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edited by Sue Courtney
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Pinot Noir: Comparing Cost and Quality
© Sue Courtney
7 October 2002

Why is New Zealand Pinot Noir so expensive? As it is our most planted red grape variety, I asked Brent Marris of Wither Hills to give me a winemaker's perspective. "Let's compare sauvignon blanc and pinot noir", he said, explaining that the initial cost of growing is the same. The vines in the Wither Hills vineyard have the same row spacing and trellising regime but pinot noir demands more work. There are extra passes during the growing season - first to shoot thin then later to crop thin. Pinot noir is harvested by hand while sauvignon blanc, which produces 2 to 2.5 times the yield, is harvested by machine at 1/6th of the cost. So with pinot it costs more to pick less.

In the winery sauvignon blanc grapes are often simply crushed and pressed before the juice is pumped to tank for fermentation and maturation. The wine may be on the market within as little as 6 weeks from vintage, bringing the producer an immediate return on investment. Pinot noir, however, is an intense hands-on operation with ongoing attention to detail. The grapes may be macerated for several days before fermentation to extract maximum colour and flavour from the skins. Hand plunging several times a day during fermentation, before the wine is gently pressed and transferred to barrel for maturation, takes time and effort. A range of expensive Burgundy barrel types may be used for the several months of maturation.

There is also hype that surrounds certain labels and supply and demand that pushes the prices up.

But is the most expensive always the best? I lined up a handful of pinots and invited the 'Gang of Six' for a blind tasting to gauge their opinions.

All bottles had their capsules removed, were wrapped in newspaper then inserted into brown paper bags. The bags were numbered at random. Two wines, the Dry River and the Tasman Bay were in distinctive bottles. These were transferred to standard pinot bottles, mainly for my benefit.

As well as tasting the wines on their own, they were also tasted with a range of foods. My sisters were the food mistresses and had come up with some interesting matches. There was a starter of stuffed mushrooms, followed by a course of new seasons scallops and fresh prawns. The main was pinot-friendly herb-stuffed lamb with fresh mushrooms in the gravy. Dessert was a delicious cappuccino cream. The food was interspersed with my contributions, a watermelon sorbet after one course and a strawberry mint sorbet after another. Both were made with Pinot Noir Rosť. To accompany the dessert I had macerated strawberries in wine, which was a Pinot Noir Rosť again.

How did the wines stand up?

My pick was the dense ruby-hued Daniel Schuster Omihi Hills Selection 2001 ($60) (wineoftheweek for w/e 6th October). This is a complex mouth filling ripe and creamy wine with wild berry smoky aromas and interesting funky flavours of musk, tar, allspice, cherries, plums, tamarillo, herbs and lavender. Beautifully balanced with a smooth velvety texture, the finish is long and complex with just a hint of earthiness that adds complexity without overpowering. It's fantastically concentrated and the oak is almost honeyed. I scored it 19/20.

The crowd favourite, however, was the Tasman Bay Nelson Pinot Noir 2001 ($19). It's a little lighter in colour than some of the others and not overly complex but there's some lovely sweet cherry and plum fruit, a hint of woody herbs and pretty spice. There's a touch of an oily character and a nuance that tends towards rose. It is well balanced and has good length without too much funkiness. This easy drinking wine defines value and on the night it had a star performance. 18.5/20.

Matua Valley Wairarapa Pinot Noir 2001 ($27) was also a popular choice. Intensely rich with dense tannins and a silky texture, it is savoury and a little earthy with crisp spices, cloves and ripe fruit tending a bit toward tamarillo emerging on the powerful finish. There's an interesting funky character and the finish is sweet and long. 18.5/20.

Dry River Martinborough Pinot Noir 2001 ($75) is one of the country's most lauded pinots but this very youthful wine needs time to unfold. It's deep purple in colour with violet hints. It's earthy, gamey and savoury with macerated strawberry and cherry, subdued oak and hints of musk, dried herbs and roses. The flavour is long, smooth and sumptuous. I thought perhaps there was a touch of volatile acidity on this wine as it seemed higher toned than the others at first but it blew off to reveal a densely concentrated beautifully balanced wine with intricate flavours. Starting out as a subtle and understated wine, it finished powerfully. What a great cellaring proposition. 18.5/20. Often referred to as wine you can't buy, I've seen some of this vintage in retail. E-mail me and I'll tell you where.

The immensely attractive aromatic spices in the Valli Colleens Vineyard Central Otago Pinot Noir 2001 ($45) give it the most amazing aroma, the most intense of all the wines in the lineup. It's quite earthy with savoury oak and firm tannins, dried herbs, sweet cherry fruit and a long complex finish. The higher acidity in this wine made this a terrific accompaniment to the pan-fried prawns. 18.5/20.

Valli Bald Hills Central Otago Pinot Noir 2001 ($45) has smoky oak and cherry aromas. There are firm dry tannins at first that give way to chocolate, cherries, subtle spice and hints of cloves. It is a creamy textured wine that is nicely balanced and quite drinkable. The finish is long and dry, rich and savoury with almost mocha chocolate spice characters. A hint of apple emerges. 18/20.

Wither Hills Pinot Noir Marlborough 2001 ($48) seems the most fruitiest wine in the line-up almost to the point of being over fruity. There's ripe cherry and raspberry together with crisp spices, dried herbs, creamy chocolate, firm tannins and a smoky meaty savoury finish with some tea-like tannins lingering. It's an easy drinking style. 17.5/20. I think this wine will develop well. Later I found heaps more structure in this wine and it was developing quite dense, feral, sweet mushroom characters and had lots of crisp savoury spice with hints of anise.

Saint Clair Doctor's Creek Marlborough Pinot Noir 2001 ($25) had the most beautiful carmine pink colour. This is a ripe and fruity wine with strawberry and cherry, tar and pepper spice, good balance, good supporting oak and ripe fruit tannins. Smooth and creamy, with just a touch of sharpness on the finish, this is good value for money. 17.5/20.

Pisa Range Central Otago Pinot Noir ($37) This had a funky, slightly feral aroma that is a little bready (yeasty) too. The aromas bode well but I found the wine had a tart woody, oily, bitter character in the front of the palate. Cherry fruit starts to emerge and linger and the vinous finish is very pleasing. 16/20.

Unfortunately the tenth wine in the line-up was corked.

The cheaper wines in the line-up showed very well indeed. Tasman Bay Pinot Noir 2001 and Saint Clair Doctors Creek Pinot Noir 2001 are especially good value for money. While I would be happy to cellar the Saint Clair for a year or two, the Tasman Bay is definitely a cruisy 'drink now' wine that is pleasurable with or without food. It's perfect for the forthcoming summer and an alternative red to offer the neighbours when they pop over for a visit.

Click here to check out my other reviews of recently tasted New Zealand pinots.

© Sue Courtney. 7 October 2002
Parts of this article appeared in The Rodney Times on 3rd October 2002


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