Can outsiders help Central Otago Pinot Noir discover itself? A seminar with Ted Lemon, PJ Charteris and François Millet

Paul Pujol, Chair of Central Otago Pinot Noir Celebration 2018

One of the highlights of the Central Otago Pinot Noir Celebration was a seminar focusing on how outside experience with Pinot has had an influence on the region. ‘This room is full of winemakers, most of who are from somewhere else!’ began celebration chair, Paul Pujol of Prophets Rock, who was himself an outsider with extensive winemaking experience abroad before he came to the region. ‘It wasn’t wine that first drew me in and got me hooked on this place: in my case it was the mountains and the rivers.’ Paul’s initial interest in the region was skiing and white water kayaking. He went on to say that he quickly learned while kayaking that the rivers in Central Otago are different; in the vineyard he’s also had to make corrections to his viticulture and winemaking approach. ‘This place is different,’ he stated. ‘Viticulture needs to be responsive and the winemaking approach needs to be considered.’

Paul was followed by a short talk by Andrea Frost, who spoke of wine and culture, and how in Central Otago it’s possible still to reach out and touch the beginning of the wine culture. She quoted the region’s first professional winemaker, Rudi Bauer, who stated that winemakers here had the chance to create their own wine culture. ‘What is wine if not its culture?’ stated Andrea. ‘It’s a chemical process until we bestow culture on it: what meanings are we giving wine?’ She then went on to say that while a healthy democratization of society has led to democratization of wine, at the same time the commercialization of modern life has led to commercialization of wine. This is something we need to resist if we are to seek interesting, authentic wine: the triumph of mass appeal over cultural authenticity.

So, to the tasting. The concept was to choose three winemakers who make wines in Central Otago but who also work in other regions. Then through pairs of wines, they were encouraged to discuss how their experience outside the region has shaped what they have done in Central Otago.

Ted Lemon with Burn Cottage winemaker Claire Mulholland

Ted Lemon
Ted Lemon needs little introduction here. He’s one of the leading Pinot Noir producers in northern California, and the furthest any of his vineyards is from the coast is 20 miles. His Central Otago journey began in 1983 in a Chinese restaurant in Beaune. At the time Ted was making wine in Burgundy, and Grant Taylor (long-time Central Otago winemaker, but who at the time was working in California) and his then boss Gary Andrus came out to see him. He’s been friends with Grant every since.

Ted was introduced further to Central Otago through more friendships with winemakers from the region. Steve Davies (whose Central brand is Doctor’s Flat) lived with Ted and his wife Heidi in 1994 when they’d just started Littorai. And soon after, Blair Walter (Felton Road) spent a week sleeping on their couch, and he also became a friend. In the early 2000s the Sauvage family were interested in Central Otago, and turned to Ted for advice. His counsel to Marquis Sauvage was not to buy someome else’s mistakes, but to purchase land and plant a new vineyard. The property that is now Burn Cottage, right before Lowburn, was available and the Sauvages bought it. Marquis asked Ted to get involved in the project, but initially Ted held out because of his young family and the impact of extra travelling. Eventually he came, and is now consultant winemaker.

For Ted, one of the features of Central Otago is an amazing sense of generosity among the winemakers. Steve Davies, Blair Walter and Grant Taylor really helped with Burn Cottage: they were enormously influential in getting things going. This group of friends extended to include Rudi Bauer, Dean Shaw and Nick Mills, among others.

‘The most important thing in our work at Burn Cottage is how do you find that synergistic moment or space between belief, openness and a new environment?’ asked Ted. ‘If we come to our work with a sense of dogma, this is a real disservice, especially if you are coming to a region where you have never worked before. Then you are making wine of ego. I really hope we have left behind the generation of consultants where it is all about who the consultant. What matters is listening to the place where we work.’

Littorai The Pivot Vineyard Pinot Noir 2015 Sonoma Coast, California
Generous and full flavoured with sweet red cherry and berry fruit. Quite lush but with good structure and spice. This is dense and generous, showing sweet fruit, but also staying balanced with nice freshness. There’s some spicy structure but it integrates very well. An assured, polished wine with some profundity too. Lots of potential. 95/100

Burn Cottage Pinot Noir 2015 Central Otago, New Zealand
There’s a freshness and brightness to this wine. It has good structure and acidity with sweet cherry and berry fruits, showing some spiciness and a supple, focused personality. Drinking really well but with potential. This is really convincing. 95/100

 

François Millet
François Millet, the winemaker of superstar estate Comte de Vogue in Burgundy, is no stranger to Central Otago, having worked for the last few years with Paul Pujol in a collaborative project, Cuvée des Antipodes.

