Who’s Pinot Reigns Supreme?

The Melbourne Food and Wine festival is something that Eminence has been part of one way or another for the last couple of years – teaming up with other wineries to put on what we always affectionately called ‘wine parties’. This year though, I committed to actually attending a few events, two of which I wanted to write about here since I found them to be quite mesmerising.

First up: pinot noir. This ethereal variety was the subject of a much anticipated masterclass titled ‘Australia V New Zealand: Who’s Pinot Reigns Supreme?’ Showcasing eight premium wines from each country, poured blind, and evaluated by some of the top winemakers in the category: Nick Farr (By Farr – Geelong), Michael Dhillon (Bindi – Macedon), Blair Walter (Felton Rd – Central Otago) & Nick Mills (Rippon – Wanaka). All pulled together expertly by moderator, author and critic Nick Stock.

So why does pinot grab us in a way that other wines don’t? Pinot noir has a remarkable ability to convey provenance that is almost unequalled by any other variety. Variation from site creates almost infinite (yet subtle) differences in the wine – and once you are on the pinot bandwagon, chasing that perfect wine becomes almost obsessive. On top of that, we then add in the human influence (in the winery) and here things get tricky. Oak regimes, whole bunch work, stalk influence, maceration, yeast selection…and the rest, give the winemaker seemingly endless choices in the winery. Which way they go depends on their preferred style, site, environmental / winemaking ethics and arguably – their market.

So with a grape variety so able to talk to us about where it comes from, the prevailing view is that pinot noir grapes should be handled with restraint in the winery in order to let the fruit show its origin. You could argue that there is no point otherwise! Consequently, this tasting quickly became concerned chiefly with the hand-of-god versus hand-of-man argument. Should we let the fruit speak as loudly as possible, or shape it with our winemaking tenacity?

The short answer is that there is no right answer. Blair (Felton Rd) and Nick (Rippon) made two of the top pinot’s in the mix. They are both passionate advocates of organic / biodynamic viticulture, and both have extraordinarily complex, multi-dimensional, globally recognised, delicious wines to show for it. Both advocate less intervention in the winery and believe passionately in making terroir driven wines which reflect the vintage season.

Nick Farr, on the other end of the spectrum makes distinctive, human influenced wines from their estate vineyards in the Geelong region. Also wines of immense regard, Nick and his Dad show a polarising dedication to consistency through winemaking. The By Farr wines are bold, structured and unashamedly made.

We tasted through the line-up, discussing each bracket in detail. Nick Mills showed an extraordinary insight into the character of the wines – largely ignoring flavour descriptors and instead focusing on mouth feel, line, shape and concentration. He described one wine as being tense & compressed, another as creating a sense of ‘salivaciousness’ – which I’m not convinced is a real word, but conveys a sense of involuntary physiological preference – which I certainly have experienced!

Sounds generous, but every wine in the lineup (all 2010) was excellent.  Nit-picking though – since I can, revealed a few standouts. The Bindi Block 5  was feminine, fine but with incredible command.  Main Ridge (Mornington) and Freycinet (Tasmania) were both outstanding wines – each with great line, length and focus. Out of the imports, the Rippon stole my heart – with its seemingly infinite layers…a real conversation piece. And I couldn’t resist the Bell Hill for absolute opulence. Lucky almost all of these are sold out or prohibitively expensive; otherwise my credit card would be on the verge of melting.

So what is the take home message here? Well firstly – the final points tally showed a tie between the locals and the wines from across the ditch. How disappointing! Understanding your own stylistic preference as a consumer though is key here: fine, feminine and delicate or bold, structured and dense? Either way (or everything in between), there are certain expectations of great pinot noir. The acid, tannin and fruit fleshiness need to show a harmonious balance, the flavour should stretch down the palate and even with the delicate wines; the good ones will show strength of character which distinguishes it beyond its peers. How do you decide all of this? Drink more pinot of course!