A Down Under Baedeker for Pinot Noir
In terms of production, Marlborough is by far the most substantial region where large-scale grape growers and bigger wineries coexist with small vineyards. The complex and powerful wines from Fromm Winery and Foxes Island demonstrate the region's capabilities well, that is not to say the larger producers are less important or dedicated, indeed they have contributed enormously in propagating the strategic new clones that have transformed New Zealand pinot noir.
In the viticultural context, cloning is where cuttings or buds are taken from selected vines and propagated by nurseries. Different clones from varying countries or regions can be matched to soils and regional characteristics, greatly enhancing the complexity and quality of the finished wine. It may sound reasonably straightforward, however it is not an exact science with experimentation often taking a decade with no guaranteed results.
The most popular and superior pinot noir clones come from Burgundy, often referred to as "Dijon" clones. The first clones of pinot noir introduced to New Zealand were from Switzerland and Champagne, France and did not perform that well and have been largely replaced by Dijon clones that became available in the 1980s and 1990s.
(There is a rather amusing story attached to a particular clone called "Abel," which also has several synonyms, "Gumboot," "DRC" and "Ata Rangi.")
Abel refers to Malcom Abel, the diligent New Zealand customs officer who discovered and confiscated the said vine cuttings when a certain individual attempted to illegally smuggle them in to the country. As it turned out, Abel had more than a passing interest in vines, being a vineyard owner and instead of destroying the cuttings he quietly processed them through the correct channels and quarantine facilities.
Gumboot refers to where the vine cuttings were uncovered by Abel and obviously the offender knew a thing or two about pinot noir, as the cuttings were apparently pinched from DRC (Domaine de la Romanee-Conti) Burgundies most famous vineyards.
Ata Rangi is the Martinborough winery that acquired the propagated cuttings from the Corbans nursery and it remains one of their most favored clones, along with other Dijon selections.)
Within the flourishing pinot noir sphere of New Zealand, there is a tendency for the wine press to be preoccupied with new labels and latest discoveries. However, as an introduction to New Zealand pinot noir I would like to highlight some of the benchmark producers who have a well- established track record and are instrumental in defining regional styles.
Starting with the best, not only is Ata Rangi unquestionably the benchmark of the Martinborough region, it is the yardstick for all New Zealand pinot noir, if not the New World. This is pinot noir in its most profound expression, the symmetry between power and elegance and seductive opulence hard to match from anywhere in the world, even Burgundy.
Ata Rangi means "new beginning" in Maori and well describes how it began in 1980 when a barren five-hectare paddock purchased by Clive Paton took on a new lease of life as one of the first vineyards in the Martinborough region. Created by ancient rivers, these free-draining shingle terraces run some 20 meters deep, covered by shallow silt-loam and are perfect for pinot noir, to the displeasure of the local sheep. With the lowest rainfall in the North Island, coupled with the lean, stony soils and a fierce cool northwesterly in spring, yields are very low.
I recently enjoyed a bottle of 2004 Ata Rangi Pinot Noir as an after dinner tipple with friends, all of us content cradling and inhaling the contents of our glass as if it were a fine old cognac. At the same time I contemplated it with duck Teo Chew style, slowly braised with dark soy sauce and five-spice.
I have reduced my tasting note at the time by two thirds, as it looked like a pinot noir thesaurus. Intense, voluptuous nose of black cherries and blueberries, deepening to stewed blood plums and rhubarb, with cinnamon spice. A second wave of dried herbs, pipe tobacco and mocha among gunflint and toasty oak seduces further. Plush, sweet and sour saturation of small berry fruits building to layer upon layer of creamy lushness and Christmas pudding richness; chocolaty mid-palate with more mocha with the sweetness giving way to a herbal end-palate, oscillating between warming spices and cold iron acidity. There is a refined sinewy structure throughout the wine, tempering its opulence but not intruding on its silky texture.
Pinot Noir Celebration in Wellington, New Zealand, February 2007
Should you have more than a passing interest in pinot noir and excellent cuisine, I strongly recommend a holiday to New Zealand incorporating the four-day pinot noir celebration held biannually in the capital city, Wellington.
Held next year between January 29 and February 1, the middle of the southern hemisphere summer, it is the perfect way to escape Hong Kong's dreary winter weather. If by chance you are also a rugby fan, the International Sevens are on the weekend before.
There are almost 100 wineries participating in the event with organizers having devised a three- stream conference program covering technical subjects, the business of wine, or wine connoisseur and consumer workshops. Tasting includes Great Pinot Noirs of New Zealand, Great Pinot Noirs of the World (including the rare 2003 Chambertin from Rousseau) and a feature tasting from the excellent 2003 New Zealand vintage.
