Terroir is a hot topic, especially when it comes to pinot noir. There are pinot noir conferences that have sessions on the subject and there's a even a seminar on the 'emergence of regional character of pinot noir' at the Wine New Zealand trade show on in Auckland next week. It says in the brochure, "Comments at this year’s Pinot Noir 2007 conference repeatedly highlighted the emergence of distinct regional character apparent in many of the wines on show". I'll be looking forward to attending that session to see what the panellists have to say. That's because I'm becoming quite convinced that rather than 'regional character' emerging, the 'regional character' that once seemed so obvious is now disappearing as boundaries become blurred.
So how often, really, do wines express where they come from? Or is the wine we pour from the bottle into the glass more an expression of the pinot noir clones and winemaking techniques rather than the actual vineyard location? I ask this because, when I taste a blind line up of New Zealand pinot noir with my buddies, we all find it difficult to correctly identify the regional origin of many of the wines. And indeed a Wairarapa wine I tasted last week, had me convinced it was from Central Otago - until I saw the label. But this Wairarapa wine was made with new 'Dijon' clones and I am sure it is the these 'Dijon' clones that are so popular now as well as 'hang time' in the vineyard and the wine making techniques and oak regimes, that are causing my confusion.
So perhaps the only way to really see the 'terroir' or regional characteristics at work, is to taste wines made from grapes grown in different sites but treated the same in the vineyard as well as in the winery, where each product is made to the same quality level.
Three pinot noirs from Valli Wines, the personal label of Grant Taylor, who left Gibbston Valley Wines last year to concentrate on his own label, afforded that opportunity. They are all from the southern wine growing regions and yes, after tasting them, the individual personality of each wine is patently clear.
Of the three sites, the oldest and warmest is Bannockburn, a little south of Cromwell, the place I consider the epicentre of the Central Otago wine region.
Twenty kilometres further west towards Queenstown is the Gibbston Vineyard alongside the State Highway in the Gibbston Valley. This site is several degrees cooler than Bannockburn because of the mountain ranges that enclose three sides of the valley.
Then way north east, about 130 kilometres as the crows flies from Cromwell, is the Waitaki Vineyard in the Waitaki Valley. The two Central Otago sites (Bannockburn and Gibbston) are well inland and the closest to 'continental' that you will find in New Zealand. The Waitaki Valley vineyard is just 50 kilometres from the southern Pacific Ocean. And with winds that race either up or down the Waitaki Valley, there is definitely a maritime influence to the site. Interestingly, despite the proximity to the coast, the Waitaki Valley is the coolest of the three.
With old schist-derived soils and clays in the Central Otago region and younger limestone-rich soils in the Waitaki Valley, as well as the difference in climate, the result is three quite different wines.
The belle of the ball, the Valli Waitaki Vineyard Pinot Noir 2006 reveals its beauty from the outset. Wrapped in silk crepe de chine with a wine berry hue, the fragrant perfume emanates from the glass in a most beguiling way to reveal hints of spice and rose petal amongst the earthy winey scents. It's all finesse in the silky textured, savoury, earthy palate with a delicate spritziness of youth, integrated French oak, hints of guava, focussed red and black cherry fruit and rose and violet overtones adding a gorgeous musky overlay to the dry, spicy finish. A beautiful wine - fine and expansive in the mouth and long and persistence on the aftertaste. Excellent cellaring potential too.
Valli Bannockburn Vineyard Central Otago Pinot Noir 2006 comes from the hottest site of the three. Deep black cherry red with purple hues, the wine in the glass emits a fascinating aroma of cherry, spice and musk. It's full-bodied and sweet fruited to the taste with spiced black cherries, juicy blackberry, creamy oak, plush velvety tannins and spicy nuances. The sweet ripe fruits are more black than red but the intrinsic savouriness of pinot noir balances it out. A touch of smoky bacon lingers on the finish and the muskiness detected on the nose lingers with cherry on the persistence aftertaste. The wine blossoms in the bottle and is a much better proposition on the second day. Decanting is recommended.
Valli Gibbston Vineyard Central Otago Pinot Noir 2006 is deep boysenberry red, almost opaque in the core of the glass. On first opening this wine is very tight and closed with subtle cherry in the grainy textured palate. It needs some coaxing and swirling to bring out its spicy oak and complex flavours that are so much obvious the next day. It's sweet fruited with ripe black cherry and plum fruit, hints of violets, a touch of mocha, bitter chocolate and creamy oak. The firms tannins have a velvety texture and dried herbs linger on the earthy, savoury finish which has plenty of length. A wine with all the parts, it's quite expansive on the palate but just needs to integrate a little more.
All the wines are sealed with screwcaps, coloured coded with gold for Waitaki, burgundy red for Gibbston Valley and dark green for Bannockburn. All the wines have 13% alcohol and a price tag that commands NZ$45 a bottle.
An interesting exercise in regional characteristics, that's for sure.
Dial up www.valliwine.com to find out more.
© Sue Courtney
27 Aug 2007