Tuesday, 28 March 2017 11:41

Our Pinot is pushing the boundaries

Written by 
Allen Meadows – the Burghound. Allen Meadows – the Burghound.

Allen Meadows is a self-confessed, “obsessive” Burgundy lover.

So much so that his life is spent compiling advice and information on the world’s foremost Pinot Noir region. His quarterly reviewBurghound.com was the first of its kind to dedicate itself to the wines of a particular region – and has become the go-to for lovers of the variety.

While his reviews offer regular updates on Oregon and Californian Pinot, it is not often that other New World countries are included in his extremely popular review. Hence a tasting of 221 wines from New Zealand was an amazing achievement, organised by NZW’s Marketing Manager USA, David Strada. Just getting Meadows to a tasting was an accomplishment – but the end results which featured in Issue 64 of Burghound.com (October 2016) were even more so.

Of the 221 wines tasted, 82 were ranked as 90 points or above. And in his report, Meadows had this to say; “We have yet to see New Zealand’s full Pinot Noir potential revealed. Given the very solid quality and for the most part, still reasonable prices, there is every reason to be excited and optimistic about the future. If you haven’t tried some of the better examples, I encourage you to do so and see for yourself.”

Tessa Nicholson talked to Allen to get his personal thoughts on where New Zealand Pinot Noir sits currently and where it is going in the future.

It has been three years since your last tasting of New Zealand Pinot Noir. Back then it was a tasting involving 116 wines from 58 producers. In 2016 it was 211 wines from 111 producers. Were you surprised at the growth and evolution in that short time period?

I was indeed very pleasantly surprised by the increased participation in 2016 relative to the prior tasting.

I suspect that this remarkable increase was due to some combination of the continued growth of the New Zealand wine industry coupled with David Strada’s tireless efforts to encourage wineries to contribute wines for review. From purely a personal standpoint I would like to think that another possible reason so many growers chipped in is knowing that Burghound.com is a Pinot-centric publication with a global perspective on the current state-of-the-art.

Looking back at your tasting notes of 2013 – what were the major changes you see from this tasting?

This is a fascinating question that could easily warrant an entire article. Three years does not sound like a particularly long time yet in a country like New Zealand where there is so much exciting exploration going on, it is in fact significant. I wish to underscore that when I use the word “exploration”, I mean it in two distinct senses; the first is in terms of the search for new vineyard sites. I have been to New Zealand several times and each trip has involved going out into the field with winemakers to see not only their vineyards but to discuss with them the prospecting that they’re doing for new and different microclimates that might make for potentially interesting Pinot plantations.

However the second sense is actually for me as a critic the more interesting of the two, as one thing that really came through in this most recent tasting is how wineries are pushing the boundaries of winemaking. Perhaps stated differently, the winemaking in the prior tasting seemed “safer and less adventurous” if you will. While it’s important to note that for the most part the vintages were not the same in the two reports, and this obviously contributed to the differences, my strong sense of things is that winemakers are taking more chances and being more innovative. Sometimes this works and sometimes it doesn’t and the proof of this is the understandable fact that I’ve never met a first-rate winemaker yet who didn’t make a few mistakes along the way. Trial and error is the path forward as things that don’t work are discarded and those that do are implemented and gradually refined. As one small example of what I’m referring to, there was a lot more whole cluster fermentations this time around than the last.

What I find illuminating about this is that I didn’t necessarily find enormous qualitative differences between the two tastings so much as I found a greater range of styles. This strongly suggests, if not confirms, that there is growing confidence among the New Zealand winemaker community to experiment so as to push the boundaries of their knowledge. As I noted, some of these experiments will warrant more interest and some won’t but my ultimate take away from the most recent review is that there is a developing conviction that New Zealand deserves a place at the table when the discussion turns to world class Pinot Noir. This conviction in turn leads to a willingness to take chances in the hopes of obtaining even higher quality.

You spend a good deal of time each year in Burgundy and know very well its AOCs. Do you see distinct styles emerging from the Pinot Noir regions and sub-regions of New Zealand?

I might rephrase the question slightly to suggest that the New Zealand regional distinctions that I see are less about style and more about terroir characteristics. I hesitate to be categorical about it, as the final chapter regarding what are the specific attributes for any one growing region and/or sub-region might yet to be written….and probably won’t be for another 50 to 100 years. This is due to a number of particular possibilities, not the least of which are vine age, clonal selection, viticultural philosophy and new vineyard plantings.

Notice that absent from this list is winemaking technique. I say this because if New Zealand is ultimately to ascend to the pinnacle of Pinot Noir, it won’t be technique that accomplishes it but rather two key elements. The first is obviously the quality of the underlying terroirs that New Zealand has, in other words, the overriding question that must be answered is there is a “there there?” For what it’s worth, my sense of it is that there is very much a “there there” but, just as Burgundy’s terroirs took centuries to discover and delimit, New Zealand’s won’t be found and developed overnight either.

The second key element is whether, collectively speaking, winemakers allow their terroirs to be heard as it were. Winemaking techniques are so powerful today that they can easily overwhelm the subtleties of terroir expression and in this sense less is more. Moreover, figuring out how to first obtain the best fruit from each terroir is an art unto itself and this is where clonal selection and viticultural philosophies come into play, not to mention New Zealand’s restrictive regulations regarding the importations of promising clones and/or rootstocks.

All of those aspects duly noted, is there a growing consistency of regional terroir expression?

