Pinot Noir: A cheeky little number ...

By Alan Perrott

Wairarapa is one of New Zealand's fastest-growing pinot noir regions. Photo / Supplied
Wairarapa is one of New Zealand's fastest-growing pinot noir regions. Photo / Supplied

If wine had a personality, pinot noir's would be strangely alluring while requiring occasional therapy. Because unlike your predictable sauvignon blanc and shiraz, all pinot carries a degree of uncertainty.

It's a delicate, if masochistic wee flower, is wildly inconsistent, hates travelling and struggles with its gender identity. Of course, some find that magnetic and anyway, a glass of pinot always sets off one's beret so very nicely.

Others simply find pinot confusing. Oh sure, it's a red, obviously, but it's never been one of those reds real blokes are happy drinking when the beer runs out. If soppy drops such as your rieslings, gewurzs and merlots are fine for the ladies, manly men should only be seen gulping wine that stains your teeth before hitting your tongue. You find the same gender divide with spirits. Neat whisky will never be known as housewives' ruin and cosmopolitans will never be on tap at the local rugby club.

So wine writer and former Tall Black John Saker wasn't all that fazed when, after telling a gruff Wairarapa farmer that he was researching a book on the pinot noir, he got the response: "Oh, homo juice."

And that's how things were until the 2004 movie Sideways came along. When the "Sideways effect" set in, everyone seemed to be drinking it. Which, if you've seen the film, is a little odd because the leading men, the pinot worshipper in particular, are tossers ...

"Yeah, they are unpleasant guys, which only made the effect of that film more extraordinary," says Saker. "It came out of nowhere and brought what had been something of a private club, this whole sub-culture associated with pinot, out into the open. I think it was because the film presented the epic story, the mystique, of the wine really well and that drew a lot of people in. I know everyone making it felt the impact ... a lot of producers owe the director royalties."

We're sitting in the upstairs office of the Wine Cellar in Grey Lynn. Saker has sat me down with a few fine examples of New Zealand's 2007 vintage in an effort to infect me (an enthusiastic, if undiscerning drinker) with the enthusiasm that drove him to write Pinot Noir: The New Zealand Story.

He says it is a book for its time. Having perfected sauvignon to the point of tedium, this is the moment for pinot, the winemaker's wine, to become our new international champion. We're already getting up there with the best of Burgundy and Oregon.

Now, I prefer not to be thought of as a knuckle-dragger, but I must admit to some lingering sympathy for the view of Saker's farming friend - if not in so many words. I'd have said proper reds ran all the way from shiraz to syrah, while the likes of pinot and merlot looked like they had been topped up from the tap. I like a red that looks like it'd hold a spoon upright even as it melted it and besides, pinot tends to be relatively expensive and if it travels much further than your letterbox, is in danger of self-destructing.

Still, when it's free ...

But we can't just rip the top off a bottle and get into it, there's some background to be appreciated first.

Now, it makes perfect sense that rice was the first plant food to have its genome mapped - it feeds most of the human race so anything that can be learned about it is a worthwhile endeavour - but you have to ask yourself why it was the pinot noir grape that was chosen as the second to be mapped?

Saker presents this trivia as a symptom of the pinot madness. As a problem child - Saker prefers to call it capricious - growers want to understand why the grape reacts so strongly to every variable it encounters.

Perhaps it's down to its age. DNA testing proved it is only a generation or two away from the original, feral grape that sprouted somewhere in the wilderness now occupied by Georgia and Armenia about 9000 years ago - it's also the direct ancestor of chardonnay. From the middle of nowhere it somehow found its way to France, where Cistercian monks discovered its taste changed depending on what part of the slope it was grown. Then, in the late 14th century, one Philip the Bold decided that the Burgundy region would dedicate itself to pinot and began a branding campaign that has made the place and its wine as entwined as Champagne.

Why pinot? Well, if the more robust varieties pretty much taste of themselves no matter where they are grown, pinot is a fickle expression of its location. It helped that, perversely, the more unlikely that location the better this grape seems to like it.

