First impressions count. I’m increasingly convinced of this.
The first line of a novel. It matters more than it should.
The first time you meet someone: this is particularly important.
The first impression you give when you meet someone – those first few seconds – then create the filter through which all subsequent interactions are processed. Some people I get on really well with, and in part I can put this down to a very positive first interaction. Then, after this, each subsequent meeting carried with it that positive vibe. The lens of that first impression is how we then process the following interactions.
We rely much more on our instincts than we realize, and the very first few seconds after meeting someone can shape future encounters. To a degree. Of course, it is possible to recover from a bad first impression, but it takes a long time. We use confirmation bias, and then use this to ignore evidence that doesn’t fit with our narrative, and to marshall evidence in support of the internal story that we run.
For wine marketing, first impressions are also critical. You really only have one chance to get your message across and tell the world about what you do. You need to take that chance and make the most of it. It’s worth waiting for the right moment to tell everyone your story, and you need to tell it well.
When I taste wine, the first impression is important. Packaging matters. Expectations matter. The prejudice that comes from sighted tasting is important because it influences perceptions, and you can use it to your advantage if you are presenting wine to people. If people expect that this will be a great wine tasting experience before they taste the wine, then it is more likely to be one.
Dom Maxwell (Greystone, above left) and Emma Jenkins (above right) presented this masterclass on Pinot Gris from New Zealand. It’s a grape that has been neglected by wine geeks. This is because it is so often a grape used to please the masses, fashioning inoffensive Pinot Grigio-style wines with little personality. In New Zealand, it has done rather well: it’s a grape that is planted throughout the country. Emma pointed out that globally it’s a growth market and plantings have increased in New Zealand from 130 hectares in 2000 to 1100 in 2007. There are currently 2400 hectares in the country, which is roughly similar to Chardonnay. But Pinot Gris continues to increase! ‘A lot of people look down their nose at it,’ says Emma, ‘but it’s well suited to New Zealand.’ The variety has a tendency to acid drop, but with a cool growing season this can be managed. ‘It should be treated with a lot more care: it’s relatively easy to make an anodyne style, but people should do better with it,’ she concludes.
‘It is an exciting time for NZ Pinot Gris,’ says Dom Maxwell. ‘it hasn’t been here in quantity for very long. There has been an understanding of canopy management, getting the acid balance right through leaf removal and crop size. As the vines get a bit older beginning to see site differences.’
One of the areas Pinot Gris is doing well is in the natural and orange wine field, with people playing around with skin contact. ‘They are thick skins and you can pull a lot of structure from them,’ says Dom.
Here are my notes on the wines we tried.
Craggy Range Te Muna Vineyard Pinot Gris 2016 Martinborough, New Zealand
Light, clean, pure and textural with lovely freshness, a bit of grapiness and some stony citrus fruit. Very crisp and well balanced. 89/100
Kim Crawford Pinot Gris 2016 Marlborough, New Zealand
Rounded and a bit nutty with some grapiness. Simple, rounded and appealing with faint spicy hints. Nice fruit purity. 88/100
Jules Taylor Pinot Gris 2016 Marlborough, New Zealand
Fresh, lively, bright and fruity with a bit of grapefruit freshness and some smoky, spicy complexity. Quite mineral with a smooth mid-palate and a tangerine tang on the finish. 90/100
Nautilus Pinot Gris 2016 Marlborough, New Zealand
Pretty and pure with a lychee-like edge to the fresh fruit. Detailed and fresh with crisp table grape and some grapefruit characters. 89/100
Aronui Single Vineyard Pinot Gris 2016 Nelson, New Zealand
Lively and bright with a spicy lemon and grapefruit freshness backing up the smoky grape characters on the palate. Attractive and detailed, with a nice mineral finish. 90/100
Greystone Sand Dollar Pinot Gris 2015 Waipara Valley, New Zealand
Textured, pure and pretty with a slight nutty edge to the sweet pear and apple fruit. There’s a hint of smoky complexity here. This is all about the texture and fruit sweetness. 90/100
Seresin Pinot Gris 2015 Marlborough, New Zealand
Complex, nutty, appley with a lovely core of ripe pear fruit and some peach kernel notes. Lovely fruit here with nice precision and balance. Lovely complexity. 92/100
Greywacke Pinot Gris 2015 Marlborough, New Zealand
Really smoky, spicy and mineral with lovely precision to the textured pear, grape and melon fruit. Lively and bright on the finish with real weight on the mid-palate. The sweetness is beautifully integrated. 93/100
Gibbston Valley La Dulcinée Pinot Gris 2012 Central Otago, New Zealand
Spicy and textural with a complex apricot, honey and stony mineral character. Very detailed and expressive with lively grape and citrus fruit. Lots of interest here: flirts with reduction. 93/100
Prophet’s Rock Pinot Gris 2015 Central Otago, New Zealand
Lovely nutty, spicy, pear and peach notes adding interest to the grape and citrus fruit. There’s a tightness on the finish but also some lovely depth on the mid-palate. So attractive with a serious side. 92/100
This is a written version of a talk I’m giving today at the Mornington Peninsula Pinot Noir celebration.
