Conclusions from the Tasting:
This tasting worked well: people enjoyed it. No one present had sat down to a formal evaluation / blind tasting of six 1999 burgundies vs six 1999 (a couple in fact 1998) New Zealand pinot noirs. And it is safe to say most people attending would have supposed that the New Zealand wines would be both more than obvious, and probably past their prime, especially thinking back to New Zealand pinot noirs and New Zealand pinot noir practice 20 years ago.
But as the tasting unfolded, the nett impression could hardly have been more different. It was damnably difficult to be sure which were the New Zealand wines. At the questionnaire stage, before the wines were revealed, apart from ranking the top, second-favourite and least wines, the only other meaningful questions to be asked seemed to be: is this wine from France, and then, is it from New Zealand ? For every wine of the 12, some thought one, some the other. For four of the wines, the votes were roughly 50-50. Astonishing. Details are given below, noting that 18 approximately of the 21 tasters participated in this ranking. Tasters agreed this was a challenging and very worthwhile exercise, which we should be doing a lot more.
It was noticeable however, that long-experienced pinot noir practitioners – John Kavanagh (Te Kairanga ex Neudorf), Olly Masters (Misha’s ex Ata Rangi), and Larry McKenna (Escarpment ex Martinborough Vineyard) – were more on the button in this analysis. Each easily nailed one of the wines (at least) as clearly from New Zealand, on details of evaluation which passed most tasters by. It adds so much to the calibre of the tasting, when there are winemakers present. Other tasters learn so much. For this tasting, there were seven winemakers and viticulturists.
As to how we found the wines, even the least would be welcome at dinner. And it is worth mentioning yet again the bizarre cellar-life estimates of both New Zealand and American wine-writers. It is as if these people never taste cellared wine, never cellar wines themselves. The so-American preoccupation with ‘consuming’ over-rides all. Consider the wine reviews given in the ‘admin’ section / introduction for each wine below, made when the wines were a year or two old, and then reflect that to a wine-lover, this tasting seemed appropriate at the 20-year interval. And tasters were delighted with the result.
Another detail worth commenting on (in the sense of striving for clarity of communication) is the strange fruit and other analogies American wine-writers use, particularly for pinot noir, in seeking to find aroma / flavour descriptors. In 50 years, I have never encountered blackberry fruit aromas in good pinot noir. Over-ripe pinot noir, yes maybe, but not in good pinot noir. Nor blackcurrant, another American favourite, a specific aromatic berry note so characteristic of cassis, cabernet sauvignon and temperate-climate syrah.
Though any of the 12 wines in the tasting would be good with a meal, the top six all had specific things to say about the winestyle pinot noir. From the left, the 1999 Felton Road Pinot Noir Block 3 from Otago eloquently portrayed an earlier generation of New Zealand pinot noirs: intensely fragrant and varietal, but in that volume of aroma also a hint of leafyness and imperfect ripeness, confirmed on palate by a relative lightness of body and lack of dry extract, 18; then next the 1999 Claude Dugat Gevrey-Chambertin, so totally the opposite on palate as to teach the taster everything needed about the importance of cropping rate and thus dry extract (in the classical French approach to viticulture), but the wine in relative youth thus far lacking explicit varietal detail on bouquet, 18 +; then the surprise of the tasting, the quietly-achieving 1999 Greenhough Pinot Noir from Nelson, a restrained wine yet with beautiful florality on bouquet, and a lovely burgundian palate, the oak near-invisible, 18.5; next the 1999 Quartz Reef Pinot Noir also from Otago, one of the lightest in colour as good burgundy so often is, but surprising with its exact varietal quality on both bouquet and palate, plus good palate weight, 18.5 +; then the 1999 Geantet-Pansiot Gevrey-Chambertin Vieilles Vignes, a simply astonishing wine for a village wine, showing that one does not need to spend a fortune on burgundy to smell and taste the very essence of pinot noir florality, suppleness and charm, 18.5 +; and finally, my top wine, the 1999 Domaine Sylvie Esmonin Gevrey-Chambertin Clos Saint-Jacques Premier Cru, the bouquet epitomising the magic of Cote de Nuits as opposed to the Cote de Beaune, fragrant, floral, piquant and nearly aromatic, red fruits more than black, subtlest cedary oak, the palate all this and more, youthful, showing what grand cru quality is all about, in terns of bouquet, flavour, texture and dry extract, 19. This was clearly the most popular wine, showing a Burgundy quality hard to find on the shelves in New Zealand today. Font>
Twenty years is an agreeable time to evaluate good pinot noir … where ‘good’ means grapes cropped at a sufficiently low rate for the wine to have enough dry extract to mature attractively in bottle, over that time span.