There are also some impressive speakers on the program, including: British wine writer, lecturer, judge and commentator Matthew Jukes; French master of soil, Claude Bourguignon; Jacques Lardiere of Maison Louis Jadot, arguably Burgundy's most prestigious producer; Poh Tiong, publisher of The Wine Review, Southeast Asia's oldest wine magazine; Michel Bettane, France's most respected wine writer; Australian viticulture lecturer, researcher, author and inventor Dr Peter Dry; Monty Waldin, one of the world's leading authorities on biodynamic and organic viticulture and winemaking; and Andrew Caillard, specialist wine auctioneer, author and executive partner of Langton's Wine Auctions and Wine Exchange in Australia.
Pinot Noir 2007 is also about great local produce and cuisine with leading New Zealand chef, caterer and food writer Ruth Pretty in charge of the culinary program.
Having participated in this event, I have lasting memories of the street party where all the top Wellington restaurants gather under marquees in Hawker stall style with wine stations interspersed. It takes a long time and considerable stamina to get to the end of the street!
This really is a wonderful wine and food experience and an opportunity to rub shoulders with the world's key wine media, trade, winemakers and connoisseurs to celebrate pinot noir. It books out quickly, so register online quickly, website: www.pinotnoir2007.co.nz
Wellington is also a beautiful harbor city surrounded by steep hills, visually similar to Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbor, only the water is so crystal clear you can see the bottom. The city has a charming ambience with its preserved Kauri timber houses and is conveniently compact with local designer shops, galleries, museums (the Te Papa Museum is world-class), abundant cafes, bars and restaurants all within walking distance.
The majority of hotels in Wellington are unfortunately dated with nothing at the five-star level, although you will find the service in general very friendly. There is however a fabulous and groovy new establishment called the Bolton Hotel, which has both serviced apartments and suites, website: www.boltonhotel.co.nz
Wellington is also an excellent base for venturing to vineyard areas with Martinborough just one hour's drive north. Nelson and Marlborough are only a short flight across the Cooks Strait or the more scenic route by Inter- Island Ferry if you have the time. Queenstown and the Central Otago is also only an hours flight direct, although a little longer if via Christchurch.
The Australian state of Victoria, with its well-established cafe culture, displays a constant demand for modestly priced, yet sophisticated pinot noirs. I tried a perfect example the other day, the 2002 Callahan's Pinot Noir, made by Tuck's Ridge winery on the Mornington Peninsula, an hour drive south of Melbourne. It is attractively perfumed with dark plummy and blueberry scents among some spicy herbal notes with a faint whiff of spearmint and eucalypt, a signature of many Australian pinot noirs. The palate is plush and sweet with ripe red cherries, plums and spiciness.
The velvety texture with fine tannins and perky metallic acidity bring balance to the overall fruit sweetness of the wine. It's truly pleasing at a reasonable price of HK$178 per bottle and is available through direct importer Boutique Wines, Tel: 2872-4234, web: www.boutiquewines.com.hk or the vineyard website: www.tucksridge.com.au
There are also hundreds of top-quality examples coming from this cool-climate region, energized as it is by a sophisticated wine market and the state capital Melbourne's abundant restaurants and cosmopolitan lifestyle.
Victoria's diversity of climate is complex and, coupled with the capricious nature of pinot noir, ensures a kaleidoscope of styles. Although latitude is an important influence, many other factors are involved in differentiating microclimates, such as distance from the coast and ocean temperatures, prevailing winds (sometimes straight from the Antarctic) and altitude of the vineyard.
Pinot noir also expresses its terroir (soil and location) to a greater extent than most other grape varieties. While most pinot noir enthusiasts acknowledge the variety reaches its meridian in the terroirs of Grand Cru Burgundy, Australia has its own unique terroirs, with a myriad of deeply weathered soil types, some dating back 400 million years, rich in nutrients and minerals, which contribute greatly to the complexity of its wines.
The winemaker's skills, philosophies and personality have considerable bearing on the finished wine, with Australian vignerons making full use of new technology, whether it is the latest rootstocks and varietal clones in the vineyard or state-of-art equipment for the winery. At the same time, they can use traditional or "old world" techniques but not be constrained by them.
There is growing interest in New World pinot noirs and a curiosity about how the variety expresses itself outside of Burgundy, along with an awareness that these wines can offer more consistency with agreeable primary fruit sweetness and rich textures, as well as the added attraction of coming together more quickly. Drinkable practically straight after bottling, they are also capable developing the much- revered earthy, gamy secondary complexities with a few years aging.
Melbourne’s dress circle of pinot noir is less than two hours drive at any point of the compass, with the top wines in high demand locally, selling out quickly upon release. However, most producers are happy to see a small amount trickled to strategic export markets. Relatively unknown in Hong Kong or Southeast Asia, the wines I have suggested below have the benefit of being a year or two older than current release and are leading representations of five major wine areas.
TarraWarra Estate is located at the warm eastern end of the Yarra Valley, 40 kilometres east of Melbourne. Owned by Marc and Eva Beson, this impressive property affirms ‘If you want to make a small fortune by owning a winery, start with a large fortune'.
The vines are now 20 years old, planted in soils comprising a thin layer of grey loam over clay with a microclimate largely protected from the prevailing southerly winds. There has been great improvement in the wines since dynamic winemaker Clare Halloran took over in 1996, not only refining the style, but adding some much needed pinot noir symmetry: behind this elegant pinot noir, there is an even more elegant woman winemaker.
