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Featured Personality
February/March 2001

Jancis Robinson MW - wine writer
© Sue Courtney
Interviewed 27 Jan 2001, posted 18 Feb 2001

Jancis Robinson, Master of Wine, came to New Zealand at the end of January to deliver the keynote address at New Zealand's inaugural Pinot Noir celebration, Pinot Noir 2001.

Jancis Robinson - photo copyright to When the Chairman of the Pinot Noir 2001 board, Richard Riddiford, introduced Jancis to the packed audience he said "She is the most respected wine commentator in the world. Jancis has been referred to as the 'High Priestess of Wine'. Someone said 'If there were a King and Queen of wine, she would be both'. But the greatest accolade is the respect she commands from her colleagues. "

"I'm not going to read her CV as that would preclude anything else happening today", he continued. "However, she is one of the most professional people I have ever dealt with. And over the years she has been constructively critical of all our (NZ's) wine regions, and as our own Bob Campbell said 'Winemakers who ignore her comments, do so at their peril'.

"Jancis Robinson is scrupulously independent, enormously influential and most importantly, a thoroughly charming woman", concluded Mr Riddiford.

Later in the conference, I had the opportunity to interview Jancis Robinson myself and to experience her charm first hand. The transcript of that interview is reproduced here.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

SC: I heard your interview on Radio New Zealand a few weeks ago. There were names that Bob Campbell MW reeled off that you hadn't heard of. Now that you are here are you surprised at number of producers of New Zealand Pinot Noir?

JR: I think I am yes - delighted and surprised and I hadn't realised what hold on the NZ imagination that Pinot Noir now has.

SC: We have Pinot Noir from many regions here in NZ with diversity amongst the flavours and styles produced. Is there any region, or any one wine that makes you think "This is on the right track - this is a region or a wine to watch." Or is it a winemaker thing?

JR: I think Martinborough got there first and there is a confidence in the Martinborough wines. The best of them share some characteristic of quite spicy fruit and some nice round supple tannins that I like and if they share that it suggests it is some kind of regional thing rather than winemaker, though I must say when you ask the people behind the stands of these new wineries [at the exhibition of pinot noir] "What's your background", they all turn out to have been the winemaker somewhere else. So maybe they are sharing some techniques. No, I think Martinborough so far but then Otago clearly has some personality of its own and I look forward to seeing some more older vines there and some more establishment.

SC: Is there any region in New Zealand that makes you think "Naaah, it just hasn't got it".

JR: No, that would be very presumptuous and especially since most of the growth has been so recent that people have hardly had time to take stock and perhaps slightly adjust their growing methods or perhaps work out which clones are best for them or something. No, but I have to say I haven't had an exciting Pinot Noir, a Pinot Noir that has thrilled me made north of Martinborough. But I haven't tasted the award winning Pinot Noir from Hawkes Bay to my knowledge.

SC: No-one argues when it is stated that Burgundy makes the best Pinot Noir in the world, so what everyone wants to know is which region makes the world's 2nd best Pinot Noir's. Is it Oregon? Is it California's Russian River Valley? Or could it possibly be New Zealand?

JR: That is a question that is coming up in the panel discussion and I am going to answer that then.
[When the question was indeed raised, the other members of the panel who were from pinot noir producing countries, quite patriotically answered their one of their own. Jancis knew that over half the audience were from New Zealand and they desperately wanted her to say New Zealand, however she diplomatically stated that in most of the regions - Oregon, California and even New Zealand, there were glimpses of very good wines. But when pinned down to a single area, she chose California's Russian River Valley as No. 2.]

SC: Should we be trying to make a wine that tastes like Burgundy or should we here, in New Zealand, be trying to make great New Zealand pinot noir?

JR: I think you should make great pinot noir provided that the winemakers have a full knowledge what great Burgundy is. That is a necessary prerequisite to making great pinot noir and then if knowingly you establish a different and absolutely delicious style then that's justifiable.

SC: Which are the most pleasurable Pinot Noir's that you've tried at this conference?

JR: Um, oh dear, may I look at my notebook - I've tasted an awful lot of them.
It is nice to taste such a wide range of Otago wines. The Chard Farm Finla Mor was very very good. I'm not sure that it wasn't too ripe. And Felton Road, I think my favourite was Block 5. For simple straightforward pinot, Olssens of Bannockburn. I thought Quartz Reef was interesting because it was a very youthful wine when so many of them seem to be maturing very early. I liked Cloudy Bay 1999, I've tasted a lot of Cloudy Bay but I thought the '99 really got there. Fromm is really a very distinctive style and I admire the way they stick to the style. They know where they are going and they won't take all consumers with them, but it is certainly a very age-worthy style. Greenhough I was impressed by. Isabel '99 was looking nice, correct. Seresin '99 is very atypical for Marlborough, a big beefy thing but lots of pleasure for relatively early drinking, perhaps.