Pinot Noir is the grape variety that seems to inspire the most devotion in wine lovers. Finding great Pinot is a lifetime quest, filled with challenges and disappointments. But the highs make this quest worthwhile, and there is a lot of fun to be had along the journey.
Today’s topic is the alchemy of people, place and time. All are involved in forging and enjoying great Pinot Noir.
First, people. Wine is a partnership between place and people: vines are planted, wine is made, and sites are interpreted. Then, people consume the wine: when we taste, the perceptive event – our experience of the wine – is the result of the interaction between us and the wine. We bring quite a bit to the wine-tasting experience. And it is people who decide what constitutes greatness in Pinot Noir: the community of judgment. As we taste and experience and share our perceptions, we learn and decide together which wines are the best and most compelling.
Second, place. The site – terroir – is at the heart of interesting wine. Pinot Noir is a lens for interpreting site, and it’s actually a very good lens, able to distinguish among quite closely related sites, picking out characters and amplifying these differences. And it is only good sites that can produce interesting expressions of this variety. For Pinot, not all sites are created equal.
Third, we have time. There are many aspects of time that relate to Pinot. The first is vine age. Young vines produce fruity wines that display clone and climate more clearly; older vines interrogate the soil and have more resilience. They are less swayed by climate, the clonal difference isn’t as strong, and the place is more evident. There’s substance and structure. They can be picked earlier. Bottle age is another aspect of time: we expect that great Pinot should evolve in the bottle and not just survive, growing into itself. Then there’s time as in the evolution of the wine industry, as the growers learn about their site and the sorts of interpretations of it that work best and are most authentic.
I will be exploring three elements in this talk. First, how we perceive wine and how this is relevant to Pinot Noir, and discussions like this. Second, what constitutes greatness in Pinot Noir, and who gets to decide? And finally we will take a quick trawl around the world of Pinot, putting Mornington in its place.
Perception of wine is multimodal, involving all of our senses. It’s not just about taste and smell, and we don’t operate like measuring devices. This is important.
By the time we are aware of the ‘taste’ of wine, it has already gone through several processing steps that aren’t accessible to our consciousness. This is because of the way that the brain processes sensory information. It’s as if we are the CEO of a big company, and have many minions working for us. We get the executive summary, and are spared the details. This is shown beautifully in visual illusions, such as the café wall illusion, where we perceive what is not actually there. This demonstrates that some higher order visual processing has been taking place at a pre-conscious level.
We model reality, and effectively produce a map of what is out there. It’s a useful abstraction that helps us navigate the world. We don’t have all the details: a map that is an exact correspondence to the world would be useless. Look at the wonderful simplicity and utility of the London Underground map first devised by Harry Beck in 1931. It doesn’t correspond with reality, but instead is purely about utility.
The fact that our brain is creating reality for us has relevance to wine tasting. We need to be humble in the face of wine, and recognize that our experience of wine has something to do with us as well as what is in the glass. Also, the language we have for wine will in some way shape our perception of wine.
