Burgundy or the bush

Pinot noir must be the most dissected and psycho-analysed of all wines. It fascinates and frustrates all of us, whether winemakers or drinkers. At the many pinot symposia, such as the annual SIPNOT (Stonier’s International Pinot Noir Tasting) pinots from Australia, New Zealand and the US are tasted blind and compared with Burgundies. The Burgundies are often found to be disappointing. In the three SIPNOTs I’ve attended, as a panel member but still tasting blind like the audience, the most expensive wines, the grand cru Burgundies, are often the most disappointing. The highest-rated, on the other hand, are usually New Zealand and Australian wines. They are deemed the most enjoyable on the day. Inevitably, a question is posed, along the lines of: “”Why is Burgundy still regarded as the benchmark?”” And “”Why do these Burgundies cost several times as much as the best Australians and Kiwis, which were preferred?””

My response is usually along these lines.

1. The fact that the NZ and Australian wines were preferred today doesn’t guarantee you will still prefer them in 10 or 20 years. Grand cru Burgundies are built to age, and they are often closed, or at least not showing their full glory, at the tender age of three years (the age of the wines at SIPNOT), unlike the fruit-forward and relatively sun-filled Antipodeans.

2. We tasters are probably more used to the style of Antipodean pinot noir: it’s more familiar to us and more easily understood.

3. Seminar-type tastings are time-restricted and do not allow time for ‘closed’ wines to ‘come up’ in the glass. In this, SIPNOT is better than many, but I always find some wines are just beginning to show well when the time comes to tip them out. I thought this was especially true of the de Montille Pommard Rugiens 2006 this year. If you’d paid the required $250 for this, you would certainly find the time to wait for the wine, and enjoy it at its best! The lone grand cru, Jean Grivot Echezeaux 2006 ($319), remained earthy, oaky, tannic, dry and closed-up. It is quite possible an extra hour’s breathing, or five years cellaring, would reveal an entirely different wine.

4. On the price differential: Burgundy has been producing wine for over 2,000 years and red wine from the pinot noir grape for at least 640 years. It has proven itself thoroughly over that time, and its reputation is worth a lot in terms of the price people are prepared to pay. In contrast, a number of the Australian and New Zealand vineyards and wineries whose wines we tasted have less than 20 vintages on the board. They are mere pups. In time, and assuming they perform consistently, the New World wines will surely command similar prices to the great Burgundies. It is already starting to happen: the top reserve-style wines from the best New World pinot noir makers are now priced on par with top-flight premier cru Burgundies from highly reputed domaines. It will be a while till the outlandish prices of Domaine de la Romanee Conti (tastings), Domaine Leroy (tastings) or de Vogue (tastings) are equalled – if ever – but that is surely a good thing.

That’s the case for the defence. Now the prosecution.

1. Iconic French wines from all regions are grotesquely over-priced. Their prices reflect many factors: limited production and soaring demand from an increasingly affluent and wine-aware world; the increasing (and, to me, sickening) desire for the status conferred by owning and serving such wines; the lag phenomenon (it takes time for the market to react to changes in wine quality). And somehow, poor vintages such as the pretty dire 2004 Burgundies manage to sustain high prices, which is one of the great injustices of the wine world.

2. People are drinking wine young. They don’t want to wait 20 or 30 years for a great Burgundy to pay off. Tastes have changed, as has the quality of wine, and we enjoy the fact that well-made pinot is an utterly delicious drink when very young. In future, the ability of any wine to age long-term will be a less-important component of its price. This is already changing.

3. People continue to make excuses for expensive European wines with famous names, where the wine is inexcusable. These wines increasingly look like dinosaurs: their makers stubbornly persist in sealing them with dodgy cork, and they are often ruined by faults such as Brettanomyces. Both get worse, not better, with extended aging.

There is only one conclusion that can be easily and unarguably drawn: the best New World pinots are great bargains!

The Bargains from SIPNOT 2009

  • Farr Rising, Geelong 2007 – $38
  • Holyman, Tamar Valley 2007 – $45
  • Stonier Reserve, Mornington Peninsula 2007 – $50 (tastings)
  • Maude, Central Otago 2007 – $40

First published in Gourmet Traveller Wine – Dec-Jan 2009-2010.

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