The germ for this tasting arose in a letter I recently received. This was from the New Zealander I regard as having the best palate and best feel for quality in pinot noir as a winestyle. He said: “Enjoyed Martinborough Pinot Noir Reserve 1998 last weekend … blitzed the Jadot Clos Saint-Jacques and Bonnes Mares served blind alongside.”
That is some statement … . Tasters will recall that in 2011 this same 1998 Martinborough Pinot Noir Reserve was in the headlines (small) for winning a pinot noir judging in Pasadena, California, against all-comers … the other wines including 1990 Domaine de la Romanée-Conti La Tache. As a consequence the winery offered to buy in the wine, from good cellars, offering $500. The same wine sold for $915 at Webb’s Auctions, in Auckland, in July 2013. Thus … given these stimuli, we immediately have a tasting. The slight vintage mis-match is hardly pivotal.
The New Zealand wines represent each of the quality pinot noir districts in New Zealand. Opportunities are rare to see these districts alongside each other, in maturity. Key features of the wines are shown in the Table.
The French wines offer a microcosm of the world of pinot noir (for ordinary mortals). From the often-light and fragrant Volnay and Chassagne styles of the Cote de Beaune through richer Le Corton to the more aromatic and exciting wines from Gevrey-Chambertin, there should be a pinot noir here to please all but the most fastidious. Note that the tasting includes three Premier Cru wines and one Grand Cru. And Clos Saint-Jacques is a Grand Cru in all but name. Opportunities to taste these upper-quality burgundies have become rare, in recent years in New Zealand. Let alone examples with appropriate age.
Background for the wines
Attempting to find out basic wine-making information for the French wines is too hard, from New Zealand. Information for the New Zealand wines is set out in the Table.
Table 1: Basic winemaking data for the six New Zealand wines, only. North to South across the top,
'99 Wither H.
'98 Kaituna *
'99 Quartz R.
'99 Felton R.
|Source||M'b Terrace||Hope V'yd||Wairau V.||Kaituna V'yd||Pisa V'yd||Elms V'yd|
|Clones||5, 10/5||22, 5, 10/5||Abel, 6, 114||10/5 &||5, 10/5||10/5 &|
|Vines / ha||c.3,000||c.1,890||2,525||–||c.3300||2,665|
|Vine age '99||10, 15, 20 y.||23 & 6 yrs||c.5 years||various – 16||4 years||7 years|
|Tonnes / ha||c.5||4 – 5||5||–||4.5||8.8|
|Cold soak||c.5 days||3 – 5 days||4 days||–||5 – 7 days||9 days|
|Cuvaison||14 ± 2 days||28 days||20 days||–||26 – 28 days||19 days|
|MLF timing||in barrel||± in barrel||in barrel||–||barrel, spring||barrel, spring|
|In barrel||18 months||11 months||12 months||12 months||11 months||10 months|
|% bar'ls new||50||20||40||50||33||57|
|Toast||Low||M 80%, M+||Medium||–||Medium||Medium|
|Assembly etc||4 weeks||6 – 7 months||5 months||–||4 weeks||3 weeks|
|RS g/L||Nil||< 1 g/L||1.5 non-ferm.||–||0.5 g/L||Nil|
1999 highlights the era when New Zealand winemakers were becoming extremely distressed about the high incidence of TCA, in the corks New Zealand received. The almost universal adoption of screwcaps for pinot noir followed in the following three vintages. For this tasting, winemakers were anxious I have reserve bottles, several offering to supply a second bottle. That sort of interest and concern is very much appreciated. I had second bottles for key ones already standing up. There were also alternative bottles.
