2011 Pinot @ Cloudy Bay Address

By | 17/11/2011

When Nick Lane asked me if I’d like to ‘say a few words’ at the 2011 Pinot @ Cloudy celebration I was delighted, and agree to do so. However, when the brief arrived, I found I was delivering the Inaugural Cloudy Bay Address.  Here is the transcript of my speech:
Anyone who has made the long, and at times, seemingly never ending journey to New Zealand cannot fail to be awed by the landscape of this small country. Making my first journey here in 1990 we travelled around the country, mainly on tiny Eagle Air planes, an itinerary for which 21 years later, I have still not forgiven my husband. Having endured a particularly heinous flight into Queenstown via Mt Cook, we visited a fledgling winery, the owners being good friends of our host. On a warm summer’s evening I wandered through the newly established vineyards. Drinking a glass of barely red pinot noir, I smiled and murmured encouraging words to the winemaker. That watery, feeble example was probably the only NZ pinot I drank on the trip. It was only later, on the way back to our motel, I whispered to JR, “they’ll never make a go of pinot”.

Fast forward 20 years. How wrong I was. Pinot noir is now the second most planted grape variety in NZ and if we believe the press and wine critics, the winemakers here are making world class wine.  Is this truly the case ? And if so, can we afford to be complacent and bask in the glory?  Or should pinot producers be forever restless and keeping searching for greater expression and complexity in their wines?

First. Let me address the elephant in the room. Sauvignon Blanc is the mainstay of the industry and the springboard from which all producers, irrespective of where they are based, leverage their production. Rather than grizzle about the lack of direction and foresight of the industry’s governing body, we should all accept that the current state is one that is going to be around for some time yet. Indeed I think we have gone such a long way down the route of discounting and bulk sales that that this is the way things are going to stay. The bulk of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc now lives in a space from which it will probably not be able to claw its way back.  Over supply and deep discounting means that for many consumers overseas, NZ SB now competes with similar wines from Chile, Argentina, South Africa.

Perhaps this should not be scorned. Consumer research has found that although wine drinkers were put off buying NZ wine in the past, mainly because price was too high, now that barrier has been abolished and hopefully a new category of wine drinkers are experimenting and enjoying our wines.

In my view, the main challenge facing the nz wine industry must be to reinforce the idea that NZ is more than just sauvignon blanc and convert these new drinkers into lovers of all NZ wine.

So how does pinot noir fit into that equation? Unlike SB, which seems to thrive almost anywhere, we are constantly told that pinot noir is difficult to produce. So how does NZ keep its reputation and position as a recognised producer of excellence? In my opinion, what NZ needs to do now, and with certainty, is to reinforce to the pinot noir consumers of the world that this country is a special place and to relentlessly sell the image of the country and its amazing landscapes to those that haven’t had the good fortune to visit.

Those who choose to make pinot noir, who decided to plant, cultivate and produce one of the world’s most sought after varieties feel the world owes them a certain amount of respect. Pinot makers carry an air of superiority and like to think they are just a little bit better than everyone else. Do they deserve that respect?

Having judged at the Spiegelau Wine Competiton in Blenheim this week, one thing is for sure. There is an awful lot of very ordinary pinot being produced here. The textbooks may tell us pinot is hard to make, but that hasn’t stopped producers from planting squillions of hectares making it the second most planted grape variety. Is that a bad thing?  Maybe not, because ordinary nz pinot is still a whole lot better than pinot noir from many other parts of the world. Provided, of course, it is priced accordingly and recognised for its everyday drinking qualities rather than be praised in gushing terms by local critics.

But we haven’t come here this weekend enticed by the prospect of ordinary pinot. We are here to celebrate excellence of type and diversity of style. We will be tasting a mouthwatering selection of some of the world’s finest expressions of pinot noir.

Those who set out to produce the finest pinots must be able to justify the positioning of their wines and those wines must deliver. And this is where I think NZ producers have to be careful. To be thought of as special, to command respect on the world stage and to ask prices that leave no-one in any doubt as to the intention, the best pinots from NZ have to stand up to critical review. It is not enough to plant the right clones, add a bit of winemaking nous and wait for the wines to sell themselves. How does the committed pinot maker do this??

In my opinion, the best, indeed the only route of action open for premium pinot producers is to start recognising and tethering their wines to a specific place or origin.

Sense of place is, to my mind, the hallmark of a truly great wine. How many NZ winemakers are in awe of the fantastic premium rieslings of the Mosel or Rheingau? The wines that they hold in such esteem do, through the almost indecipherable 1971 German wine law, require labelling that tells of exactly their place of origin. It is the same in Burgundy. The frustratingly complex classification of vineyards seems inpenetrable at first but the wines are in such demand that the consumer is willing to accept, if not completely understand, the proposition that different vineyards give wines of different tastes, textures and styles. Yes, the human hand plays a part, but the fact that wines of Gevrey, Corton or Morey St Denis are imprinted with a specific character suggests there is something to the terroir argument.