François didn’t bring any De Vogue, but instead a wine from a neighbour, Domaine Felletig, who makes the wine in a similar way to François. ‘Chambolle is a unique village in terms of minerality and freshness,’ he says. ‘It is the white pearl of the Côtes de Nuits.’

François first met Paul Pujol when Paul came to Burgundy as an intern in 2009, and in 2013, when François’ son was working as an intern in Central Otago, François popped over to see him. ‘I was amazed,’ he recalls. ‘It was difficult not to fall in love.’ Soon, the two began making Pinot Noir together. ‘I have a lot of admiration for this pioneer wine region,’ says François. ‘I’m coming from a very old region, but we have the same goals, the same satisfactions and the same disappointments. You can’t cheat with Pinot Noir: if you do something wrong, very soon you realize your mistake.’

‘My attitude is to try to understand the site: not to impose anything. In this region, coming from a region with a lot of experience, I think it has a lot of possibilities. I taste the wines from block to block and see very quickly that there is a lot of nuance, and this is very interesting – we have to try to put this into the front. And the vines are getting older: as an average, they are 20.5 years old. This is the start of when the vines begin to get deep into the terroir.’ François’ first collaborative vintage here was 2015. ‘This, 2016 and 2017 have been very different vintages. There us a lot of room to try to find the connection between the land, the sky, the site and the expression of these wines.’

With Pinot Noir, François Millet’s belief is that you give more when you bring less. ‘If you extract too much you gain in structure but you lose in minerality and freshness.’ His interpretation of Central Otago is stunning and involves very little extraction at all.

Glbert Felletig Chambolle Musigny 1er Cru Les Combottes 2015 Burgundy, France
Fresh and focused with nice fresh raspberry and red cherry fruit. There’s nice brightness here with well integrated acidity. Brisk and fruit-driven but with some savoury spiciness. Lovely focus and brightness to the fruit. Pure and long, with a touch of spicy oak. 94/100

Prophets Rock Cuvée Aux Antipodes Pinot Noir 2015 Central Otago, New Zealand
There’s a subtle green streak here under the beautifully fresh and focused raspberry and cherry fruit. Linear and bright with good acidity, and hints of green olive and crushed herbs. Linear and backward but with some nice fruit sweetness. Serious effort, made with a very light hand and very little extraction. 95/100

PJ Charteris (right), judging with Dave Bicknell at the Melbourne Wine Show

PJ Charteris
PJ Charteris was originally a Kiwi, and studied wine in Roseworthy, Australia. Since then he has worked in Australia, California, Oregon and the Rhone. He had a major stint at Hunter Valley winery Brokenwood from 1999-2011. His own label, Charteris, was founded in 2008.

In South Australia, he got an extractive winemaking indoctrination. He did a couple of vintages in Oregon in 1991/92, then he worked in the Australian corporate sector with Southcorp, and then in 1999 moved to the Hunter Valley. There was an opportunity with Brokenwood buying a large property in Beechworth, and the chance to plant 30 hectares of Pinot Noir opposite Giaconda. ‘There was a steep learning curve in climate and tannin management,’ says PJ. ‘It was an important lesson to learn.’ In 2008 he started his own project in Central Otago.

‘The concept of Pinot is not a new thing in Australia, but good Pinot is a very different story,’ says PJ. ‘Warm climate broad acre viticulture meant that Pinot was confined to the back corner of the wine rack: they were simple wines with confected fruit and a lack of structure. It has been a foil to big extracted reds.’

What’s changed? The transfer of viticultural and winemaking understanding. New Zealand has influenced Australia. ‘New Zealand is one of the few places in the world where people buy Pinot based on region,’ says PJ, ‘because of these regional differences.’

‘To get the most out of your wine you need to understand your vineyard’s personality. No two vintages are the same, but the built up knowledge that comes from this helps the winemaker create their consistency of style. Without understanding and thought it is just luck.’ PJ finished by dropping a slightly controversial statement: human interpretation is important – style almost overrides site.’

Giant Steps Applejack Vineyard Pinot Noir 2015 Yarra Valley, Australia
This is a 100% whole bunch wine from Steve Flamsteed in the Yarra. There’s a herby, green streak to this wine. It’s very fresh, but it seems to have a lot of whole bunch influence, which is slightly funky, showing ginger, spice and herb characters as well as bright berry fruits. Aiming at elegance and almost getting there. 90/100

Charteris Te Tahi Pinot Noir 2015 Central Otago, New Zealand
Fresh and vivid with a green herby twist that integrates well into the elegant, sappy red cherry fruit. There’s some raspberry crunch, too, but the overall impression is one of freshness and elegance. Lovely poise with good acidity. 94/100

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