So who gets to decide what greatness is in Pinot Noir? What does great Pinot look like? Here we enter the world of aesthetics. We decide together what is great as a community of judgment. We taste together; learn together; we share our notions of good versus bad. Then we reach a degree of agreement about what is great, although we need to recognize that sometimes conflicting aesthetic systems arise, such as the US critics and the field of natural wine.
What is great Pinot Noir?
Its first duty is to be elegant and refined
Sweet fruit is an important element
It should have non-fruit complexity, with structural and savoury components
Layers of flavour are needed
Texture matters: silky, fine-grained
The ability to develop with some bottle age
Global properties such as complexity and harmony matter
How can this be achieved?
The right soils and climate: Pinot thrives at its margins and soils matter a great deal.
Viticulture practices such as planting density, organics/biodynamics, soil health, canopy management, row orientation, picking decisions
Winemaking practices such as sorting, use of stems, maceration, extraction, yeasts, bacteria, fermentation and cellar temperature, pressing, use of oak or alternative elevage, size and age and origin of oak, racking, pre-bottling interventions, closure type.
These all work together to produce great Pinot Noir, and there is no recipe that can be copied. It depends on where you are working
Finally, a tour of the Pinot world.
Burgundy casts a large shadow over the world of Pinot Noir. It’s the birthplace of the variety, and a place of pilgrimage for Pinot lovers across the globe. It is the defining example of terroir in action, and understanding its intricacies is a lifetime’s work.
Initial attempts to make world class Pinot Noir elsewhere, were, judged by today’s standards, a little naïve. They revolved around finding similar climates as judged by the crude metric of growing degree days. Little consideration was given to soils. But over recent decades, top quality Pinot Noir has emerged from elsewhere, speaking with a different accent but sharing the qualities of elegance, texture and ethereal perfume that Pinot lovers desire.
Oregon began its journey with Pinot Noir in the 1960s, and the pioneer there was David Lett of Eyrie. With their annual Pinot Noir celebration and Steamboat winemaker’s workshop, Oregon is now firmly established as a source of compelling Pinot. But it is still a work in progress, with some wines still championing power over elegance.
California is at an exciting phase for Pinot, with a move to cooler sites, earlier picking and sensitive winemaking, as demonsrated by the members of the recently disbanded In Pursuit of Balance movement. The Santa Rita Hills (Santa Barbara County) and Sonoma Coast seem to be particular hot spots. But there are still a lot of big, dark Pinots made in the state.
New Zealand has been on a rapid journey with its Pinot Noir. Martinborough led the way, followed closely by Central Otago in the late 1980s. There are some really interesting wines being made here, and winegrowers have been on quite a steep learning curve. Now that there’s some vine age, many of the wines are showing an extra dimension. And terroir prospectors have begun to find some very interesting terroirs.
Germany makes a lot of Pinot Noir, and there are some very good ones, although the impression I have is that some of the wines are a bit over-rated, fetching high prices because of local demand. But the best are really compelling. I have a particular soft spot for wines from the Ahr Valley, which makes some really lovely wines from distinctive schist terroirs.
Elsewhere? There are some good South African Pinots from the cooler regions (Elgin, Hemel-en-Aarde), and Chile is beginning to make some progress. Alsace makes a lot of Pinot, although there’s not much that has really wowed me.
Where does the Mornington Peninsula fit in? I’ve spent three days exploring and so far have found some very impressive Pinot Noirs here. The best show elegance but also some substance and structure. There are also some interesting differences to do with soil type and elevation. Over the next couple of days we’ll no doubt explore these in more detail.
Where does our food come from? I was recently in the Waipara Valley in North Canterbury, to take part in a remarkable event called Forage. There’s a film of it (above). The genius of forage is that it connects wine and food and links them both firmly to place.
South Bay, Kaikoura
We arrived early at Pegasus Bay winery for some breakfast and a briefing by organiser Angela Clifford. She put us each into teams, with each team containing a South Island chef, and led by a local forager. Then we set off to different locations to find all manner of things edible.
My team was sent off diving. We headed to Kaikoura, up the coast, for some diving. It was quite a drive, especially post-earthquake: Kaikoura was hit pretty hard, and a lot of roads are still closed, with diversions in place. And the seabed there has risen more than a metre.