In the event, we did need a second bottle of the 1999 Quartz Reef, but not for TCA. Although to the closest examination the 45mm cork was physically perfect, the ullage only 10mm, and the wine penetration along the cork also c.10mm, the wine in glass was clearly lacking – on reflection, oxidised. Once a second bottle was opened and alongside, the difference in colour confirmed.
Particular thanks to (from North to South): Paul Mason (present wine-maker, Martinborough Vineyard), Larry McKenna (winemaker for the 1998 Martinborough), Andrew Greenhough (winemaker for the Greenhough), Brent Marris (winemaker for the Wither Hills), Rudi Bauer (winemaker for the Quartz Reef), and Blair Walter (winemaker for the Felton Road), for the particular interest each took in contributing winemaking information to this tasting, as summarised in the Table. The only winemaker unable to be contacted was Grant Whelan, for the Kaituna Valley wine.
Coates, Clive MW, 2008: The Wines Of Burgundy. University of California Press, 864 p.
Cooper, M. 2001 – 2003: successive years, Michael Cooper’s Buyer’s Guide to New Zealand Wines, Hodder, Moa, Beckett, c.375 p. Date on spine used, not Copyright page.
Morris, Jasper MW, 2010: Inside Burgundy. Berry Bros & Rudd, 656 p.
www.decanter.com = various authors, some free material, subscription needed for longer articles, and reviews
www.jancisrobinson.com = Jancis Robinson MW and Julia Harding MW, subscription needed for reviews
www.robertparker.com = Robert Parker and associates, vintage chart, subscription needed for reviews
www.winespectator.com = various authors, vintage chart, subscription needed for reviews
The Net generally, for some quoted reviews ex merchants etc, ex paid websites I don’t subscribe to.
THE WINES REVIEWED:
This tasting was a pleasure to sit down to. As tasters poured their wines, the range of colours revealed was delightfully appropriate to good pinot noir. And as always with pinot noir, depth of colour is no guide at all to the quality of the wine, or its pinot noir varietal expression. Front row from the left, wines 1 to 6, back row 7 to 12. In this tasting, wine 8, the lightest wine, 1999 Geantet-Pansiot, was the second-highest rated wine. The same principle applies to the New Zealand wines, wine 5 the 1999 Quartz Reef being one of the lighter wines, but also rating well in the results. But the reverse proposition is certainly not true either, wine 11 the 1999 Greenhough being one of the darker wines, yet still intensely varietal on both bouquet and palate. Wine 12, the 1999 Claude Dugat, is the darkest wine, and here there is a relative lack of exact floral and varietal quality on bouquet, as yet, but the palate holds much promise for the future. The seemingly oaky 1998 Martinborough Reserve at position 9 did not show oak-induced age in hue, though being in the lighter-coloured half of the field. Wine 1 is quite deep for a Volnay, wine 6 the Corton the second deepest, as might more be expected. The top wine of the tasting, the 1999 Sylvie Esmonin at position 10, closely matches the Martinborough Reserve, in the lighter half of the field. Font>
The wines are listed below in my rank order, not the group view, though taster's thoughts influence the notes. The first price given is current from wine-searcher. An approximate original price follows in text, if known.
