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Wine of the Week for week ending 24 Jul 2005
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Rippon Lake Wanaka Pinot Noir 2003
Central Otago, New Zealand

I went to see Mondovino yesterday. I'd read reviews of the movie so I knew to expect a documentary rather than a Sideways-like black comedy. And I did know to expect a distracting style of hand-held photography with too many out-of focus shots which resulted in constant blurring on the big cinema scene. And I had to keep looking at the subtitles because my French isn't good enough to not do that. But apart from those niggles, the movie was fascinating, simply fascinating - for a wine geek or anyone interested in the globalisation of anything.

I'd heard this was a movie about Robert Parker, the worlds greatest wine critic, and I thought there would have been more of Robert Parker himself. But his interview segments were relatively short. He came across as just an ordinary sort of person. He didn’t seem to have a huge ego. He simply said he reviewed highly the wines the wines he liked the taste of. And isn’t that what all wine critics should do? It’s a subjective profession anyway. The thing is, people idolise Parker and follow his ratings like sheep to slaughter. If Robert Parker rates a wine highly, people want to buy it.

But the underlying focus of the story was Frenchman Michel Rolland, the super wine consultant who knows how to make wines that Robert Parker likes. "We've been friends for over 20 years," he said. As well as in France, where he consults with about 80 companies in Bordeaux, he consults with wine companies all over the world - including in USA, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Italy, India, Sardinia and Spain. The results are good. Parker rates the wines highly. But there is something about Rolland's wine that people who have never heard of Parker, still love. The wines sell, which is good for those producers in a highly competitive market. But do the wines all have a sameness about them? Some people say yes. But if sameness means deliciousness, does it matter. There was a poignant quote from Aimé Guibert. He said "Good wines can be made anywhere. Just consult Mr Rolland.".

Aimé Guibert is a traditionalist Languedoc vigneron whose property was adjacent to a virgin wooded hillside that the Mondavi Corporation from California had planned to turn into an exclusive vineyard that would produce wine that would sell at $60 a bottle. Not surprisingly , Mr Rolland consults for Mondavi. Known as the Mondavi Project, it was canned after a communist mayor was elected. Mondavi turned their sights to Italy and picked up the remaining shares in Antinori-established Tenuta d' Ornellaia estate. The following year Ornellaia takes the sought after title of Wine of the Year in Wine Spectators Top 100.

There's a wonderful sub-theme in the film of old world, traditional, terroir-driven versus the new world globalisation of wine, seen best with the delightful interviews with older vignerons, such as Aimé Guibert and others throughout the world who reflect on the globalisation of wine and the competitive market.

But to me the real stars of the story were Burgundy vigneron Hubert de Montille and his daughter Alix. The old man with a twinkle in his eye, a chuckle in his voice and wit in his sayings, is a stalwart of old world traditions but is inevitably accepting a new way of marketing wine as his son, Etienne, takes over the reins of the company. His winemaker daughter works for Boissot, #1 producer in Burgundy and #3 producer in France - a company under the consultancy of Rolland. The conflict and the love between father and daughter tell so much without having to say too much.

Could the globalisation of wine happen to the New Zealand product? Is it already happening? Mr Rolland does not consult to any New Zealand wine companies as far as I know but this country has many young winemakers who spend a vintage in the southern hemisphere then a vintage in the northern hemisphere. There is no doubt that the Rolland effect is rubbing off.

Just look at our pinot noirs. As more and more are produced from the biggest pinot producing regions of Marlborough and Central Otago, is there a sameness creeping into them? But if they are good wines, who really cares?

This week's Wine of the Week, however is unique. A Central Otago wine, it is not one I would immediately have picked as Central. That is perhaps, because it is from the outlying subregion of Wanaka, from the Rippon Vineyard, often touted as the most beautiful vineyard in New Zealand.

Rippon Lake Wanaka Central Otago Pinot Noir 2003 is simply an incredible wine, blitzing everything else in a blind tasting of twelve over-$30 pinot noirs (although one wine was corked and didn’t compete on a fair basis). I had read rave reviews of this wine from a couple of colleagues and now I know why they raved.

A deeply translucent tamarillo red colour introduces the wine in the glass. Rich, ripe, succulent, fragrant aromas with subtle smoky oak, juicy black cherries and a hint of dried rose allure the senses and prepare for the generous flavours. It is earthy, as good pinot noir should be, with gorgeous spices like anise forging their way through the truffles and forest floor with sweet oak and a combination of sweet and tart fruit balancing the earthiness beautifully. It has beautiful flow with silky tannins throughout and the cedary French oak that comes through to linger with a nice little twist of savouriness at the end. A big wine, it deserves a big score.

Made by Nick Mills, the son of Rippon founder's Rolf and Lois Mills, this wine sees an exceptional leap in quality over the last few years. So why has this happened? Perhaps because this is the first wine that Nick has produced as winemaker, after returning from several years in France where he learnt about Rudolf Steiner's principle of Biodynamics. Working with and observing some of the leading producers including the revered Domaine de la Romanée Conti, and although Steiner's principle is only fully practised in 5-hectares of the La Tâche and Grands Echézeaux vineyards, the rest of DRC is organically farmed

Nick is now a staunch follower of Steiner's principle and at the recent Biodynamic Conference in Blenheim he spoke on Steiner's vision of the farm as an individuality and how he sees this relating to the concept of terroir - or the reflection of location and climate in the end product.

This is as far away as one can get from Rolland's micro-oxygenation, 100% new oak regime. It instead expresses individuality of a wine.

Rippon Lake Wanaka Central Otago Pinot Noir 2003 is made from a number of clones of pinot noir planted between 1985 and 1991 that were picked and handled separately in the winery. After fermenting spontaneously by the winery's wild yeasts, the wine matured in 25% new oak and the remainder up to 4-year old oak until bottling in November 2004. It is sealed with a cork and carries 13.5% alcohol by volume.

This exceptional wine, at $45 per bottle, has not yet reached the upper echelon price. It comes highly recommended for a delicious taste experience.

To find out more about this pioneering Central Otago winery, check out the Rippon website.

© Sue Courtney
18 July 2005

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