SC: Did any one Pinot Noir stand out for you in the International Tasting?

JR: This is unfortunate. I was in Wellington for such a short time and I thought I really ought to go to Te Papa [the museum] so I went very quickly and tasted the wines but I wasn't there for the 'spat' unfortunately. [The spat was at the International Tasting on Day 2 (I attended the tasting on Day 1) when Otago winemaker Rudi Bauer told Bannockburn winemaker, Gary Farr from Australia, that he thought there was eucalytus in his wine.] They are all so different. I didn't think you had the best of Burgundy there by any means. Probably Bannockburn, but only by a very small margin.

SC: And how do you think the Martinborough Vineyards Reserve 1998 from New Zealand stacked up?.

JR: Yep. Nice. Yes.
[ Later Jancis added that she was impressed with the Martinborough wines from Martinborough Vineyards - the Reserve 1998, plus the 1999's from Dry River, Ata Rangi, and Voss while Palliser 1999 was their best effort to date and Stonecutter was a new winery to watch.]

SC: You said in your keynote address "If anyone ever organises a Riesling conference, let me know". So does any other grape variety inspire the passion that Pinot Noir does? Is there any other variety that brings so many producers and disciples from many points on the globe to gather together to worship their passion.

JR: I think the reason pinot engenders conferences and passion is because it is so much the underdog to cabernet. There needs to be a fuss made of it. I've been to a Syrah conference in the Rhone and there has been a Riesling conference in Seattle. There used to be chardonnay conferences in California. There probably hasn't been a cabernet conference because it is just so common. There has been a Viognier event, there has been a Zinfandel event.
My point really when I slightly facetiously volunteered to take part in a New Zealand Riesling conference is that I do think that NZ is very good at Riesling. The potential for Riesling areas is very exciting.

SC: I just want to ask you about What took you so long to join the cyberworld and why did you finally come online?

JR: Good question. I do wonder why I came online to a certain extent because it is a heck of a lot of work. The theory is that it is an easy way for people to keep up to date with my books and my videos. Internationally people can keep up with my books and know what has come out and what is about to come out.
I learn so much and yet I only manage to disseminate about 10% of it in my newspaper columns in the Financial Times or my bi-monhtly columns in magazines around the world or in my books. So the theory is that is using much more of what I learn. But I do need a slave. A full-time slave. And it is jolly hard to do that if you have no direct income about from royalties and commissions on books and videos.
Perhaps one of these days I might sort of launch a special privileged access bit of it that people might have to subscribe to. Where they could have direct questions or something like that.

SC: That was just what I was going to ask you. Was there any plan to become mnore interactive e.g. an "Ask Jancis", or something?

JR: Well, the thing is that I am just so short of time . It is a real struggle to find the time to keep this updated every week, which I do and so I have to be brutal and say I'm not a charity and I already work more than 100% of the time, so I think it would have to be a subscription thing, really.
And as to what took me so long, I was too busy writing books and articles. And I was also looking for a nice designer. I hate the design of most sites. I think they are all very brutal and all very formulaic and I wanted to make sure my site was designed by someone who was a designer first and foremost and made it look the way I wanted it to be, sort of warm and friendly and easy to use. So I actually hired a graphic designer in conjunction with my main kind of techie person. So that is why it looks quite good.

SC: One thing I will say about it is that it has made your everyday writing more accessible to people on all corners on the world so people, who might not see your newspaper columns or the magazines with your bi-monthly columns, can now access your writing via the Internet. Timely, dynamic, global information easily accessible, easily shared.

JR: Yes, I certainly have plans to put a lot more on it. I've got a lot more that I can put on it, obviously.

SC: Now that we are talking about the Internet, can I ask you something perhaps a little contentious. What did you think of Bob Campbell's session on 'Wine on the Internet' yesterday? [I asked this because neither nor were mentioned in the talk.]

JR: I was teasing him because we were trying to come up with questions for the session just coming up and I said one of the questions is "Was Bob Campbell's Internet session a good ad for I was just teasing him on that. It was interesting. There were some sites I hadn't heard of. But I though Jasper's question was quite good. "Why are you doing this?".

At this point, Jancis had to rush off to get ready for the closing session of Pinot Noir 2001, then panel discussion.

You can read more of Jancis's impressions of New Zealand Pinot Noir on her own web pages at Click on Wine News in the left hand column and scroll to the article "In love with Pinot Noir".

Sue Courtney attended Pinot Noir 2001 courtesy of the "Courtney Retirement Fund". Thanks Neil !
Thanks also to the Conference Media Coordinator, Caroline Green, for arranging this interview and to Anne-Marie McKenzie of the Wine Institute of New Zealand for assisting in the outcome.

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