Unfortunately NZ has not adopted an appellation system and so wine-makers, wherever they plant grapes are free to experiment. Unlike France, which has all its pinot producers grouped in the one region, (let’s leave the pinots of Sancerre and Alsace out of the equation) NZ winemakers believe that any region, from the semi tropical north to the chilly south is capable of producing high quality pinot noir.

And whilst this may be true, (though hand on heart we know it not to be the case) those winemakers who are serious about making great pinot must now start to distance themselves from those who view pinot as a commodity, a wine that completes their portfolio, a wine that can be produced without much passion. They need to search for terroir.

Yet whenever the word terroir is mentioned, winemakers here either harumph in disdain or else are at pains to point out that terroir is actually the French word for wine faults. Suggest to anyone that NZ would benefit from some sort of system of vineyard classification and the same old argument arises. That winemakers don’t want to be constricted. Unless they are left free to experiment, then how will the potential of the country be realised?

That argument has some merit, after all countries such as France have had hundreds of years to try and get it right. The AOC system, first introduced to combat fraud and the risk of overproduction, has given many regions a collective voice but it could be argued has also stifled experimentation.  The reasoning runs “if you don’t try it, you’ll never know if it works”. But it means at the moment you have over 600 NZ wineries all trying their hands at a smorgasbord of different varieties, many without conviction or purpose. Is this any better ?

I think it is too late to try and establish formal boundaries. Unlike French vignerons, who whenever there is some viticultural dispute, take to the streets, riot, tear up vines and set fire to trucks, their NZ counterparts would never think to cause a civil disturbance. Any attempt to set boundaries would no doubt involve so much red tape and legislation that it would be impossible to implement and NZers being non confrontational people wouldn’t riot.

And anyway, how do you classify a region? The concept of terroir here would be very much an imposed one; recognition that soil plus climate through the action of a catalyst ie. the human hand, gives a taste of a place.

A few regions have introduced an appellation system. Gimblett Gravels for example relies on geographical definition to create a brand and with very little history of winemaking, describes a region that is only embarking on the journey. Even so, the idea that the Gimblett Gravels is a superior sub-region is gaining traction with the consumer.

But I think the argument for an appellation system will probably never be resolved and rather than lose impetus, now it is up to individual producers to establish credibilty and respect for their own label. NZ pinot producers need to start working with their own vineyards and create wine from somewhere, not just anywhere…

After all, nz wine regions are some of the most beautiful and the stronger the connection to the land, the easier I think the consumer will be able to identify and seek out premium pinot. I’d like to see winemakers establish microsites within their vineyards from which particular parcels of fruit are bottled under single parcel labels.

Don’t get me wrong.

I am not suggesting that individual vineyard wines are better, only that they add a layer of complexity and interest for the consumer. Single parcel wines, from premium producers, would make more sense than the standard practice of producing two pinots, one the main label and the other, undoubtedly more expensive wine, the ‘reserve’. The word reserve is utterly meaningless, other than usually to denote the wine has received more oak. I always ask a winemaker what does reserve mean and why have they chosen to bottle a wine labelled in this way? What exactly makes it ‘better’ and more expensive? I very rarely get a convincing answer, more likely a mumble about it being a barrel selection, whatever that means. The term reserve (or some other nebulous word) has almost no meaning, nothing tangible.  And please don’t get me started on super premium wines, wines that rarely speak of any sense of place but more of the over the top packaging, clearly more suited to the duty free shop than the cellar of a serious wine collector.

Can anyone, however talented, really hunt for sites that will express superb terroir or is the realisation that you have an exceptional site a lucky break?  The only real test is time and you can’t hurry the process, especially as producers only make one vintage a year. I am not suggesting that this is a process that can happen overnight. But encouragingly some producers, those with longer established vineyards, have chosen to start experimenting and bottling specific parcels.

Will these single vineyard wines confuse the consumer?  I may be wrong, but I believe the type of wine lover who is interested in high quality pinot noir, is probably able to read. The label shouldn’t provide too much of a problem. High involvement consumers are more savvy than we give them credit for. It is an error of judgement to assume that wine lovers have to understand the concept of terroir or individual sites in order to enjoy the wine. Understanding of terroir is challenging but sensual enjoyment and appreciation of terroir-derived differences is not.  Reading the list of wines we’ll taste tomorrow, wines that have been chosen as exemplars of their type, one thing struck me. All are linked by a strong sense of place and each one speaks of its origin.

