Stonier International Pinot Noir tasting

WBM October 2006
From the tasting bench

It’s not uncommon for several conclusions to come out of comparative tastings. That has certainly been the case with the Stonier International Pinot Noir Tastings, the most recent of which took place in Melbourne last July.

Winemakers, the trade and public all attend the tasting, which presents 12 Pinot Noirs from around the world in two groups of six. (Stoniers could equally do this with Chardonnay, from which they’re making some outstanding wines, but others got there first.) There is a “top table” panel, which this year featured Len Evans, James Halliday and Brian Croser, coordinated by Stonier winemaker Geraldine McFaul, who otherwise prefers to keep a low profile. Opinions from others are coordinated by table captains, who are called in turn to summarise their tables’ comments and nominate preferences.

The first finding was the wide range of style and – perhaps no surprise – how much opinions differed, often between tables and often between them and the Panel. Two years ago, for instance, an Adelaide Hills wine was the pick of several tables from the first bracket, but was the lowest rated by the Panel (and me) who thought it overripe and showed dehydrated fruit. “Just what is the right style for Pinot Noir?” I often hear, as if all need to conform. Do McLaren Vale, Mount Barker, Hunter and Sunbury Shiraz conform? Why shouldn’t Pinot Noir show the same diversity?

If you favoured powerful wines in this year’s tasting, and could accept the highly ripe flavours in the first three, you’d have chosen Domaine Jacques-Fréderic Mugnier Musigny 2003, Pisa Range Black Poplar Block 2004 from Central Otago, Comte Armand Pommard Clos des Epeneaux 2003 and Kupé Escarpment 2003 from Martinborough. If fragrance, delicacy and a graceful balance (with no loss of richness) was your bag, Stonier KBS Vineyard 2004, Paringa Reserve 2004 and Curly Flat 2004 would have impressed. If you were wanting the best of both worlds, with richness and length combined with fine texture, then Armand Rousseau Clos de Bèze 2003, Bannockburn 2004 (my top two wines of the tasting), Argyle Spirithouse 2004 from Oregon and Siduri Amber Ridge 2004 from Russian River would have been perfect.

All were clear expressions of Pinot Noir – in a couple of cases not to my liking – and yet showed a huge range of style and spoke of place. I strongly believe that Pinot Noir is not a difficult variety to make, provided the grapes are grown in the right spot. Manage the flavours. Let your site speak. Pick the fruit at the best ripeness level to show this and don’t hide its origin under overworking or heaps of oak.

The second finding – more a demonstration – was how well the local wines performed. Don’t cast me as jingoistic. I’m just fed up with people, particularly New Zealanders! saying that Australia can’t make Pinot Noir. The Yarra, Mornington, Tasmania, Geelong and others are all making wines of richness, finesse and length – oh yes – and longevity. I have several Pinots from these regions which are in great shape after 15 years.

The third finding – in this case a revelation – was how Burgundy handled the 2003 vintage, a foretaste of global warming. This was the extraordinarily hot summer of drought and bushfires in Europe when, for instance, most Champagne grapes had been picked long before previous early vintages would have started. It renewed memories of “vintage of the century” claims for Burgundies in 1976, another hot year, when most subsequently turned out dull, hard and prune-like.

The answer was, “variably”.

The Musigny was big, alcoholic and viscous, with overripe plum flavours similar to a try-too-hard New World wine. At $608 – yes $608 – there is better value around. Bouchard Père’s Le Corton, at less than a third the price, was much more successful, with great power and stalk-influenced tannins, but balanced and complete. The Pommard was very ripe, solid, blocky and clumsy, as much a statement of the commune and maker as the year perhaps, while the Clos de Bèze was everything a top flight Burgundy should be, combining weight, sweet and savoury flavours, suppleness and length.

All four wines showed the mark of their vintage, but did so in very different ways, two producing great wines with expressions of the year, the other two making caricatures.

Pinot Noir comes in many styles and suits many preferences. The New World, Australia included, has found sites to make excellent Pinot and there will be more to be discovered in future. Perhaps we’ll need to, as things get warmer. Burgundy remains the exemplar, but how will it manage when hotter vintages than 2003 arrive? We may not like our Pinots to taste like prunes but we may have to get used to it.

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