Frank Manifold of Mount Brown briefs the divers
We changed into wet suits and headed for the water, where we snorkelled for food. Some had spear guns, the rest of us worked with our hands. We didn’t find all that much, but it was amazing being in another underwater world for a while.
The teams were all due back at Pegasus Bay by 2 pm, and the eight chefs then had to examine the foraged food, and decide what to do with it. The rest of us tasted wine and then drank beer and aged Riesling (not in the same glass), before sitting down for dinner.
What followed was quite amazing. Out of these local, foraged ingredients, the chefs created a remarkable multi course menu, which was then paired with Waipara wines. I was quite stunned.
Cured cod, plum juice, sea lettuce: James Stapley
Tempura zucchini flower, burgundy truffled quail egg: Jimmy McIntyre
Tried these interesting Waipara Valley wines over the last few days.
The Hermit Ram is made by Theo Coles, who also makes wines for Kalex in Central Otago and Mountford Estate in Waipara. He works quite naturally. These two are lovely.
The Hermit Ram Sauvignon Blanc 2016 Waipara, North Canterbury, New Zealand
This is a skin-fermented Sauvignon Blanc. Textured and broad with pretty melon and pear fruit, and some tight spicy notes. Vivid, broad and full with lovely texture. Smooth, rich and fine. 92/100
The Hermit Ram Pinot Noir 2015 North Canterbury, New Zealand
Textured and smooth with some lovely bright cherry and plum fruit. There’s a lovely grip here (80% whole bunch). Floral and detailed with a nice spicy edge. Has some tannin. Lovely. 94/100
Nik and Jessica Mavromatis make a bit of natural wine under the Ekleipsis label. They produce 56 cases of the Pinot Nouveau, 200 cases of the Pinot Gris/Chardonnay and also an underwater rosé from barrels sunk in a lake. I tried the first two.
Ekleipsis Pinot Nouveau 2016 Waipara, North Canterbury, New Zealand
No sulfur dioxide added, and no malolactic. Full carbonic/whole bunch. Cloudy pale red in colour. Very smooth with nice texture to the sweet red fruits. Very attractive mouthfeel. Super-smashable style and really appealing. 92/100
Ekleipsis Second Skin 2016 Waipara, North Canterbury, New Zealand
A 50/50 blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Gris that spends 6 months on skins in an amphora with no added sulphites. Appley and lemony; bright and vivid. Fresh apples and pears with nice focus and subtle herby notes. Some minerals and cherries here, too. Grainy and grippy. 91/100
Yesterday was spent in the two main subdistricts of Hawke’s Bay. The afternoon was spent in the famous Gimblett Gravels, but the morning was in the Bridge Pa Triangle Wine District. This consists of more than 2000 hectares of vines on the western side of the Heretaunga plains, and it has existed in the shadow of the Gimblett Gravels, to some extent, as the latter region has become world famous.
In 2012 the Bridge Pa Triangle Wine District was established and they now have 11 member wineries and seven growers. We tasted a good range of their wines in situ, on a knoll outside the Silent winery, and then we got taken up in a pair of 1941 Tiger Moths to look at the district from the air. These biplanes are quite beautiful, and flying in them was a great life experience. I’ll post notes later, but for now here’s a short film of the flight.
The second part of the Classic Reds Symposium in Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand, looked at Bordeaux varieties and blends. There were 12 wines, served blind, and as well as the 9 New Zealand wines there were 3 benchmarks from other regions. We tasted and then discussed the wines once we knew what they were.
My impression is that Hawke’s Bay has a lot of potential for Bordeaux-style varieties, but it’s still finding its way a little. The complex issue here is that of ripeness, and in particular how the greenness intrinsic to these varieties is dealt with.
It seems that a lot of winemakers are scared stiff of greenness, and so ripen the fruit as much as they can in order to avoid it. But this excessive ripeness results in charming, sweetly fruited wines, but wines that often lack definition and agreeability. Yesterday I tried a whole bunch of older wines from the region, and most had survived, at best, and hadn’t developed positively.
Yet this is a region that is quite marginal for these varieties, and ripening – especially of Cabernet Sauvignon – isn’t always a given. So I can understand why there’s a reluctance to pick earlier.
