Looking for the truth behind the varietals

When I hear the word "authentic" applied to any product, I am immediately suspicious.

It's a loaded term that was hotly debated at the recent Pinot Noir 2013 conference held in Wellington, at a time when our most popular red variety is trying to establish its credibility in the international world of wine.

Authenticity became a buzzword when marketing gurus identified an important new consumer group seeking something "genuine", who'd been left feeling empty and disconnected by the hyper-consumerism of the past.

The term has since had the meaning flogged out of it and it's been coupled with products whose claims to authenticity were highly questionable.


However most agree it is relevant to wine, which is a largely natural product, and where provenance is also extremely important in most of the finest wines.

There was lively discussion about just what makes a wine truly authentic and how we can apply the concept to this country's pinot noirs.

"The new generation of consumers see through stories that are generated," Australian wine writer Mike Bennie said in his keynote speech, citing examples of "the idyllic location of a vineyard that might not be idyllic for winegrowing, the impresario winemaker who produces wines to brief, and the promise of exceptional wine based on third-party endorsement".

"These things are hackneyed," he said, urging wineries to find the story, not create it, if they're to come across as authentic.

However, given how young our wine industry and its vineyards are, many wineries are still trying to find their voice and the confidence to use it.

British wine critic Tim Atkin urged his fellow panellists to avoid using the "B word" - that's Burgundy, maker of some of the world's greatest pinot noirs, considered the benchmark for the variety around the world.

Here in New Zealand it's not uncommon to hear winemakers describe their own pinots as "Burgundian", and some have copied their French counterparts. However, you can't be authentic if what you're making is a copy.

After tasting hundreds of examples poured throughout the four-day event, it's clear New Zealand's own pinot noirs are really starting to come of age and develop their own distinctive characters, from the country's pinot-producing regions and sub-regions, right down to individual blocks.

Authenticity is found in wines that express their own roots. They're not trying to be burgundies, they don't have their identities distorted by winemaking artifice or dulled by chemicals, and they're made by people connected to the vines, not a marketeer constructing counterfeit brand stories.

This tendency to defer to Burgundy, where wines have been telling their own story for centuries, could stem from the fact that our winemakers are still discovering what their vineyards have to say, especially as the signature of a site for pinot noir tends to emerge only in older vines.

"How long does it take for a vineyard to have a voice that transcends that of the winemaker?" asked local pinot pioneer, Escarpment's Larry McKenna, at one of the event's discussions.

"Our oldest pinot vineyards are about 30 years old, while in France vines that are under 50 years old are still considered young. It's the next generation that will see the best of them."

Until then, I believe our winemakers should simply focus on telling their own story from the vineyard - and from the heart. There's no need to use the B word.

And as for the A word, if you've got it, you don't need to use it. Avoid it at all costs.


Three great pinots from the Pinot Noir 2013 conference.

Ata Rangi Martinborough Pinot Noir 2010 - $70-$75

Another great vintage from this Martinborough pioneer with the 2010 exhibiting a silken texture in a wine that unfurls to reveal complex layers of berry fruit, mineral and spice. (From Glengarry, Point Wines, Nosh, Bacchus Upland Village.)

Bell Hill Pinot Noir 2009 - $109

In an old limestone quarry in the wilds of North Canterbury, Bell Hill is making some of the country's most exciting pinot noirs. Its intense, darkly fruited palate is infused with notes of spice and cocoa, and supported by a line of fine acid and firm grainy tannins. (From www.bellhill.co.nz)

Quartz Reef Bendigo Estate Central Otago Pinot Noir 2011 - $80-$85

Dense and voluptuous plum fruit is woven around a tight core of acid and mineral in Quartz Reef's stunning and well structured flagship wine. (From selected branches of Glengarry, Point Wines, Caro's, Finer Wines, Scenic Cellars.)