"A French pinot grower once visited Marlborough," says Saker. "He took one look at the lushness and all the irrigation going on and he just shook his head: Our vines are Catholic,' he said, they like to suffer.' Pinot is like that, it loves the edges. Look at Burgundy, it has an atrocious climate.

"As I say, if you want to drink or make something that's always the same, try beer. Every pinot vintage tastes different, it can even change from bottle to bottle, which is something to be celebrated. Remember, winemakers only get one shot a year to get it right and I've been watching ours work away at it since Martinborough started making them in the early 80s. It's become the most exciting ascent to track."

Enough talk. I had asked the guys at the Wine Vault to select a bottle to offer as a blind taste test and I wanted a curve ball to test our expert.

My mystery wine is decanted, poured, studied and swirled. Apparently, begins Saker, men swirl anti-clockwise and women clockwise, but I suspect he's delaying the inevitable and press him to test its nose ... yes, it's big. "First impression, it's definitely South Island ... but not Waipara, they tend to have more in common with Martinborough ... there's buddleia in there, it's a bit like lilac. Yes, there's a lot of flowery notes in there ... Mmm."

Then an easy sip and ... "A lovely attack, the first up-wave ... plum and dark cherries ... I'm getting alcohol as well, we often overdo that ... then the whole structure - think of the tree the fruit hangs from - just drops away. So, we got this wonderful attack and then it fell really quickly. But still, some lovely fruit to start ... Okay, I'll put my neck out and say ... Otago."

He sounds the business, but we'll return to it again later.

How did Saker discover pinot? "Through my sister," he says while taking the top off a bottle from Voss Estate. "She had a great palate from early on ... everyone should have a sister like mine."

The fun got serious when he came across a 1979 pinot made by Frenchman Louis Jadot. As for many pinot fanatics, it has become the dragon he has chased ever since. "If you're lucky enough to taste a wine like that, well, it's really hard to describe, it almost tattoos itself on your palate. You'll wake up tasting that wine the next day ... I'll always carry the memory of that wine around with me."

As for the Voss ... I'll just say "yummy". Saker says: "Great stillness, that's something I always look for. The fruit just sits there, untroubled by anything. It's like the world stops for a few seconds. And it grips your tongue ..." See? I said it was yummy. This one will require a series of intensive tastings.

Saker leans back to relate the greatest mystery of New Zealand wine and pinot in particular - the infamous "gumboot clone".

The clone, actually a scrap of grapey foliage, was found hidden in the boot of a guy who had flown into Auckland airport from Europe in the mid-70s.

The customs officer who found it, Malcolm Abel, also happened to be starting his own vineyard. During questioning, the mystery man said he had snipped it after jumping the stone wall of the La Tache vineyard in Domaine de la Romanee-Conti, Burgundy - this was like a horse breeder being handed viable Phar Lap sperm. The cutting was confiscated as per regulations but Abel made damn sure it wasn't destroyed so he could put it to use once it came out of quarantine.

Over the past 30 years, that single cutting has spread to become a major driver of New Zealand pinot - it's the source of up to a third of Martinborough Estate's production - while the guy who delivered it vanished.

If it was you, Saker's on your trail.

We ponder his identity as we return to the mystery wine. It has changed considerably in less than an hour, but remains a distant second to the Voss. It's not necessarily a fair fight as Martinborough vineyards have age on their side. It was the first region to be planted in the grape so their roots have had more time to go deeper and suck up the local flavours. Even these oldest vines are only 30 years old - it takes at least 25 for them to mature - and with the rest of our vines still in relative infancy, the wine they produce is being influenced more by weather conditions and winemakers than the soil. Then again, Saker's from Wellington so maybe he's biased.

"As Olivier said of performing Shakespeare," proclaims Saker, "the truth is in the verse. Don't look any further than the words for direction. With pinot the truth is in the fruit ... and it can cut in so many different ways, but if the quality isn't there then there's nowhere to hide in how your wine will taste. It's hard, growers only get one shot a year. It's not like Australia where you can grow shiraz all year round, and you can't throw it away and start again. Every vintage is what it is."