Pinot Noir is a grape variety that demands respect. NZ winemakers clearly feel they have an understanding for the variety as witnessed by the proliferation of plantings. But how many really understand or appreciate what makes great pinot noir? Pinot noir that develops, matures and ages into a magical glass of wine. How many of the new generation of winemakers ever drink great pinot noir, never mind old Burgundy? Do they understand what they are aiming for/competing with?

To someone used to selling and drinking the wines of Burgundy, I still think that many nz pinot noirs taste too fruity and lacking that vital tension that makes great Burgundy hard work when young, but so unbelievabably delectable when mature.  Many wine shows reward densely coloured overtly fruity pinots, never mind that many taste like merlot, the grape variety so often derided. Wine reviewers fall over themselves to praise huge alcoholic, over-oaked monsters. When I heard a respected pinot maker describe recently a wine as “fleshy, plump with lots of creamy oak – just as good pinot should be” I almost wept.   Great pinot noir should have fragrance, subtlety, elegance and tension, that balance between acid and fruit that makes the wines so succulent. Complexity and interest can be woven into wines from wherever they originate. Perhaps NZ pinot producers could work on leaving a little bit of oak out and weave in a bit of magic instead.

Don’t get me wrong. It would be a great shame if NZ pinot producers felt they had to imitate or replicate the wines of Burgundy.  One should be inspired by the wines of the Cote d’Or but not aim to make pale imitations of them. Winemakers must keep one eye on Burgundy, but the other on the other countries with whom they are compared. The line up of wines that Nick has chosen for us to taste this weekend represents most of the key premium pinot producing regions and is one of reasons I was so excited to have accepted the invitation to come this weekend. And at this point I should acknowledge the invitation extended to me by Ian and Nick, to take part in this celebration. Thank you.

Nick was one of the panellists at the World Sauvignon Blanc conference in Graz and that tasting was one of the very best I have been to; where the panellists discussed and tasted each wine and managed to appreciate each one without turning the whole exercise into an intense competition.  Though I realise, as I look around the room, filled with NZers and Australians, that trans-Tasman rivallry is hardwired into every one of you and there are no two more competitive nations on earth.  But I hope that tomorrow will be an opportunity to celebrate difference, not for tasters to take part in a competition.

Once winemakers have started to identify exceptional sites, the next challenge is to make wines that will age and more importantly develop and mature. I was surprised to see an internationally respected UK writer comment that they had enjoyed one of NZ’s most revered pinots and say “still lovely, even after seven years!”  If I had spent upwards of $60 dollars for a bottle of benchmark pinot, I would only think it should be hitting its straps at five years old, not hanging on by its fingernails.

The challenge for winemakers here is to produce wines that do age. Hopefully increasing vine age, cropping rates that give wines of concentration and potential and a turning down of the volume on the new oak dial, will give wines with real potential for longevity.

Just one grizzle. The Pinot Noir Conference takes place in Wellington every three years. I have been to each one and have seen the event change from being a rather homespun celebration of nz pinot into a marketing exercise for NZ wine in general. Speakers more interested in overtly praising the wines (hopeful perhaps of another all expenses paid junket), poorly focussed tastings and international wines that didn’t stand up to scrutiny have made this an expensive seminar that lacks real meaning / tangible worth. When I mentioned that Oregon’s International Pinot Conference seemed more of a focussed event, I was told that that it appealed to ‘pinot geeks’. Well anyone who loves, makes and drinks pinot noir must be something of a geek. The Wellington event is the ideal opportunity to explore regional differences, nuances and subtleties rather than host mega tastings that seem to have no clear direction and focus.  It is a time to showcase to the world that NZ is a special place, full of wonderful landscapes and home to some of the most passionate pinot producers on earth.

Driving through Burgundy for the first time, I still remember the goosebumps I felt when I saw road signs on the route nationale signposting Puligny Montrachet and Meursault. Let’s hope that soon, visitors from overseas driving through the wine regions here will get the same goosebumps when seeing signs for Omaka Valley or Martinborough. NZ is blessed with some of the most remarkable landscapes and vineyards sited in areas of tremendous beauty. I had no intention of losing my heart to a New Zealander and marrying him, never mind moving to the other side of the world to make my home here. (though to be honest, when we spoke early this morning my husband did point out that although he was excited to be coming to the event, he was making the Ultimate sacrifice and missing out on the rugby, a QUARTER FINAL no less tonight).

But once you’ve made the emotional connection to the country, its wines and, in my case, one of its people, you do feel quite blessed.

So its time for the pinot producers of NZ to seize the remarkable opportunity they have been given, to push the boundaries and to continue to seek and strive for excellence along the way.

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