Pinot noir regionality has been pumped up by many in the New Zealand wine industry in recent years, but after PAUL TAGGART took a look at the subject he had to burst the bubble.
As the world’s pinotphiles returned to San Francisco, Chicago, London and Stockholm after the recent big pinot noir junket in New Zealand, they began tweeting and posting, as they were expected to do as payment for the junket.
Among their memories was how beautiful New Zealand is and how appalling Wellington’s weather can be. Presumably, sponsors required the event to be held in the capital, as it is a weird place for a wine gathering.
But what did the great and the good of wine blogging learn about our pinot noir from their time here? That it is produced in some beautiful vineyards and a lot of it tastes pretty good. There were also brainy sessions about wild ferments and the development of the wine industry in Arizona (weird, but true), lots of talk about star signs and wine folks’ sense of place, but there was nothing particularly Kiwi or pinot about much of that stuff.
What was lacking, in my humble opinion, was some sort of metric, a wee bit of a benchmark; a comparison with what’s happening elsewhere in the world, and some questioning around whether quality has improved in the years since the last big pinot event four years earlier.
In the words of the great Jancis Robinson, who was the event’s star attraction — and whose presence was the reason I flew to Wellington to sit in on a few sessions — the gathering was “a Kiwi love fest”. And, I guess, that was the purpose of it: to showcase New Zealand pinot noir, let people see where it is produced, in the hope of selling a few more pallets in overseas markets.
The extensive tasting sessions weren’t intended to find the best wine in the world, or even in the New World. However, while the wines which were singled out for praise by the bloggers will get some publicity, no one has any real idea as to their worth, as they would if they had been pitted against their Oregon or French equivalents in a blind tasting, for example.
Which brings me to the first of two points I want to make — praise for blind tastings. I know they can be a bit stuffy, a bit serious, and wine is about people, terroir, good company, food matching as well as taste — but taste is the cornerstone. Blind tastings, with professional judges, can be expensive and complex to run well, but they deliver honest results.
As an illustration of how blind tastings are inherently reliable and honest and take the nonsense out of wine commentary, let’s consider my second point — regionality.
A number of the visiting commentators at the pinot gathering tweeted video comment after the event, others blogged their “findings”. A few made the observation — sometimes in remarkably similar words — that one of their main lessons from visiting New Zealand was how they could “really tell the difference between the New Zealand regions — where the wine comes from, particularly Central Otago”.
I don’t know if this was an intentional theme pushed by the event organisers to the visiting Twitterati, or if it was simply a message that was rammed home by various winemakers or wine region PR people as the visitors toured the country.
Or perhaps they were following the lead of Jancis Robinson who, in a radio interview during the conference, said New Zealand pinot was getting more and more regional. However, she did add that it would be a while before she could come up with a thumbnail sketch of each region’s specific features.
When pushed, she said that Otago pinots had bright fruit and were more obviously sweet, while North Canterbury wines were earthier, more Burgundian with more grunt.
Far be it from me to contradict the doyen of British wine writing, but I think she may have been better to stop after her comment that it was too early to say what the differences are.
Because, here’s the thing — even experts, who make, sell, live and breathe New Zealand pinot, can’t tell the main regions’ pinot noirs apart in blind tastings. No ifs, no buts. They can’t do it.
I’ve organised and watched too many tastings to feel intimidated on this subject, even by the world’s number one wine commentator.
Judges can easily pick good pinots from less than good, but the idea that each New Zealand region has distinct qualities, is nonsense.
I think we would all like there to be amazing regional distinctions — Central Otago as the bright, brash upstart producing wine that reflects schist, snow and lanolin from merino wool.
In some tastings pinot flights are arranged by region, and it is then much easier for judges to “identify” special regional characteristics they have been told exist.
However, if judges are not aware of the regions the wines are from, then the regional characteristics mysteriously disappear from their notes.
