed in early February as delegates strolled along the waterfront in balmy sunshine.

This was the fourth edition of the Southern Hemisphere’s biggest Pinot bash. Since the first, way back in 2001, New Zealand has emerged alongside Oregon, California and Australia as a source of some of the best alternatives to red Burgundy. Plantings have more than doubled to 4,824 hectares, making Pinot New Zealand’s second most exported variety (with over 6m litres) in 2009.

This is tiny compared with the ocean of Sauvignon Blanc (91m litres) that was pumped out of New Zealand last year, a good deal of it in bulk. Pinot Noir 2010 wasn’t supposed to be about so-called Sauvignon Plonk, but the oversupply and correspondingly subdued prices of New Zealand’s premier grape were mentioned in more than one presentation. Talk of Liebfraumlich, Tiger Woods, Australia and trashed reputations was a consistent theme. To take only example, the keynote speaker Kevin Roberts (worldwide CEO of Saatchi & Saatchi) opened his presentation with an admonitory quote from Warren Buffett: “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and 5 minutes to ruin it.”

What is the current reputation of Kiwi Pinot Noir? What does it need to do to move to the next level? Does it age? Is sustainability New Zealand’s trump card? And what about regional differences? Are they more important than house style? In an attempt to answer these questions 400 delegates sat through nine panel discussions, four of them accompanied by formal tastings, and contributed opinions from the floor. They also had the opportunity to taste new and older releases from 100 Kiwi Pinot producers in a walk around tasting. In short: Pinotphile heaven.

The three days of the conference had different themes: New Zealand Regionality, Sense and Sustainability and International, although there was a degree of cross over between them. The first began with a couple of pats on the back from journalists Matthew Jukes and Nick Stock. Jukes told the New Zealanders in the audience to get over what he called “the Kiwi modesty gene” and seize their moment, taking advantage of the fact that the 2006, 2007 and 2008 vintages were average in Burgundy, and that the 2009s won’t drink well young. Stock reinforced the point: “Now is the time to build a lasting bond between New Zealand Pinot Noir and the world of wine.”

The first blind tasting showcased the excellent 2007 vintage, looking at the country’s five major Pinot-producing regions: Martinborough, Waipara, Marlborough, Nelson and Central Otago. The quality was high — a useful stake in the PR dirt at the start of the conference — with the 2007 Neudorf Moutere from Nelson and 2007 Valli Vineyards from Central the stand out wines for me. Was it possible to identify a regional character? The two Central wines were the easiest to spot, thanks to their power and deep colour, but the Neudorf was recognisable too, as much for its intrinsic balance as its Nelson origin. Wine consultant Olly Masters made the point that Central has a continental climate, whereas the other four regions are more maritime. “Wind is a big part of why New Zealand can grown Pinot Noir so successfully in different areas,” he said.

Terroir is difficult to define in Burgundy, let alone in New Zealand. Taste wines from three different Vosne-Romanée domains, such as Grivot, Méo-Camuzet and Cathiard, and the influence of the winemaker is arguably as important as the vineyard source. In New Zealand, the picture is muddied by clonal differences (and the historic shortage of good plant material) and insufficient vine age. As the country’s vineyards mature, regional personalities will surely become more distinct.

If the opening tasting showed us New Zealand Pinot at its youthful best, the second, entitled “Seven Years On” was less successful. With the exception of the 2003 Pegasus Bay Prima Donna from Waipara, the 2003 Craggy Range Te Muna Road and the 2003 Mount Difficulty Target Gully, the wines seemed a little tired to me. Mind you, a tasting of 2003 Burgundies wouldn’t necessarily show any better. The Kiwi wine writer, Bob Campbell MW, acknowledged that “if we are ever going to make great Pinot, then ageability has to be a factor. But you have to remember that we’ve only been making serious Pinot for 30 years or less.”