Just an hour’s drive south of Melbourne, on the eastern side of Port Philip Bay, is the scenic Mornington Peninsula, with its beautiful beaches and mosaic of rolling hills punctuated by copious boutique vineyards. Melbournian's flock here on the weekends, with all manner of attractions, wine tourism being a significant draw card. Visit this excellent website for more information: www.visitmorningtonpeninsula.org.
To quote Master of Wine, Andrew Caillard, “The Mornington Peninsula is probably doing more for pinot noir than anywhere else. In a good vintage, this region is capable of making some of the most aromatic and silky pinot noirs in Australia.”
Ten Minutes by Tractor Wine Company is located at Main Ridge, the highest part of the Mornington Peninsula and sources fruit from three separate family-owned vineyards that just happen to be ten minutes apart by tractor, hence the name. Owner Martin Spedding steers this dynamic newcomer to the Peninsula combining his passion for pinot noir with ingenious marketing, supported by impressive wines.
The wines are made by Dr Richard McIntyre at Moorooduc Estate, one of the pioneering winemakers of Mornington Peninsula and a pinot noir master. This silky aromatic style of pinot noir has added complexity from wild yeast fermentation (the vineyard’s native yeasts start the fermentation naturally) imparting earthy, fungal aromas.
The 2003 Ten Minutes by Tractor Reserve Pinot Noir (HK$415) begins with flinty, cold metal. It opens up to fragrant red cherry and juniper berry, turning gamy with grilled meats, dried cepes among toasty oak and a little spearmint. The palate is plush and creamy (praise to no filtration) with rich dark cherry fruit, blood plums, and roasted beetroot with a warming spiciness, finishing with a tangy metallic edge. It has a suave style with plenty of power yet finesses. Available in Hong Kong through Rare and Fine Wines, Tel: 2522 9797. Vineyard website www.tenminutesbytractor.com.au
Moondarra vineyard is located two hours drive southeast of Melbourne in the Gippsland Mountain River Districts. This is windswept cattle country surrounded by rugged pine forests complete with wild boar and deer.
Owner Neil Prentice is outwardly friendly and eccentric, with a Spike Milligan glaze best described in Australian colloquial terms as 'having a few Kangaroos loose in the top paddock'. He is extremely passionate about pinot noir and subscribes to biodynamic farming methods and minuscule yields of fewer than a tonne to the acre. His wines are powerful and extractive; a combination of the extremely low yields and the grapes undergoing ten days maceration, including some whole bunches, prior to fermentation.
On the western side of Port Philip Bay, southwest of Melbourne, it is an hour’s drive to Geelong and the gateway to the spectacular Great Ocean Road. Located at Bannockburn, 25 km north of Geelong, Bannockburn Vineyards legend Gary Farr, has established his own label called ‘By Farr’. He is equally respected in Burgundy having done countless vintages with Domaine Dujac. Gary’s surly composure camouflages his friendly, down-to-earth nature and genius in this field.
2003 By Farr Pinot Noir (HK$588) Drinkers of serious Burgundy will easily identify with this savory, gamy, powerful and tightly structured wine. It opens minerally with smoky, gunflint, wet slate and clay among a sweet fragrance of red cherry and toasty charred oak. Seductive secondary aromas include
Chinese roast duck with five spice and star anise. The palate is sappy and tangy with red cherry and juniper berries accentuated by racy acidity, yet building into sweeter black cherry. Cooling fine tannins and cold steely acidity chase away the sweetness, giving the wine razor sharp, indelible length. This is a hedonistic wine that grows in the glass and is built to last for many more years in the bottle than most New World pinots. Available in Hong Kong through Watson's Wine Cellar, Tel: 2525 1237. www.watsonswine.com Vineyard website: www.byfarr.com.au
Less than an hour’s drive northwest from Melbourne are the Macedon ranges, the foothills of Australia’s Great Dividing Range. At 460 meters above sea level, this is the severest territory of Victoria’s cool-climate viticulture. The Dhillon family at Bindi Vineyards are unrivalled in this region, with their distinctive terroir, the soils comprising top layer of volcanic that is riddled with quartz rock. Initially nurtured by Burgundy patriarch Stuart Anderson, winemaker Michael Dhillon is now recognised as one of star producers of pinot noir in Australia.
The 2004 Bindi Original Vineyard Pinot Noir (HK$550) is exquisitely fragrant with ripe strawberries and raspberries, dried herbs with hints of lavender, mint and attractive toasty vanillin oak. The spicy palate is juicy with sweet red cherry, poached stone fruits and a silky texture. Seductive charred oak soaks up some of the sweetness, with soft tannins among tangy red currants and acidity. Warm cinnamon and clove spice linger on. It is a gentle, silky sweet, perfumed style with an ethereal 'pinosity' that hits the spot for me. Available in Hong Kong through Merit Wine Boutique, Tel: 2528 5028.