Ruby more than garnet, the second lightest wine. Bouquet here illustrates the inimitable magic of fine Cote de Nuits, floral, fragrant, piquant and nearly aromatic, exciting, on red cherry more than black cherry fruit, and subtlest cedary oak. And it smells richer than the Geantet-Pansiot. In flavour the fruit richness / dry extract confirms the bouquet impressions: where the Geantet-Pansiot is at full stretch, this is youthful, supple, mouth filling, enchanting. Yet it is not ‘big’’ wine, in the sense of Australian reds. I'd love to know the dry extract for this wine: it is nearly succulent, showing what grand cru quality is all about. This is the essence of pinot noir. Tasters thought so too, four first places, seven second, and no leasts. Fifteen thought this wine French, and three New Zealand. The wine is perfectly mature, sweet fruit lingering exquisitely on the tongue. It will hold for some years. GK 09/19
Ruby and garnet, one of the lighter wines, below midway in depth. And then you smell it, and there is a volume of bouquet here which is sensational, totally floral, pink roses with a touch of boronia, totally burgundian, just beautiful. Behind the florals there is attractive red cherry fruit, and subtlest oak. Palate is equally beautiful, an older wine than the Greenhough but capturing burgundian complexity, florality and finesse to an extraordinary degree, wonderful. And critically, this Quartz Reef wine is closer in richness to the Clos Saint-Jacques than the Geantet. Tasters did not respond to this wine as much as I did, partly because I had the advantage of seeing it again the following day, when it had expanded a great deal. No votes at all (for best or least), seven thought it from France, 11 New Zealand. This wine is at full stretch now, but no great hurry in a cool cellar. Decant well ahead. GK 09/19
Ruby and garnet, light, but glowing, the lightest wine. Bouquet is simply heavenly, intensely floral, nearly boronia, that lovely piquancy of fine Cote de Nuits wine, nearly aromatic, nearly spicy, just so zingy and uplifted alongside the Cote de Beaune wines, shouting out pinot noir – yet somehow demure and understated as well. Palate is not the richest in the set, but is fragrant right through, the florals noticeable right through to the aftertaste (a rare, desirable, and quality attribute in pinot noir), red fruits, exciting. It is not quite as rich as the Quartz Reef, and is near the end of its plateau of maturity – in imminent danger of drying. One person had this as their top wine, one second, but three least, while 14 thought it French, and three New Zealand. GK 09/19
Ruby and garnet, a lovely colour with good glow, the third-deepest wine. Bouquet is initially restrained, but the more you work at it, the more it gives. There is a beautiful subtle florality hinting at violets and dusky roses, still, even at this 20-year point, backed by red and black cherry fruit. Palate is simply lovely, totally burgundian, beautifully layered fruit shaped by oak, yet in one sense the oak near-invisible. Remarkable wine, a great achievement, from a wine on the main Waimea Valley terraces. Tasters were simply bowled over by this wine, which I placed at position 11: eight first places, two second, no leasts, and for country of origin, France 10, New Zealand nine. A great achievement from a low-key winemaker. GK 09/19
Ruby and garnet, clearly the deepest wine. Bouquet is intriguing, big, rich, yet not explicitly varietal, with noticeable oak. There is a touch of the Penfolds about this wine, yet in a densely pinot noir way. It is not exactly floral, yet it is fragrant, intense, and hints at the aromatic quality that makes good Cote de Nuits wines so exciting. Palate follows perfectly, a good concentration of darker fruits, black cherries only, framed by quality oak, the wine big and dry, yet holding a lot in reserve. Astonishing for a village wine, but perhaps the sturdy rather than floral character of the wine reflects that. This is just embarking on its plateau of maturity, with 10 – 20 years in hand. Three first places, two second places, and surprisingly, two least places. Origin for this wine was clearer, France 15, New Zealand three. GK 09/19
Ruby and garnet, below midway in depth. Like the Martinborough wine, the bouquet on this wine had an aromatic component, wine-maker Larry McKenna instantly nailing it as: ‘has to be the Kaituna Valley wine’. That assessment referred to the eucalyptus which formerly edged the vineyard, which Grant Whelan cut down not long after taking over. For most tasters however, this character was not apparent – it is very subtle – and the wine seemed to have the exciting aromatic lifted quality of bouquet one associates with the Cote de Nuits, rather than the Cote de Beaune. Palate is particularly attractive, supple pinot fruit blending red and black cherries, and an attractive fruit / oak balance. Still comfortably on its plateau of maturity, with several years in hand. Three first places, but two least, while 16 thought it New Zealand, and two France. GK 09/19