This reliance on finicky fruit has led to a growing collegiality among growers. Those in Burgundy seem genuinely interested in what we are doing with their grape - which you can't say for many other French regionals - while here, information is shared between vineyards.

This tale is accompanied by a freshly opened Felton Road pinot: "The glamour producer of Central Otago," says Saker with a wristy flourish. Leaked word draws a stampede from the shop below followed by much sloshing and thousand yard stares. Once out of his daze, one chap describes the taste as "gravity with elegance ... very finely structured." I thought it wasn't as nice as the Voss.

Anyway, where were we? Collegiality ... this really kicked off with the South Island workshop of 1991. Producers from all over turned up and sat down to compare and contrast vintages. It was brutal.

"There were grown men with their heads buried in their hands sobbing," says Saker. "But that's when everyone got serious, so it was incredibly important. It's helped drive the whole industry really because no one was working this way before. Pinot growers were the first to dig down to see what was under their feet, the first to re-examine every aspect of viticulture, the first to make temperature tables, to use the science and then share the findings. They've pretty much dragged everyone along with them ..."

Okay, it's the last chance saloon for the mystery wine. And what do you know? It has changed yet again. "Well, the mid-palate has grown," says my guide, "it's also grown in complexity, but it's still a little too hot and bothered."

We move to the big reveal and Saker's Central Otago pinot turns out to be a Pegasus Bay from Waipara. He's disappointed but is happy he at least got the island right. All agree it is a most un-Waipara-tasting pinot anyway ... so honour is saved. After all, if I've learned anything this evening, it's that this is a grape that refuses to be nailed down. Maybe that will improve once our vines are all grown up.

Until then ... "it's a constantly moving target," says Saker, mid-slurp. "Which is all part of the romance and what draws you in, because it really is a subjective journey into taste. Take the wines we've been drinking. They are all different but which one is the best? That's really up to you and what you take pleasure in ... and I think that's why every generation has to discover pinot for itself."

Now I can't speak for Martinborough farmers, but "cheers".

Pinot Noir: The New Zealand Story by John Saker (Random House, $49.99) is out on October 1.

John Saker: Five unforgettable New Zealand pinots

St Helena Pinot Noir 1982
Made by Danny Schuster in Canterbury, this wine offered the first, revelatory glimpse of what pinot and the South Island could do together. I was introduced to it by a friend, who had bought a case on the advice of a wine judge colleague. It was light in style, perfumed, with a nervy, persistent energy. It displayed a refinement seldom seen in New Zealand red wine at that time.

Ata Rangi Pinot Noir 1994
I recall tasting this wine in 2003, soon after returning from a visit to Burgundy. The Ata Rangi was 9 years old and only just holding on, but it oozed class and harmony, the sweet fruit core hemmed in by older, spicy characters. It immediately touched off favourable palate comparisons with some of the very flash - and expensive - old burgundies I had been tasting.

Felton Road Block 3 Pinot Noir 1997
Tasting this wine was like hearing Aretha Franklin sing for the first time. The distinctive pinot voice of Central Otago - effusively aromatic, dark, exuberant - had arrived with style and soul.

Fromm La Strada Reserve Pinot Noir 1999
Fromm is a Marlborough producer that, unusually, has never gone near sauvignon blanc. With principled viticulture and winemaking, it gamely flew the pinot flag in the region through the '90s. I remember being wowed by this wine, which was concentrated, complex and wonderfully hedonistic.

Voyager by Escarpment Single Vineyard Pinot Noir 2006
Larry McKenna, New Zealand's Mr Pinot, released his new series of Martinborough single vineyard wines with the 2006 vintage. This wine, made using fruit from a plot of 25-year-old vines on the Martinborough terrace, gave an indication of the pleasures that are in store as our vines get older. It was deep, still, authoritative, wonderfully sensual pinot.

- NZ Herald

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