And the greenness issue is a big one. There are different sorts of greenness, and there is bad, nasty, green pepper greenness that is definitely under-ripe. But there is also good greenness: a sappy, slightly leafy quality that heightens the elegance and definition of the wine. One point made by Steve Smith is that young vines often deliver bad greenness, and you need older vines to be able to pick early.
There’s also the issue of oak use. Small barrels are convenient, but I’m not sure they really suit these Hawke’s Bay reds all that well. Some people are playing with alternatives, such as larger oak and concrete, but very few.
These wines have to find their individual voice more clearly if they are to find a place on the international stage. I think they have the potential for excellence, and sometimes this is realised. It’s definitely a work in progress.
THE WINES – notes and scores exactly as written blind
O’Shaughnessy Howell Mountain Merlot 2013 Napa Valley, California
Dense, spicy and grippy with firm tannins and a slightly bitter edge. Angular and youthful with some gloss over the top of the fruit. Plums and spice and herbs. 88/100
Church Road McDonald Series Merlot 2013 Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand
Lovely edgy black fruits. Subtle tar and gravel with some damson bitterness. A bit of olive and spice, too. There’s good concentration of ripe blackcurrant fruit. Some interest here. 92/100
Villa Maria Reserve Merlot Gimblett Gravels 2013 Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand
Silky texture here to the pretty fruit. Pure, seamless black cherry and blackberry fruit. This is ripe but balanced with real prettiness and a bit of structure. Ripe but balanced. 94/100
Esk Valley The Terraces Malbec Merlot Cabernet Franc 2014 Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand
Ripe, lush and meaty with lovely texture and pretty, pure black fruits. Smooth and ripe with a nice seamless texture and a hint of olive. This is very stylish and alluring. 93/100
Vieux Château Certan 2012 Pomerol, Bordeaux
Graphite and black cherry with some chalkiness. Smooth, ripe and broad with nicely textured ripe blackcurrant and black cherry fruit. Tastes quite Cabernet Franc like. Lush and broad. 93/100
Craggy Range Sophia 2014 Gimblett Gravels, Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand
Fresh, supple and berryish with nice ripeness. Smooth and quite broad with some fresh gravelly notes in the background. Ripe style but has freshness, although it isn’t perfectly integrated. 91/100
Te Mata Estate Coleraine 2013 Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand
Vivid and intense with ripe, sleek blackcurrant fruit with high acidity that sticks out a little. It’s very seductive but it tastes as if the acid has been corrected with a heavy hand. Juicy and a bit tart on the finish. 90/100
Alpha Domus AD The Aviator 2013 Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand
100% redmetals from Bridge Pa. Fresh and vivid with a nice green edge to the taut, slightly meaty black fruits. Nice definition here. Juicy acidity with some cherry and plum fruit. Dense and satisfying, and its tightwound nature suggests a long future ahead of it. 94/100
Church Road TOM Cabernet Sauvignon Merlot 2013 Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand
Ripe, sweet, generous black fruits here. Seductive and more-ish with sweet black cherry and blackberry fruit. Soft and a little amorphous on the palate with a very smooth texture. Jammy finish. 89/100
Te Motu 2013 Waiheke Island, New Zealand
Sweet blackberry jam nose is quite seductive. Lush sweet jammy palate is just a little too ripe with soft structure and autumnal fruit qualities. 88/100
Château Léoville Lascases 2012 Bordeaux, FRance
Nicely savoury with grippy black fruits. Has pepper and olives and some cured meat. Firm tannins and acidity that sticks out a little. Nice tight wound black fruits here. Lovely wine, despite the acid. 93/100
Villa Maria Ngakirikiri Cabernet Sauvignon Merlot Gimblett Gravels 2013 Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand
Sweet blackcurrant and blackberry fruit with nice definition and grip. Firm and structured with a hint of green. Fresh and youthful with potential for development. Lovely definition. 94/100
Peter Cowley (Te Mata), Warren Gibson (Bilancia and Trinity Hill) and Steve Smith
These are my notes from the first tasting At the Hawke’s Bay Symposium on Classic Reds, held at Trinity Hill, Hawke’s Bay, 4 February 2017. This flight looked at New Zealand Syrah tasted blind, with four imposters from other cool Syrah regions to give some context. The wines were tasted blind and these are my notes as written, completely blind. It’s interesting to see which wines did well. The lowest score I reserved for an expensive Chapoutier Hermitage that just wan’t very good. The two top wines were from Hawke’s Bay.