Ruby and garnet, in the middle for depth. In one sense this was the most fragrant and varietal of the wines, markedly floral / buddleia as well as pink roses but also slightly leafy, raising the worry, would it be stalky ? Palate shows supple red more than black fruits, the flavour not stalky but slightly tanniny. One winemaker thought the wine lacking in body, which would correlate with the given cropping rate (NB: Blair advises “almost double of today’s yields”), but it is pretty supple and very varietal. That was reflected in the voting: one first place, four second, while 10 thought it France, and eight New Zealand. Still holding well, near the end of its plateau of maturity. GK 09/19
Ruby more than garnet, a good colour, a little above midway in depth. Bouquet is clean straight red fruits pinot noir, browning a little now naturally, fragrant but not exactly floral, but even on bouquet, more supple than the Corton, markedly less stern. Palate follows perfectly, just a lovely red-fruits Cote de Beaune gently oaked, at full maturity – a little tannin to the finish indicating decline is near. One person had this as their second-favourite wine, but again two their least. One of the hard-to-identify wines, France 10, New Zealand eight. GK 09/19
Ruby and garnet, a lovely rosy colour, the third lightest. There is much more bouquet on this wine than the Volnay or the Wither Hills, both near-floral pinot noir qualities but also the pennyroyal nearly-mint quality I find in Martinborough wines surprisingly often, on red fruits showing some age now, plus noticeable cedary oak aromatics. Palate has the lift and aromatics of the Cote de Nuits, but relative to the fruit weight, more oak than is optimal. Greater dry extract is needed to carry this much new oak. The nett impression is clearly varietal but oaky wine, the wine showing a measure of excitement. One person had this as their top wine, but five as their least. On the country of origin, New Zealand 15, France three. Harking back to the 2011 Pasadena taste-off to a degree copying the 1976 Judgement of Paris tasting (for bordeaux), the 1990 Domaine de la Romanee-Conti La Tache then included is today valued by wine-searcher at $NZ11,547. At this distance one can venture the view that the outcome of any such 'judging' depends on the judges, and that in any line-up of as many as 20 wines, for less-skilled judges, more oaky wines tend to stand out ... for the wrong reasons. The wine will hold, but is on the brink of drying, I suspect. GK 09/19
Ruby and garnet, the second-deepest wine. Bouquet is interesting: the wine fragrant in one sense, but not exactly floral, showing big fruit and quite stern oak. One winemaker found trace brett: that would correlate with my nutmeg aromatics. Palate is distinctly big, rich very dry now-older plummy fruit, but almost sturdy rather than the suppleness one seeks in pinot noir. In terms of palate weight meaning dry extract, this wine highlighted how dry extract does carry oak. Alongside the Martinborough Reserve, there is much to be learnt. An interesting and contentious wine, first or second for two, but least for four. On country of origin, New Zealand 12, France six. Will hold a few years yet. GK 09/19
Garnet and ruby, lighter and older than the Volnay, below midway in depth. Bouquet is a little more ‘juicy’ than the Volnay, but not explicitly varietal, a kind of sweet fruit character reminding slightly of moist sultanas, some browning plum, some maturity. Palate is more clearly varietal in the fruit and tannin balance, good fruit sweetness, again a little ‘juicy’ in mouth-feel, with good dry extract. This will hold a few years yet. Three rated it their second-favourite wine, but two their least. With food, it would be a delight. Country of origin more apparent here, New Zealand 13 to France four. GK 09/19
Ruby and garnet, an appropriate colour for age, above midway in depth. Bouquet is neat, relatively small-scale, red fruits well-browning now, fragrant but not floral, straightforward. Palate is very much pinot noir at full maturity, just starting to dry, but fruit dominant over older oak (it seems), clean. I placed this wine as the sighter for the tasting – very much how you expect a Volnay to be. A little past its prime, but still enjoyable. No votes at all, just in the middle. But total confusion as to whether France or New Zealand, nine all. GK 09/19