Absolutely. The challenge now for the New Zealand grower community is to refine it and allow those individual regional differences to be consistently expressed. It requires a lot of winemaking discipline not to try make Vosne-Romanée or Gevrey-Chambertin or Volnay instead of focusing on what your fruit from your vineyard’s giving you. For example, Central Otago doesn’t make Martinborough and vice versa but the wisdom to accept this rather than trying to trade the elegance of one for the power of the other is a temptation that should best be avoided in my view.

On an average basis what did you think about the age-ability of the wines?

This is another question that could easily engender an extended discussion. In the interest of brevity though, if we put aside those wines that are expressly made for early consumption, there is nothing that I see that should prevent the average New Zealand Pinot from a good vintage from rewarding anywhere from 10 to 20 years of cellaring. Most examples of Pinot Noir start to become interesting at around six to eight years of age, as this is the typical inflexion point where the primary fruit begins to turn secondary and where at least some of the supporting tannic structure begins to soften.

After that it rapidly becomes a question of personal preference but again, there isn’t anything that I see to suggest that New Zealand Pinots are any less ageworthy than perhaps all but the very greatest terroirs in Burgundy. That said, I hasten to note that there is no particular reason that this should be the case forevermore. I say this because as the average vine age in New Zealand continues to increase, and potential wine concentrations with it, it’s entirely possible that the ageworthiness of New Zealand Pinot will continue to increase as well such that it may one day match that of grand cru Burgundy.

You reviewed wines from 2010 to 2014 – which years stood out?

The majority of the wines submitted were from the 2012, 2013 and 2014 vintages. Among those wines that I had a chance to review, 2014 was the most consistent, followed by 2012 and then 2013. However, it should be noted that both good and less good wines were produced in all three vintages. Moreover, just like Burgundy, Oregon and California, there are always exceptions to vintage generalizations. For example, while I found more very good to excellent wines from 2014 and 2012 compared to 2013, when the latter is good it’s really good. I constantly remind Burghound readers to take vintage generalizations with a grain of salt and focus on the excellent wines that are made in almost every year as this is how smart consumers stock their cellars.

Do you have any observations that you think New Zealand winemakers should be taking note of for the future?

They’re actually no different than I would offer to winemakers from any region and I include Burgundy in this statement.

The most important criterion, indeed the critical criterion, that any aspiring world class Pinot producing region must do is to produce something that can’t be found anywhere else. This of course sounds simple and in one sense, it is extremely simple. However doing it, and doing it consistently, is extremely hard. What I mean by this is that New Zealand must offer Pinots that consumers can’t obtain anywhere else but New Zealand. And in my view the first thing that typically must change in order to accomplish this is that the producer mindset itself must change such that he or she stops thinking of themselves as a Pinot Noir grower but rather as one that makes Wairarapa or Central Otago or Nelson or Marlborough or name your region. If we then take this concept another step, then the sub-regions come into play so that, for example in Wairarapa, the grower thinks in terms of producing Masterton, Gladstone or Martinborough. I would suggest that New Zealand growers consider adopting the Burgundian concept that they don’t make Pinot Noir but rather Richebourg, or Corton, or Clos de la Roche.

This might sound a bit precious to New World sensibilities but it is in fact the key to differentiating what they do from what everyone else does. And in the same vein, New Zealand growers that think of themselves as producing say Canterbury are fundamentally changing their approach to expressing, and preserving, what their wines have to say. Moreover, they are reinforcing the concept to consumers that the only place in the entire world that they’re going to find this particular expression is in Canterbury in the same fashion that consumers understand that if they want to enjoy Vosne-Romanée, they have to seek out something from that commune.

In my strong opinion this is how not only commercial success is achieved but also the respect that comes with making a unique expression of Pinot Noir. I fully appreciate that this is very easy to say and exceptionally hard to do but in the end, it’s the only way that guarantees long-term success.

What is your overall assessment of New Zealand Pinot Noirs vis-à-vis those from other leading Pinot regions around the world?

I dislike sugarcoating things and the honest answer is that while New Zealand is producing some excellent Pinot Noirs, there is still work to be done and progress to be made. At the same time, it’s necessary to acknowledge that virtually the same observation could be made about all Pinot producing regions in the world. Putting Burgundy aside for a moment given its advantages in terms of understanding its terroirs due to centuries of experience along with very high levels of average vine age, together with Oregon, I like New Zealand’s chances to potentially assume preeminent status as the leading Pinot producer in the New World.

I believe this could come to pass because the best New Zealand Pinots combine two things better than any other New World region, which is to say combining excellent phenolic ripeness levels with Burgundian-style acidity. This combination allows the wines to be accessible young while keeping them refreshing plus it ensures that they will reward extended cellaring as well, which is something that all of the greatest wines in the world from whatever region and grape variety have in common.

I for one am extremely optimistic about the future of New Zealand Pinot Noir. The current state-of-the-art is already wonderfully exciting and it’s reassuring in its fashion to think that quality is only going to improve from here for all of the reasons that I cited previously. I for one can’t wait to see how it continues to evolve and develop!

The importance of Allen Meadow’s article focusing on New Zealand Pinot Noir cannot be underestimated. Nor can the logistics that ensured he had more than 220 wines to sample. Thanks must go to Amber Silvester from NZW in Auckland who was responsible for coordinating the consolidated shipping of the wines to America.

The full report on New Zealand Pinot Noir appeared in Issue 64 of Burghound.com, released in October 2016.

For more information about the quarterly review along with subscription details, visit www.burghound.com


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