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Wine of the Week for week ending 16 December 2007
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Rimu Grove Pinot Gris 2007
Nelson and Marlborough, New Zealand

"It just doesn't have a style", is the oft-heard criticism of New Zealand Pinot Gris and the lament continues in the latest edition of New Zealand Winegrower Magazine (Dec 2007 / Jan 2008), which arrived in my mail box in the weekend.

"Is it Gris or Grigio?" asks expatriate kiwi, Peter McCombie MW, who had returned to New Zealand to take up a position of guest 'overseas' judge at the 2007 Air New Zealand Wine Awards. He said Pinot Gris has little impact in the UK and divergent styles have not helped consumers.

"One of the handicaps of Pinot Gris from New Zealand is that people don't know what the style is," he said in the article. He says that labelling as Pinot Gris could give the Alsatian cue and many of the leaner styles could be labelled as Pinot Grigio because at the top end of the market in London, good quality Pinot Grigio (presumably from Italy) sells at good prices. But he adds that others think the name is too down market.

"Judges commented on the current stylistic confusion coming out of New Zealand with this variety," Jo Burzynska wrote in her report of the 2007 International Wine and Spirit Competition in the same issue of New Zealand Winegrower. She quoted Colin Gurteen, a long standing IWSC judge, who said, "Pinot Gris was disappointing, with only a few above average and a couple outstanding. A lot were lightweight and finished short."

But does Pinot Gris need a 'style'? Does it have to adhere to the European templates that Italy and Alsace have set? Why can't New Zealand Pinot Gris be different and have a range of styles? Wouldn't that be better than styles being developed to compete with the European counterparts or a single style that will eventually become monotonous for consumers.

Look at New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, for example. When it burst on the UK scene a little over 20 years ago it totally grabbed the palates of the influential winewriting press by surprise because it was so different to anything else in the world. But lately it's been on record in more that one overseas newspaper or Internet wine column that people are tiring of the exuberant, punchy flavours of our full throttle, tutti-fruitti, sauvignon blanc wines, especially in the markets around the world where the 'big name' brand sauvignon blancs are the norm.

Comments from Steve Smith MW, Chairman of Judges at the 2007 Air New Zealand Wine Awards confirms that winemakers are listening. "Winemakers are showing the confidence to experiment with different styles in the Sauvignon Blanc class, including a trend towards the elegant and mineral influenced wines that show real class," he said in New Zealand Winegrower Magazine.

Winemakers are also experimenting with 'alternative' oaked-aged, barrel fermented, wild yeasts and lees-aged styles of Sauvignon Blanc, although they seem to get less press.

Then there's Riesling, not that's it's such a big export commodity, but the class resulted in an awe-inspiring nine gold medals at the 2007 Air New Zealand Wine Awards. "Riesling showed a fantastic range," said Peter McCombie MW.

Yes, New Zealand is fortunate in that it can produce a variety of styles of Riesling - from the low alcohol German look-alikes, to the searingly dry Clare Valley imitators and occasionally rich, oily, high alcohol Alsace-like wines Then there's the distinctly New Zealand, typically medium sweet, fruity tipple. So why no comments about style confusion here?

Is there a vendetta against Pinot Gris and its styles? I'm sure I don't know.

A couple of weeks ago I opened 17 Pinot Gris wines and there was lots of excitement amongst them. They ranged from dry to medium sweet and I rated then all as medal worthy quality. I wrote my notes intending to come back to them the following day -to retaste and refine - but it was almost two weeks before they were tasted again. What I found is that none of the wines had deteriorated and some of the lower scoring (bronze medal quality) wines had opened up magnificently with many "Yum's" noted in the comments column of my notes. It confirms my previous declarations that new vintage Pinot Gris should be decanted, especially the lean and steely, 'grigio' styles, which had garnered richness and complexity and creaminess to the texture with a little time. And while there were a couple heading towards that Alsace benchmark, I didn't really find any true Alsace imitators, that is big, oily textured wines with power and richness and a muskiness and spiciness so intense, you could almost mistake it for Gewurztraminer.

There was a common theme to the wines, of course they were all Pinot Gris - they really couldn't be mistaken for anything else. The aromas were distinctly pear or delicate stonefruits and most had delicate florals or musky nuances. The wines had textural richness and juiciness of fruit with soft rather than searing acidity, they had a pretty spiciness and length of mostly dainty flavours. Of course, there were the powerful wines there too. But none were trying to imitate riesling and none were trying to imitate sauvignon blanc. All the wines were 2007 vintage, so perhaps a quality vintage is the key. Or are winemakers themselves now sorting out their own stylistic preferences. Perhaps they are.

At wine competitions, wines are tasted in 'flights', with one wine tasted after another. Hopefully they are split into classes so that dry wines do not have to compete against the medium sweet. That's the way I like to taste them at home too - for the initial tasting at least. Then I like to taste the wines again, one at a time, with food. After all that is the way consumers make their opinion of a wine. They don't have 'flights' in front of them. They only have one glass of wine at a time.

You can't deny the fact that consumers love Pinot Gris. I believe it's because Pinot Gris is non-confrontational, many are enjoyable are on their own but are taken to another level with the right food.

I've chose Rimu Grove Pinot Gris 2007 as my Wine of the Week. If any of you know Rimu Grove's wines from the 2007 vintage, you may ask, "Which one?" This is because, from the 2007 vintage, Rimu Grove, based in Nelson, actually made two. So I'm leaving the choice up to you.

Both the wines were No.1 and No. 2 in my first 'flight', with Rimu Grove Bronte Pinot Gris 2007 from the Awatere Valley in Marlborough, edging out the Rimu Grove Nelson Pinot Gris 2007, from Rimu Grove's own vineyard, in the first tasting. But put them with food, and the results could be reversed. Naturally it depends on the food.

Rimu Grove Bronte Pinot Gris 2007 is the sweeter of the two and this is stated on the label, which indicates the wine is 'off-dry'. There's a hint of honey on the nose and rich, sweetish flavours with hints of cherimoya (custard apple) amongst the ripe tropical fruit. It's lightly viscous in texture, clean, fruity and long with a spicy zest adding a vibrant flourish and balancing the sweetness on the finish. The finished wine has 13% alcohol, 10 grams per litre of residual sugar and 5.3 grams per litres of total acidity. It's sealed with a silver screwcap and costs about $28 a bottle.

Rimu Grove Nelson Pinot Gris 2007 is a fuller-bodied, richer and more textural style with a gorgeous clean fruit expression of fleshy apricot and pear. It lacks a little on the nose, which makes it easy to pick as Pinot Gris because of its 'aroma neutrality'. But it more than makes up for the lack of aroma with the taste, which is long and creamy with a musky overtone and a citrus zest brightness carrying the fruit salad finish. In the second tasting it seemed drier and more savoury with pip fruit (apples and pears) to the fore and a grape-like juiciness. The wine has 13.5% alcohol, 8 grams per litre of residual sugar and 6.6 grams per litre of total acidity. It's sealed with a gold screwcap and costs about $29 a bottle.

Both wines had 20% of their component aged on yeast lees in aged French oak barrels for 4 months - although I couldn't detect any oak in either wine. The remaining component aged on yeast lees in stainless steel tanks.

Food match of the tasting was, believe it or not, mashed kumara that accompanied a crumbed and herb-spiced chicken schnitzel. The chicken matched well, but the is something about the earthy sweetness of New Zealand's own sweet potato that took the wines to another level.

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© Sue Courtney
10 Dec 2007

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