Reaching new heights

It's human nature to compare and contrast but is it fair to pit New Zealand Pinot Noir against Burgundy? Joelle Thomson reports
27 August, 2008
Page 36 
The most-quoted one-liner on New Zealand Pinot Noir right now is that of Tim Atkin MW . It was penned immediately after the Pinot Noir 2007 conference , printed in UK title Off Licence News (Feb 9 2007) and reprinted almost everywhere you look in the New Zealand wine industry.

Atkin echoes the thoughts of many when he says: "If you've got less than £25 to spend on a single bottle, I'd choose New Zealand over France for consistency, depth of flavour and, increasingly, complexity. Worryingly for Burgundy, Kiwi Pinots will only get better."

Atkin's comments may not have been intended to have such an impact, but some New Zealand producers are feeling more than justified in charging NZ$150-plus per bottle of their first-ever, top quality, or ultimate Pinot Noirs.

As you might expect, the New Zealand wine industry agrees resoundingly with his summary. The country is producing a burgeoning number of high-priced Pinot Noirs - some disturbingly pricier than others.

Fairness of comparison is perhaps not the issue. It's more that extreme pricing is forcing consumers to place a large question mark over what their money is actually buying them when it comes to Kiwi Pinot Noir these days.

Small is beautiful

New Zealand winemakers have always made high quality wines in small quantities but, now that several are concentrating on making super-premium s such as Pinot Noir, Riesling, unusual white blends and Chardonnay that command super-premium price s, the question is: who are these wines for?

Do wines such as Rockburn Eight Barrels Pinot Noir 2006 (NZ$75), Alana Estate Martinborough Le Coup Pinot Noir 2006 (NZ$150) and Martinborough Vineyards Marie Zelzie Pinot Noir 2005 (NZ$180) actually deliver value for money? They are definitely good wines, but that little list is just a taster of the new, upper echelons of New Zealand wines.

Contrary to what you might expect, the big-name producers of consistently top quality Pinot Noirs are not the ones turning out these new well-heeled wines. Felton Road winemaker Blair Walter says he and winery owner Nigel Greening are intentionally erring on the conservative side with their pricing. "We are placing more emphasis on improving quality, consistency, gaining a solid track record and strong international distribution," Walter says.

"Our prices will increase a little next year but I don't think we'll be selling [our] Block 3 or Block 5 for $150 anytime soon. Sure, our wines can end up being on wine lists for high prices or in auction houses but we believe it is better for the market to help determine wine prices than some winery-driven idea of what they're worth ."

Warren Adamson, director for UK & Europe at New Zealand Winegrowers, agrees that up to £25 retail for New Zealand Pinot Noir represents "very good value for money against traditional Pinot Noir regions ".

Bucking the price trend is Jackson Estate's Gum Emperor Pinot Noir, which had its inaugural release this year with the 2005 vintage costing an easy £20 (NZ$55) compared with wines of arguably similar quality that cost three to four times more . It sits alongside Jackson's premium Grey Ghost Sauvignon Blanc, priced £15 (NZ$41).

"The rationale behind both Grey Ghost and Gum Emperor is that they are purely quality driven," says Jackson Estate winemaker Mike Paterson. "We have set about driving the quality of Grey Ghost upwards each year by fine tuning viticulture techniques and winemaking philosophies.

"At no point have we simply thought it would be nice to make another Pinot Noir or Sauvignon Blanc and charge an extra premium for it. Both Grey Ghost Sauvignon Blanc and Gum Emperor Pinot Noir are evolutionary wines for Jackson Estate and will always be our most important wines as this is where our reputation is formed."

Paterson's comments seem to prove the point that the crème de la crème from New Zealand's top winemakers, wineries and vineyards can be delivered below NZ$100 a bottle.

Rockburn winemaker Malcolm Francis says price reflects cost, at least partially, and points to California's track record of producing Pinot Noirs with "over-the-top price tags for years now".

Conversely, prices are going in both directions for Pinot Noir wines from southern New Zealand's rising star region, Central Otago. "There is a lot coming out at the NZ$20 -$25 price point as well as at the top prices," Francis says. "Our vineyards are ageing and we see a lot more balance coming through. We're all inspired by what's being done in Burgundy and single vineyard wines are clearly the epitome of wine quality. That's what's driving some of these very high priced wines."

