John Saker: A new era of Kiwi pinot noir
A few weeks ago, a year after I first encountered the Landsdowne Claret 1903, we crossed paths again. Ed Beetham generously delved into his family's historic wine cache for a group of mainly overseas wine media. Like the bottle opened a year ago, this one did not disappoint. These pre-Great War Kiwi reds are holding on stubbornly, giving us all a faded but fascinating taste of the work of the Wairarapa's first winemakers, William Beetham and his French wife Hermance.
The old wine was taut and lively. We know there were other varieties besides pinot noir planted in the Beetham vineyard, but there was something very pinot-esque about it. It held traces of that blood-orange flavour you often get in New Zealand pinot. That tasting kicked off a period of personal pinot saturation. After the Wairarapa jaunt I went straight into the three-day Wellington pinot noir conference which was closely followed by Cuisine's annual pinot tasting.
I emerged palate-weary, but upbeat. There is a large and growing band of pinot producers in this country who are making terrific wines. The era of everybody wanting to produce lookalikes of the dark, oaky, soupy early Central Otago pinots is fast receding, thank God. Tension and elegance are being chased. So is expression of place.
That is a big reason that so many of our finest pinot noir producers have embraced organics or biodynamics. They want their wines to reflect their sites as faithfully as possible, and see the use of chemicals which obliterate insect life and lay waste to their soils as being at odds with that goal. In essence, they have returned to a past era of cultivation.
A distinctive, impressive organically-grown wine I tasted during these days of pinot immersion was the Aurum Organic Pinot Noir 2015 ($38). This Central Otago wine is emblematic of the new breed of pinot: vivid, full of energy, light-stepping, with spiced red cherry notes and, yes, a touch of blood-orange.
In a strange way it did recall that old Beetham wine. And then I thought more about the two wines... Both were the work of pioneers in new regions. Both were organically grown – in 1903 it was all they knew. And both were produced by couples consisting of Kiwi blokes and their winemaker French wives. (The team behind the Aurum pinot is Brook and Lucie Lawrence, who met in Burgundy).
Was I getting a little too carried away by the crimson tide on which I'd been floating?