Fromm La Strada Syrah 2014 Marlborough, New Zealand
Highly aromatic peppery nose. Very bright with lots of fresh raspberries. Juicy, bright and supple. Light bodied and crunchy. Peppery edge. A light, supple style. 89/100
Elephant Hill Airavata 2013 Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand
Spicy, tarry edge to the black fruits nose with some pepper. Woody and spicy on the palate. The oak is a bit too strong but there is a core of sweet fruit and a nice peppery edge. 88/100
Wairau River Reserve Syrah 2014 Marlborough, New Zealand
Lovely weight here with generous but fresh peppery black fruits. Has a lovely grippy, peppery core to it. There’s a balance and some harmony to this dense wine. Some olive. 93/100
Copain Hawks Butte Syrah 2012 Anderson Valley, California
Fresh nose with some pepper and iodine notes. Floral cherry fruits too. Fresh, quite supple, slightly sappy and with some detail. There’s warm spiciness on the finish. Nice weight, finishes tannic. 91/100
Te Mata Estate Bullnose Syrah 2014 Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand Ripe, warm and generous with lush spicy fruit and a bit of cedary oak. Fresh, lush, peppery palate with nice generosity. This has a nice ripe personality but it’s elegant, too, and a bit bloody. 92/100
Church Road McDonald Series Syrah 2014 Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand
This is bold and powerful with a core of sweet blackcurrant and blackberry fruit. It’s a big, lush wine with some spicy tannins. Has plushness and generosity, but it’s not overdone. Rich with a tannic finish. 93/100
M Chapoutier Les Granits St Joseph 2013 Northern Rhône, France
Tarry and spicy on the nose with some roast coffee character. The palate is savoury and grippy with an edgy personality. Olive, iodine and spices. Distinctive and quite challenging, but with character. 92/100
John Forrest Collection Syrah 2013 Gimblett Gravels, Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand
Spice, tar and olive nose. Fresh, vivid and peppery on the palate with ripe black fruits and some woody, spicy notes. Maybe too much oak here. 89/100
Chloe Somerset (Cable Bay), Matt Stafford (Craggy Range)
Bilancia La Collina 2013 Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand
Beautifully floral meat, olive and bacon nose with sweet black fruits. Lovely lush, ripe black fruits with warm, meaty, spicy framing. This has great balance and appeal. Lush and delicious. 94/100
Trinity Hill Homage Syrah 2013 Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand
Lively black cherry and plum nose with a slight olive lift. Fresh, taut, balanced palate with sweet but tightly wound in black cherry fruit and nice peppery detail. This wine has substance and balance. 94/100
M Chapoutier Ermitage Les Greffieux 2013 Northern Rhône, France
Tarry roast coffee nose. Fresh, vivid, reductive palate with grippy black fruits. Angular and reduced at the moment. 87/100
Craggy Range Le Sol Gimblett Gravels Vineyard 2013 Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand
Open, fresh cherry and berry fruits with a juicy citrus peel character, as well as a hint of pepper. Nice open fruit here. Supple, balanced and a bit savoury. 91/100
Man O’ War Dreadnought 2014 Waiheke Island, New Zealand
This has a distinctly medicinal edge to the sweet peppery black fruits. It’s a real outlier: the mint and medicine frame the fruit. Juicy and focused with a nice core of fruit. Unusual. 90/100
Passage Rock Reserve Syrah 2013 Waiheke Island, New Zealand
Open, ripe and supple with sweet blackberry and blackcurrant fruit. Some peppery notes here with a hint of raspberry freshness on the finish. Really ripe and generous, and quite attractive. 90/100
Shaw and Smith Shiraz 2014 Adelaide Hills, Australia
Open and berryish with a hint of olive and pepper and ripe, slightly jammy fruit. Open and easy with nice fruit sweetness. 88/100
Villa Maria Reserve Syrah Gimblett Gravels 2013 Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand
Generous, ripe and seductive with a nice harmony to the lush blackberry and black cherry fruit. Nice depth of fruit here. Quite stylishly done with a smooth core of fruit and a bit of peppery framing. 93/100
Yesterday we had a great experience, courtesy of New Zealand Wine Growers and Air New Zealand. It was a specially chartered flight over four wine regions, beginning in Wellington and ending in Hawke’s Bay. Along the way we took in Nelson, Marlborough, Martinborough (now re-badged as Wellington Wine Country) and Hawke’s Bay.
