Kiwi pinot stands out from the rest
Two years ago, an esteemed English wine writer, Oz Clark, wowed pinot noir winemakers by raving that whereas he once believed French burgundy and New Zealand pinot noir were both good, just different, he now rated them equal.
How could this possibly be? I thought, as I made my way down to Marlborough for a grand tasting of 18 pinot noirs from around the world at the event, Pinot at Cloudy Bay.
Burgundy, after all, is the spiritual home of wine from the pinot noir grape. Pinot has been grown there since the 4th century AD, whereas New Zealand winegrowers have only been seriously cultivating this fickle grape variety since Malcolm Abel planted his vineyard in 1970.
There were five French burgundies in this lineup: one was from the bottom of the hierarchy, a simple appellation controlle; two were Premier Cru, or First Growths, while two were Grand Cru - the very apex of the pyramid.
My concern was that when I got to these last two, my preconceptions would be telling me they were the best, even if my palate was sending other messages.
But I needn't have worried. When I arrived at the event, hosted by Cloudy Bay in their vast barrel hall, I discovered it was to be a blind tasting: only at the end would all the wines be revealed.
The tasting covered three brackets of six wines, and of the last wine in the first bracket, I wrote in my notes, "muscular, quite tannic."
But the official tasting panel went even further. Cloudy Bay winemaker Sarah Burton (no relation) described the tannins as "mouth puckering", while Cuisine magazine wine writer Ralph Kyte-Powell decried the tannins as "out of whack". He said this wine lacked perfume, was slightly oxidised, and of the first six in the lineup, it was the one he liked least.
And its true identity? Domaine Chandon de Brialles Corton Bressandes 2009, one of the Grand Cru burgundies, and at $120 a bottle, the second most expensive wine in this "grand tasting".
Of the final wine in the tasting, No 18, I had written: "Smells mousy - influence of brett?" - brett being brettanomyces, a spoilage yeast that produces off-flavours.
Apparently I was right. Ralph Kyte-Powell said he wanted to like this wine but it had too much brett, whereas Sarah Burton slammed it as over-extracted - a clumsy monster, in fact.
And the identity of this wine? The other Grand Cru burgundy, Bouchard Pere et Fils, Corton, Le Corton 2009, at $200 by far the most expensive of the tasting. By contrast the others - from New Zealand, Austria, Tasmania and California - were in the $40-$85 range.
Of wine No 14, I had written "perfumed, very appealing," an opinion backed up by English wine writer Tim White, who described it as "attractive, lip-smacking and fragrant"'. Sarah Burton picked it correctly as a New Zealand pinot, but not as her own Cloudy Bay Pinot Noir. For it was none other than hers - the Cloudy Bay Pinot Noir 2009, at $45 one of the cheapest pinots in the tasting.
But perhaps there is some relation between price and quality after all, for the cheapest wine in the lineup, an Austrian pinot (Weingut Familie Auer) costing $40, was disliked by most of the panel. Master of Wine Bob Campbell described it as flat and dull, Kyte-Powell thought it had dead fruit character, and Sarah Burton agreed, saying it was her least favourite.
Summing up at the end, convener Nick Blampied-Lane said the most universally liked pinot across the room appeared to be wine No 17, Ata Rangi 2009 from Martinborough, described variously as layered, floral, with good backbone and great structure.
This "grand tasting" had been the culmination of three days fun at Cloudy Bay, the guests mostly restaurateurs and sommeliers from around the world. Somewhat less pleasantly, we were put to work, replanting one of Cloudy Bay's vineyards, where a block of pinot gris had been ripped out to make way for more pinot noir. Assistant viticulturist Peter Lamb explained the reason the holes have to be dug by hand: if you use a machine-driven auger screw, it glazes and seals the sides of the hole in this vineyard's clay-rich soil, thus inhibiting the expansion of the vine cutting's roots.
In one of the highlights, we were divided into six teams and given a task - to blend a pinot noir which best expressed the personality of six very different celebrities. My team's celebrity was possibly the easiest - Paris Hilton. Our blend, branded Paris Loves Pinophiles, was a showy, thin but immediately attractive fruitbomb, lipsticky and vanillan on the nose, but with a little substance that few would understand.