The second day began with a discussion about sustainability, which many delegates considered the most inspiring of the week. Steve Smith MW of Craggy Range gave a rousing speech about the three pillars of sustainability (social, environmental and economic) and argued that all three were equally important. New Zealanders, he said, are “very good farmers who understand the land” and could “lead the world in natural farming”.

It was a theme that wine writer and scientist Dr Jamie Goode picked up on, talking about the “moral imperative” to become more sustainable. “We shouldn’t expect the next generation to pick up our tab,” he said, borrowing a metaphor from the bars of Wellington. Goode told the conference that the certification process must have teeth, but should “set the bar at the right height to guarantee maximum participation” while creating “meaningful differences in vineyard practice”.

That was the theory. What about the reality? Winemaker John Belsham led a panel looking at wines made using sustainable, organic and bio-dynamic techniques. The panellists (which included your correspondent) were all enthusiastic supporters of bio-dynamics in particular, although none of us could explain why it made a difference in the vineyard. “I have taste buds with a very fertile imagination,” admitted Max Allen. “I want to see the difference.”

The tasting of 2007s (further proof of what a good vintage it was) included some fantastic wines, especially the Pyramid Valley Grower’s Collection Eaton Family Vineyard, the Seresin Home, the Rippon Estate and a trio of wines from the Calvert Vineyard in Bannockburn: Pyramid Valley, Felton Road and Craggy Range. Is it significant that all six wines employ organic or bio-dynamic methods? It’s hard to say unless you can compare them with wines from the same vineyard made using conventional farming, but my hunch (and it’s only a hunch) is yes.

The final day looked at New Zealand’s place in the international market. It kicked off with a lively session on branding and marketing, including a speech from Jeremy Moon, founder of the Icebreaker clothing brand. “We have to be the best,” said Moon. “As New Zealanders, we can’t afford to be volume players.” Nigel Greening, owner of Felton Road and a former ad executive, told the story of an unnamed luxury car brand which crushed £100m worth of cars rather than damage its brand image. Would that someone could do the same thing with surplus Sauvignon Blanc…

The last session was crunch time. “Do we stand up to the competition?” asked Larry McKenna of Escarpment Vineyard, introducing a blind tasting of the “great” Pinot Noirs of the world. “Do we expect to challenge Burgundy?” he continued. “And if so, when?” Staring out at the audience, McKenna admitted that “the longer I’m involved in comparative tastings, the more I think it’s a form of masochism. It’s time to put my theory to the test.”

Sticking our noses into the glasses in front of us, some of us wondered if the Burgundies had deliberately been chosen to show the international wines in a better light. Apparently, this wasn’t so. Of my four top scores of the ten wine tasting (2007 Ata Rangi, 2007 Felton Road Block 5, 2007 De Bortoli Reserve Release and 2006 Domaine Jacques Frédéric Mugnier Nuits St Georges Premier Cru Clos de la Maréchale) two were from New Zealand, one from Australia and one from Burgundy; the other three Burgundies were mediocre at best and one was actively faulty.

Game, set and match to New Zealand? Not quite. New Zealand Pinots generally beat those from Burgundy for consistency, power and fruit weight, but its wines still lag behind in terms of complexity, longevity and expression of place. Mind you, on the evidence of Pinot Noir 2010, the gap is closing every year. Tasting the wines at the booths outside, where 100 Kiwi wineries were showing their Pinots, I came up with a list of 25 world class producers: Ata Rangi, Felton Road, Seresin, Neudorf, Pyramid Valley, Pegasus Bay, Rippon, Schubert, Mount Edward, Julicher Estate, Martinborough Vineyards, Escarpment, Bell Hill, Churton, Bald Hills, Gibbston Valley, Craggy Range, Mount Difficulty, Burnt Spur, Grasshopper Rock, Quartz Reef, Wooing Tree, Valli, Ma Maison and Two Paddocks. I told Bob Campbell MW about my findings and he nodded sagely. “In 2001, there were many dogs and a few stars. Now there are many stars and a few dogs.” Roll on Pinot 2013.

Originally published in The World of Fine Wine

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