Friday, 12 October 2012

A passion for Pinot Noir

Pinot Noir can turn you mad.  Like the sirens of Homer’s Odyssey, whose irresistible song lured sailors to their death, it sings to you with its alluring perfume and beguiling fruit.  But if you do succumb, if you allow yourself to be seduced by this most seductive of wine grapes, then you are surely lost, and will be crushed upon the rocks of your obsession.  Condemned to a life dominated by the pursuit of the perfect Pinot, you will be haunted by memories of Pinots past, frittering away your money on fine Burgundy, only to be, mostly, sorely disappointed – and considerably poorer.

Don’t say I didn’t warn you.  If you have not yet given in to the temptations of Pinot Noir flesh, then the safest option is to follow the example of Odysseus and to strap yourself, metaphorically, to the mast of your ship, allowing you to pass by and to continue your life’s voyage untouched.

It’s too late for me now, but you may be able to save yourselves.  If you haven’t yet been bewitched by the siren song of Pinot Noir, stop reading now.  If, however, you are one of the fallen, then wallow in what follows; sustenance to your obsession.

My personal quest for the perfect Pinot has led me on a vinous pilgrimage around the world.  Of course the very finest examples can be found rather closer to home, in Burgundy.  But, frankly, I’m too poor to be able to buy the best – and what on earth would be the point in not buying what you know to be the best?

Chile is starting to come up with some pretty good versions, especially from the Leyda ValleyArgentina’s far south is capable of producing some fine, juicy Pinot.  California’s versions are opulent, sweet and alcoholic, often overplaying their hand and the best can rival Burgundy for price.  Oregon is renowned as the home of seriously fine, nuanced and delicate Pinot Noir, but there’s little of it about here and what there is, is mighty pricey.  Australia is beginning to win out in its struggle to produce sufficiently elegant Pinot in its generally warm, if not hot, climate.

New Zealand, however, will get many a Pinot-phile’s pulse racing.  The region making most noise for its Pinots has been Otago, way down in the South Island.  Most definitely cool (frosts are a regular feature) the grapes are able to ripen fully, while preserving wonderfully fresh, bright fruit.  We also see plenty of Pinot from Marlborough, at the northern tip of the South Island and a region more often associated with Sauvignon Blanc.  Their Pinots are mostly just fine and are getting better with each passing year, but for class and complexity, you need to make the short hop across the Cook Straits to Martinborough, in the very south of the North Island.

Crraggy Range's Te Muna Road vineyard

And what makes this region so special?  As always, it’s impossible to point to a single factor, but the combination of cool, positively windy sites, low-ish annual rainfall (very similar to Southeast England) and relatively older vines all play their part.  Soil-wise the key element is the Martinborough Terrace, whose 30,000 year old soils are made up of decomposed volcanic ash.  Most of the best vineyards snake along this terrace, which is now pretty much completely planted.  Old vines are often pointed to as a key to really fine wine and New Zealand is a land of young vines – but the leaps in quality with each vintage show the growing contribution of vine age, combined with the skill of the winemakers.

Martinborough Terrace

In terms of total New Zealand wine production, Martinborough is small, representing just 1.6% of the total.  Pinot Noir is the 60-odd producers’ speciality, representing 55% of plantings.  The ubiquitous Sauvignon Blanc is the next biggest, then come Chardonnay and a range of other white varieties.

Wines to feed your Pinot passion

Ata Rangi Pinot Noir - £34-40 from The Vineyard Dorking, The Guildford Wine Company, The Wine Reserve Cobham and
Ata Rangi is where it all began in Martinborough:  vines were planted here in 1980, at the dawn of the modern era of wine-making in New Zealand.  Their estate wine is the definition of Martinborough Pinot Noir.

One look at the price of this will tell you that a serious Pinot habit is an expensive one – don’t say you weren’t warned. 

If you can get hold of an older vintage, it’s definitely worth it.  The 2008 is smooth and harmonious and still full of lively, youthful cranberry and raspberry fruit, with hints of pencil shavings.  The 2006, at six years old is just beginning to show some of the maturing aromas that are like catnip for fans of Pinot Noir:  deep rose, clove and cinnamon spice in a fine, lively wine.

If the best part of 40 quid is too much (and it is for me), then Ata Rangi’s Crimson Pinot Noir, available for £16-20, gives you some of the class and excitement of its big brother, without the same staying power and ageing ability.

Escarpment Pinot Noir 2009 - £17.95 from
Look for the interplay of juicy fruit and spice, with tannins providing a sandy feel.  Over time this will develop a lovely silky-smooth texture.  Escarpment’s Kupe single vineyard Pinot Noir 2008, £19.99 from The Vineyard, Dorking, gives you a sense of the evolution of a wine that still has plenty of life in it.

Craggy Range Te Muna Road Pinot Noir 2010 - £20-22.50 from Taurus Wines Bramley and
Steve Smith MW of Craggy Range makes wines from the entire length of New Zealand’s wine growing areas, from Hawke’s Bay in the North Island, down to Central Otago, deep in the South Island.  All are top quality, but there’s something special about this Martinborough Pinot.  The fruit has a lovely ripeness and there is great density of flavour, but also fine tannins, elegance and, ultimately, refreshment.  Again, older vintages will show more – the 2008 is still a baby.

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