A vertical tasting of pinot noir reminded me how interesting and evocative this varietal can become with a little age; how fruit that was once primary and forward becomes a less defining feature and how the earthy savoury gamey components become a key factor in unlocking pinot's sensuality. It was an experience that made me want to drink pinot with a little age a little more often, but that's something that just doesn't seem to happen much these days. One reason is that wine producers are keen to show off their new releases, wine shops carry current releases and restaurants mostly stock current releases, so unless one actually has wines cellared themselves or is prepared to buy at auction, it is actually hard to get hold of older wines.
Pinot Noir when young, especially New Zealand pinot noir, is usually bright in colour with purple tints to its ruby or guava red hues but as it ages it seems to introduce more faded red tending to orange brown hues more quickly than any other variety I know. That was one of the first things I learnt about pinot noir when I became interested in wine at the beginning of the 1990's.
I learnt that the grape had thin skins that didnít produce much colour in the first place, certainly not as much as cabernet sauvignon, merlot or syrah. Besides, the only pinot noir readily available then - and worth drinking - was Burgundy - and as the burgundies usually had some age on them by the time they reached our shores, the wines were often faded in colour. It was one of the least attractive of the pinot noir's assets. Now, bright-hued young wines are the norm, even wines from Burgundy show more colour and depth in their youth than they seemed to before.
The vertical tasting I attended wasn't Burgundy, though. It was a 6-year vertical, from 2000 to 2005, of Nautilus Marlborough Pinot Noir and the occasion was Nautilus Wines' 21st anniversary of its birth in NZ.
I've always thought of Nautilus as a Marlborough winery so I was surprised to learn that Nautilus actually started its life in Hawkes Bay when its founder, Robert Hill-Smith of Australia's historic Yalumba Wines fame, worked with Esk Valley to produce Sauvignon Blanc to sell to Australia. Then when Nautilus started to source wines from Marlborough, cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay were top of the list. It wasn't until the early 1990's that Nautilus shifted all their production to Marlborough, where the wines they would make from sauvignon blanc and chardonnay as well as a chardonnay / pinot noir blend bubbly, would give them notoriety on the international stage.
Pinot noir was a late comer to the Nautilus portfolio being first produced in 1997. But it wasn't really startling wine, because like many other Marlborough producers that started dabbling with the varietal, the grapes used were the clones that were best for sparkling wine. But that all changed in the year 2000 when new Dijon clones became available and the wine was made with minimal handling for the first time in the purpose built Pinot Noir winery, instead of at the white wine facility down the road. Winemaker Clive Jones, who joined Nautilus in 1998, then worked vintages in Oregon and Burgundy, which led to the development of the new facility. With engineering technology and lifting devices, a gravity fed system was achieved on a flat site. It was the first dedicated Pinot Noir cellar in the Southern Hemisphere.
The vertical tasting showed what can be achieved when the technology, the desire and the focus is there and the oldest wine, the 2000 vintage, was sensually outstanding.
Nautilus Marlborough Pinot Noir 2000 is translucent orange red with a dark core and rims that are staring to brown. Savoury aromas carry through to the palate that is quite gamey and meaty, the primary cherry fruit now only a memory, but reminders of what the fruit was once like linger on the finish. Complex with great maturity, a silky tannin structure and a long vinous finish with hints of spiced orange peel, it is drinking beautifully now. Made from 60% first crop Dijon clone pinot noir grapes, and 40% mature AM10/5 clone grapes, it is sealed with natural cork and carries 13.5 alcohol by volume. I highly recommend it, if you can find a perfectly cellared bottle, like this one was.
Nautilus Marlborough Pinot Noir 2001 is fading translucent red with orange tinges and a dark core. A wine of some richness with fruit cake and a sweet savouriness but not the gaminess of the 2000. There's a touch of chocolate coming through, a cedar and dried herb undercurrent and a spicy finish. Although it lacks the complexity of the previous wine, it is mouthfilling and drinkable with chunky tannins and a sweet oak finish. This vintage saw the first use of Awatere fruit, which contributed 15% of the blend. Sealed with a cork, it carries 13.5 alcohol by volume.
Nautilus Marlborough Pinot Noir 2002 is dense and dark, still deep red but fading on the edges. This is a big wine with expressive aromas and a full-bodied palate that is savoury, gamey and spicy with plenty of chocolatey cedary oak, dried herbs, cherry and spiced plums. Complex, interesting and still quite primary, it seduces with its smooth tannins and lingering finish. It has a long life ahead of it and needs to be suitably drunk in a big glass. 100% wild ferment was used for the first time and the alcohols are a little more hefty at 14.5%. Closure is natural cork.
Nautilus Marlborough Pinot Noir 2003 is deep red black with pinky/guava rims and looks very youthful in appearance. It's a big wine with more rich primary fruit and more prominent oak, which is of the sweet vanillin type. Spicy and just a little tingly on the tongue with zesty acidity running along the backbone and grippy tannins on the savoury finish, the primary ripe plum and red guava fruit linger on the juicy finish that goes on and on. From a frost affected start to the season with led to tiny crops, this is concentrated and rich and has a great cellaring future. Alcohol is 14.5% by volume and the bottle is sealed with natural cork.
Nautilus Marlborough Pinot Noir 2004 seems to be showing a little browning to the edges of the fine textured, red guava hue and on sight it looks older than the 2003 and 2002. It smells youthful and floral with hints of woody herbs and nuances of musk and the taste is savoury from the outset though tight in its tannin structure. The cherry fruit is ripe and sweet and the oak is creamy although just a little dominant and it opens up on the finish like a peacocks tail with spiced orange peel/ pomander and tart red guava coming through to linger. It has lots of interesting Burgundian-like complexities in there but I feel it needs a little more time to integrate the components and let the savouriness emerge even more. 13.5% alcohol by volume and sealed with a natural cork.
Nautilus Marlborough Pinot Noir 2005 is pinky edged, translucent red with a red-black core. Primary cherry fruit is balanced by more tart guava and cranberry with grainy youthful, crushed velvet tannins, sweet oak, a chocolate undercurrent and a floral note to the berryish finish where again orange pomander notes lift the finish. The savoury aftertaste is long and satisfying. Sealed with a screwcap for the first time, this carries 13.5% alcohol by volume.
The vertical tasting shows that Nautilus Pinot Noir has excellent cellaring potential although the only wine you are likely to find is the latest release, the 2005. This wine continues the Nautilus Pinot Noir's excellent show record as it has just won the trophy for the Best Pinot Noir at the Perth Royal Wine show. It carries a recommended retail price of $39.
© Sue Courtney
30 October 2006