The Navel-Gazing of Pinotphiles

Pinot noir winemakers are either the most sophisticated and intellectual winemakers on Earth, or the most confused. After attending the two recent celebrations of pinot noir, a four-day event in Wellington and a two-day event on the Mornington Peninsula, and several associated events such as a couple of days in Martinborough and the Wairarapa, and a side-tasting of Ted Lemon’s Littorai wines from California, your correspondent is still in shock.

Nowhere in the wide world of wine is there so much navel-gazing as with those who grow, vinify and drink pinot noir. You never hear cabernet or shiraz disciples carrying on about such esoterica; even riesling lovers, who assert that their grape is the most noble and transparent of white grapes, reflecting its terroir the most faithfully, stop way short of pinotphilia.
I must have tasted close to 400 New Zealand pinot noirs over my five days in that fair land. And I swear every one of the winemakers was there, breathing down my neck as I scribbled my notes. They’re keen, those Kiwis.

Keynote speaker Matt Kramer exhorted winemakers to eschew single clones and revert to the ancient Burgundy technique of allowing multiple clones of pinot noir to grow cheek by jowl in their vineyards. Instead of focusing on single-clone plantings which are harvested when every berry attains the same optimal ripeness, you should let some be under and some overripe, he said, otherwise the music will just be cellos. We also need piccolos and double basses to make interesting wine. So chuck out the Bernard clones that Burgundy researchers have spent so much time and money isolating, and just take random cuttings from old, multi-clonal vineyards. Winemakers pouring us their single-clone bottlings later that day must have been secretly undergoing a crisis of confidence. But it didn’t show.

Another key speaker at both conferences, Jasper Morris, said antipodean winemakers should stop comparing their wines with Burgundy. Californian winemakerTed Lemon said winegrowers in Marlborough and other places should re-think their monoculture. Biodiversity is being neglected in regions with nothing but vines as far as the eye can see. Lemon also said winemakers should stop adding things, especially acid. Their wines would taste better, and the discipline would focus them on growing better grapes. Burgundy soils expert Emmanuel Bourguignon (that really is his name) said flatly: “Irrigation is not compatible with terroir wines”. Irrigation uses too much water; it creates vineyards which are dependant on irrigation, because it discourages vine roots from penetrating deep into the soil. And you can’t make wines of terroir unless the roots are allowed to go deep and explore the soil, finding the minerality. “Irrigation expresses grape variety but not terroir,” he said.

Well, that disposes of most of Australia’s and New Zealand’s vineyards. Sorry, guys. You’ll have to start again.

Josh Jensen, a New World pinot noir guru and founder of California’s Calera Vineyards, irrigates. He has to: his vineyards are in an extremely dry, and quite hot climate – although Jensen was carefully skirting any discussion of his climate. His life quest was based on limestone soil. Having discovered limestone was underneath most of France’s best vineyards, he went home and devoted his life to finding, planting and making wine from one of California’s rare bits of limestone. Other speakers, including Morris, pointed out that great pinots are now being grown on all sorts of soils apart from limestone. The volcanic red loams of Mornington’s Red Hill, and the alluvial river terraces of Martinborough, to name two. Jensen has made some very pleasing pinots, but it must be tough to find you’ve devoted much of your life to the wrong thing.

Kiwi winemaker Nick Mills, of Rippon Vineyard, and others repeated the mantra of ‘letting go’. They could have been shrinks exhorting us to release our inhibitions, but they were talking about producing pinot noir wine. Morris said “You have to let go; to lose control. You won’t find out what you don’t know if you don’t let go.” He even invoked Winston Churchill, who said some people accidentally stumble on the truth, but most just pick themselves up, dust themselves off and continue on their way without noticing.

What they’re getting at is that many winemakers are filled up with science at university, and they feel a need to apply all their learning and ‘make’ the wine, whereas often they need to step back and let the wine make itself. “Relax! Allow yourselves some freedom,” Morris advised.

Lemon concluded his talk saying that winemakers should abandon the quest to make great pinot noir. Instead, they should focus on crafting wine which is the most honest, crystalline expression of place. The ideal of expressing terroir, or ‘place’, was often referred to – although not always so articulately.

There was a lot of talk – too much talk, really – in Wellington, but also a lot of tasting. Which could also be confusing: should they be making a finer, more delicate and ethereal style, like Rippon, or a black, tannic, massive wine like Carrick? Both are Central Otago, but worlds apart. There is no answer, of course. Both are legitimate expressions of the pinot noir grape. You take your pick according to your taste.

That’s the marvellous thing about Kiwi pinot today: it’s coming in many shapes and sizes, and there are more good ones than ever, more diversity of style, and the rate of improvement in recent years has been impressive. Winemaker Larry McKenna summed it up with an old Buddhist proverb: “If we were all the same, we would have nothing to say to each other.” And pinot noir is the most varied of wines: perhaps that’s why there’s so much to say about it.

Huon’s favourite wines from Pinot Noir New Zealand 2013 in Wellington
More than 300 wines were poured by 110 wineries across all regions.



Central Otago



First published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Good Food – 5 March 2013.


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