"There is value at every tier," Francis adds, "which may be hard to believe when you're looking at a NZ$150 bottle of Pinot Noir, but it's about perceived value as well." Only eight barrels were made of the inaugural 2006 Rockburn Eight Barrels Pinot Noir, which at NZ$75 is almost twice the price of the winery's standard Pinot Noir, which costs NZ$38.

What sets this wine apart - aside from its (welcome) relatively low alcohol level of 12.5 per cent - is that the cropping levels were lower and the quality of the grapes higher. More whole-bunch pressing was undertaken to lift the wine's aromatic spectrum. "I wanted to make a wine that you taste and think 'oh, yeah', but that half an hour later you are still pondering," says Francis.

Global comparisons

Wines such as Rockburn's Eight Barrels, Felton Road's top Pinot Noirs, Ata Rangi Pinot Noir and Bell Hill are all within a similar price range and made with a similar approach to quality.

"We are very mindful of the prices of the wines we respect and their position in the market," says Walter from Felton Road . "For instance, looking at what good quality Burgundy sells for. We are comfortable with our price relative to that when we put ourselves in our customers' shoes."

So what is New Zealand Pinot Noir offering against comparably priced Burgundy? The comparable price range for the priciest of the new-wave Kiwi Pinot Noirs would be Burgundy at about £60 or £70.

Alastair Maling MW and group chief winemaker for Villa Maria Wines, says: "The Burgundies we taste at similar price points to these new top-tier New Zealand Pinot Noirs have generally been held back and released two to three years post-vintage and therefore you are seeing them in a more integrated state.

"These top wines from Martinborough and Peregrine in particular are still very young, very firm tannic wines which aren't that well integrated yet," he says. "But I think they have all the ingredients to develop into fine wines, so assessing them in five years' time I'd probably give a different opinion."

Maling says he doesn't want to add another wine to the top tier right now. In reviewing his own single vineyard and reserve wines, he sees an element of simplicity in New Zealand Pinot Noir, in particular in comparison to Burgundy. "I think we have made strong inroads in the past five years and I think we'll see even greater ones in the next 10 as our quality levels improve again."

The difference, argues Maling, is largely attributable to the age of the vines. "Our winemaking is also getting better, in terms of moving beyond just making a sound, well-made Pinot Noir towards something that shows complexity. We're understanding when to pick, best winemaking practices. At Pinot Noir 2007, a lot of smaller labels that we don't normally see were showcased, which gave everybody the chance to see that all New Zealand Pinot Noir is getting better across the board."

Self-expression

The biggest progress with New Zealand Pinot Noir in the past decade has been regional diversification. This is why the largest wine company in New Zealand, Pernod Ricard, launched three new Pinot Noirs this year under its experimental Terroir Series banner. The wines come from Marlborough, Waipara and Central Otago, each one costing about NZ$40 and expressing individuality. To those accustomed to tasting Kiwi Pinot Noirs, it is relatively easy to pick which is which, and why.

It's not only Kiwi Pinot Noirs that are moving up in price. Esk Valley The Terraces - a classic Bordeaux-blend red - is now sold en primeur for NZ$100, but it has a track record and still costs significantly less than many first-ever "top" Kiwi Pinot Noirs.

But there will always be those who disagree with the notion that top quality New Zealand Pinot Noir compares favourably to Burgundy.

French wine write Michel Bettane, for example, expressed his outrage on the final night of the Pinot Noir 2007 conference at the suggestion that New Zealand Pinot Noirs were knocking on Burgundy's door in terms of quality and often surpassing them in terms of the value-quality ratio.
----=== Three of a kind - vineyard nuances ===The first wines from the 43 ha Calvert Vineyard were released at a very small tasting in Auckland, in early October . Winemaker Blair Walter from Felton Road, Mike Weersing from Pyramid Valley and Adrian Baker from Craggy Range Winery in Hawke's Bay each made entirely individual Pinot Noirs from this same site, launching them to three wine writers at what turned out to be a fascinating day-long tasting.

The Calvert Vineyard is owned by a couple who live in South Africa. Just 8.4 ha of biodynamically certified Pinot Noir is currently planted (on phylloxera-resistant rootstock).

Each taster took punts on which wine was which , blind tasting them at the start and discussing the style nuances prior to finding out their identities.

The three wines were very different in style and will be interesting to watch and taste as they evolve. The Felton Road, Pyramid Valley and Craggy Range Calvert Vineyard Pinot Noirs are all from 2006, all made in tiny quantities but none costing more than NZ$50 per bottle.



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