It may seem a pedantic point, and I could be accused of trying to remove some of the romance, but that’s not the case. Having wine “influencers” taste wines knowing full well which region they’re from (and often which winery they are from too) is pointless from a professional assessment point of view. Sure, it can work for wineries as the “experts”, paid or otherwise, domestic or foreign, can say something nice about the wines, thereby providing quotes that can be used on websites and in promotional literature.
Sometimes these comments are bought with free airline tickets, lovely dinners, or the schmoozing of a silver-tongued celebrity wine company advisor.
However, appraisal of a wine has real gravitas if it is the result of a blind tasting, conducted by professionals under controlled conditions.
The truth should be in the glass, not the PR hype.
There is no doubt in my mind that the WineNZ magazine tasting judges are good; we have two winemakers who have worked, and judged, all over the world, and a Master of Wine who has lived and breathed wine in Europe, North America and New Zealand. All three are currently full-time professionals in the wine industry in New Zealand and have judged to the highest level in both New Zealand and elsewhere.
They are consistent with their scores and comments and are part of the reason why WineNZ tastings are going from strength to strength.
And yet, the three amigos aren’t great at picking pinot noir regionality. Why? Because it is a myth.
At the start of a recent pinot noir tasting, I called for a volunteer who would, in addition to his regular tasting scribbles, note which region the wines were from, when he had a particularly strong hunch as to where it might be. Barry Riwai kindly agreed.
Barry is no judging dummy. He has judged at New Zealand and Australia’s largest shows, has worked for some top wineries and was recruited for the WineNZ team because of his impeccable reputation.
To give a wee insight into Barry’s ability, let’s jump to the pinot gris tasting, held the same day.
As far as the judges were concerned it was a lineup of 60-plus Kiwi wines, and they worked their way through them in their usual methodical fashion.
However, with the growth of the WineNZ tastings, we are now getting interest from a number of importers and, unbeknown to the judges, in this line-up there were a couple of foreigners.
When I gathered up the notes and began to check them through, there next to wine number seven in the first flight in Barry’s notes was “Is this Alsace?”
The answer was yes.
Now, how difficult that feat is for a wine judge, I’m not sure, but it impressed me.
If you look on the Winegrowers’ website — the industry body for New Zealand wine — it says “New Zealand Pinot Gris is more akin to Alsace in style than the drier Pinot Grigio”
So our pinot gris is like Alsace, but Barry can pick the Alsatian from the Huntaways in a lineup, without even knowing it was there. Respect.
And yet, when it comes to pinot noir regionality, Barry’s performance wasn’t great.
He was confident to note the region for about a quarter of the entries in the large line-up of wines, picking out Waipara, Central Otago, Marlborough and Wairarapa, as well as a few he thought were from overseas.
And despite being spot on with some of his Marlborough and Central Otago choices, he picked as many as being Central Otago that were actually Marlborough, as he picked Central Otago or Marlborough correctly.
I showed Barry’s efforts to a government statistician with a mathematics degree from Victoria University, who does this stuff for a living (imagine!), and she said the result was statistically slightly better than a blindfolded person throwing darts at numbers on a board, but possibly slightly worse than my schnauzer could do.
And to show it wasn’t just Barry having an off day, I opened it up to the trio of tasters when we were down to re-tasting the four five-star wines to find the best wine of the day.
While there were a few successes with their regional picks, with all three getting at least one right, the results were not statistically significant. Again, the schnauzer would have been in the running for top taster.
Here’s the thing — there’s good pinot in most regions and there’s bad pinot in all regions, and while Barry, Ant and Simon can, without a shadow of a doubt, pick good from bad, they can’t pick Central Otago from Marlborough, or Waipara from Martinborough, or at least they can’t do it with any degree of consistency.
But back to the pinot gathering in Wellington. It was a great event, and shone a light on what’s happening in this country with one of the world’s most prestigious varieties.
The lack of benchmarking in the event, however, presents magazines such as WineNZ with a great opportunity to provide rigour to balance the PR flimflam.
This article was published before Covid-19 and associated travel restrictions.