We began flying over the Marlborough Sounds
This is the town of Nelson
The Waimea Plain of Nelson
The Moutere Hills of Nelson
Heading over the Richmond Ranges to the Marlborough region
This is a great view of the Wairau Valley, Marlborough, heading inland from left to right.
This is looking outwards over Blenheim airport, the town of Blenheim, and the sea
This is looking the other way, inland, with the airport in the foreground
This is a great view of the Southern Valleys, where a lot of the Pinot Noir is grown. The Wither Hills are on the left, and beyond these lies the Awatere Valley
This is the Awatere Valley, looking inland
This is the Awatere Valley, looking out to see. On the upper right is the large Yealands Estate.
Another view of the top of the Awatere
A wider view of the Awatere
Then it was over to Martinborough, now part of Wellington Wine Country, which is the new name for Wairarapa
What is greatness in a wine? This was the subject of a session at the Pinot Noir symposium, where we were encouraged to discuss this question among ourselves. These are some of my thoughts.
We’re entering the realm of aesthetics here. Greatness is not simply one person’s preference. Nor is greatness the notion that a simple wine drunk in a special location with special people ‘great’. This is a great experience, but it doesn’t confer greatness on a wine.
Greatness is conferred on wine by a community of judgement. When we, as the wine community, taste wines together, we recognize the great wines. It’s an aesthetic system, where we form a judgement together, by tasting together, discussing, listing, buying, consuming.
There’s no definition that we can apply to determine whether a wine is great or not. Nor is a score by a single critic, however influential, enough to make a wine great. If, however, a wine is consistently recognized to be exceptional – by critics, merchants and consumers – then it can emerge as a great wine.
For example, if you were to ask a group of wine professionals which were the truly great New Zealand Pinot Noirs, then I imagine there would be a degree of agreement among them. Whether or not these are great wines in the global setting is a question that would require the agreement of a broader community who have tasted widely Pinot Noirs from around the wine world.
Of course, if you are a wine producer, you want to sell your wines for a profitable price. That’s the major concern. But greatness is different to commercial success.
Does it matter whether a wine is great or not? Yes. It’s important that we as a wine community have a notion of what constitutes a great wine. We need benchmarks. These benchmark wines give us something to aspire to. These are guideposts, directing us to the destination. You can be the most skilful winegrower around, but if you are heading in the wrong direction, you’ll just get there faster and end up in the wrong place sooner.
Then we come to the notion of different aesthetic systems. We don’t all agree. Back in the 1980s Robert Parker began the era of the American critic, rating wines on a 100 point scale. This was quite a shift in the world of wine. Previously, the world of fine wine was strictly defined: the influential UK wine trade decided that serious wines came from Bordeaux and Burgundy. Some great wines also came from Champagne, Port and the top German vineyards.
Parker’s approach was a hedonic one. His scoring system created a separate aesthetic system where the standard for greatness was the deliciousness of the wine, to Parker’s palate. The Wine Spectator critics followed suit. With these scoring systems, the world of fine wine was opened up. Any wine could be great, if it was delicious enough. As a result, a new aesthetic system emerged.
More recently, and perhaps more dramatically, the latest aesthetic system has been the emergence of natural wine. Natural wines are judged very differently to the established norms for fine wine. The standard of greatness in natural wine doesn’t overlap so much with the established aesthetic systems, and it is fascinating to see some of the discourse that has emerged from this clash of systems.
So, that’s my view. Greatness is conferred on wines by a community of judgement among those connected in some way with wine. We operate within an aesthetic system that orientates us and provides us with benchmarks, helping us on our way.