Hugh Johnson, 1966: The answer to the question 'What kind of wine is Burgundy ?' is that it is a very savoury, inviting wine, as tempting as good smells from the kitchen. When you find a good mature one, it is soft and sweet. Like a soft sweet face with good bone structure, it is beautiful.
This tasting was held in the Lake Dunstan Boat Club's pleasant rooms in Cromwell, on the shores of the lake, on 1 October 2014. The goals for this second presentation were a little different, when one is bringing coals to Newcastle. Otago being a young wine district, I hoped some older wines would be of interest, even though some may be frail, and will require close attention to retrieve their former beauty. I also thought that since in my writings I sometimes have outlined a view of pinot noir out-of-line with the then contemporary wisdom in New Zealand, for example pinot quality is not assessed by depth of colour, that I would show some wines which illustrate my idea of pinot noir. I have not tasted them all, however.
Thus I thought Otago people might like to taste the first real international-quality pinot noir made in New Zealand (post-Prohibition), the 1982 St Helena wine, which is now a vanishingly rare (and sometimes frail) bottle. And in a similar vein, I wanted to show the first grand cru pinot noir I thought worth cellaring a case – a 1969 wine. It seemed back then to exemplify nearly all one read about the magic in pinot noir. I hope you will find it (the last bottle of the case) still of interest, 45 years later. Then there is a Californian wine, as a reminder we are not the first on the scene, and a wine made in Victoria by a devotee of Jacques Seysses.
From France we will have (I hope, see caveat) five grands crus and two premiers, plus a village wine. Since nowadays ordinary mortals can scarcely buy grands crus at all, let alone by the case, I hope these wines though older will both appeal, and illustrate the beauty of pinot noir.
The tastings will be presented in a format I have found works, using smaller samples which both allows more wines to be reviewed, and reduces the cost. Please note therefore the pours are only 30ml, which can easily be consumed before the wine is even tasted. The logistics of bringing the wines from Wellington are such that I cannot have duplicate bottles for each wine. For some, there is not one. So it will be just like a wine in your cellar: in paying for the tasting, participants accept the risk of corked bottles. I will bring some reserve bottles, so you will get 12 wines, but the exact wines listed cannot be guaranteed. Prices shown below are the current average in New Zealand dollars as recorded by www.wine-searcher.com. Local auction realisations are often much less. Tonight's pricing reflects that.
For backgrounding the wines, I do not subscribe to Allen Meadows, finding his assessment of New Zealand pinot noirs unconvincing. Though his coverage of Burgundy is unmatched in English, an individual simply cannot subscribe to all the American dollar-denominated websites, I fear. Thus there are few introductory notes, below.
I approached this tasting with some misgivings, since likely attendees among the 21 tasters included some of the most high-profile pinot noir makers in New Zealand. But as it turned out, the wines communicated well, careful sequencing of the wines so no one wine downplayed another worked well, and the enjoyment factor amongst tasters seemed delightfully high.
The most important conclusion I drew from the tasting, however, arose from the ranking and country of origin questionnaire I incorporate in the evaluation, nowadays. In the most positive sense, it was simply a pleasure for me to find that, firstly: winemakers vary as much in their stylistic preferences as keen amateurs; and secondly: winemakers are much more tolerant of faults than amateurs, finding it much easier to see through the defect and evaluate the wine quality behind. This was a sheer delight.
Thus of the 12 wines presented, spanning an age range of 32 vintages (the youngest 2001), and a current value price range (as indicated by www.wine-searcher.com) from say $50 for the no entry wines to $2220 in one case (re-checked !), 9 of the 12 wines were rated their 'favourite' by at least one taster. This is very affirming, for the presenter. In terms of country of origin, only 2 tasters located the Australian wine correctly, and 3 the Californian, though it is fair to comment that these wines were bought in the first place because of their varietal accuracy. The New Zealand wines were easier to spot, but not dramatically so – at the most a third of the tasters located the easier one.
For a serious wine-lover, that is a person who buys favoured wines by the case (12), this tasting was a milestone for me. It marked the last bottle of a wine that calibrated my approach to and appreciation of pinot noir for life. And even though the bottle was ullaged to the extent of perhaps 50 ml, and thus was somewhat diminished on bouquet, the palate was still arguably the finest on the table. As with several of the wines, it was dramatically improved 18 hours later. With old wine tastings, one has no way of assessing whether wines showing faintest TCA on opening, or trace oxidation (more maderisation in bottle) will improve with decanting and air, or deteriorate further. TCA character for example typically increases with some exposure to air, but then later can be diminished by prolonged ventilation, if the wine is up to it.
The following notes and rankings reflect my views alone, not the group's – though some clues as to individual taster appraisals are scattered throughout. Further, the descriptors describe the wines at their best, variously on the night or the next day. On a personal note, this was one of the most exhilarating Library Tastings I have given, over the last 18 years or so. The wines communicated beautifully. Is this the magic of burgundy ? It may be worth noting that in the era of most of these wines, French alcohols were token at best for most companies. Where mentioned at all, virtually everything was said to be 12.5%.
Acknowledgements: These two tastings came about thanks to the long-standing interest and encouragement of Blair Walter of Felton Road. Once on the spot, there seemed no limit to the efforts he made to facilitate my stay in the district as well. Antony Worch of Alexandra Vintners and Natalie Wilson of Central Otago WineGrowers Association in turn also helped enormously in all the administration and logistics involved in presenting tastings with 250-odd glasses. Thank you.
Broadbent, Michael 2003: Michael Broadbent's Wine Vintages.
Mitchell Beazley, 223 p.
Morris, Jasper 2010: Inside Burgundy: The vineyards, the wine and the people. Berry Bros & Rudd Press, 656 p.
Norman, Remington & Charles Taylor, 2010: The Great Domaines of Burgundy. Sterling, 288 p.
Spurrier, Steven 1986: Guide to French Wines. Willow Collins,
www.erobertparker.com = Robert Parker and increasingly the associates
www.jancisrobinson.com = Jancis Robinson and associates
THE WINES REVIEWED – Pinot Noir:
Ruby and garnet, the third deepest wine. This wine shows the most dramatic bouquet in the set, being both highly and attractively floral (buddleia, roses, clear boronia) but also faintly but distinctly flowering mint or subtle salvia. The closest plant analogy is the Australian flowering shrub Prostanthera. This exhilarating but unusual (for pinot noir) bouquet leads into a near-perfect pinot noir palate, neat, taut and perfectly fleshed, wonderfully subtle oak balance, and aromatic (as the bouquet would suggest), not in the slightest bit heavy yet rich, even powerful, and very long. In one sense this is classically Cote de Nuits, yet in another it is freaky. Hence 11 tasters confidently identified it as Australian, on the faintly minty note. The astonishment evident on revealing the wine as the lesser-year (by repute) de Vogue was one of those lovely moments in presenting wine tastings, not for any smart-arse reason, simply to illustrate the eternal challenge of understanding wine. This is a smaller wine than the Musigny, in terms of dry extract, but a far more beautiful one, at this point. Cellar 5 20 years. Top wine for two. GK 10/14
Rosy light garnet, below midway in depth. On both bouquet and palate, this wine was not amongst the biggest, but it captured the concept of beauty so critical to fine pinot noir / burgundy. The wine is sweetly even wonderfully floral, roses mainly and a hint of violets, on red fruits more than black but browning now, naturally, 1980 not being a powerful vintage. Palate is medium weight only, perfect fruit / acid / tannin balance, simply delicious browning cherry flavours, a wine of great varietal precision and finesse, beautiful. It would be wonderful with lighter foods. Right at the end of its plateau of maturity, it will soon be frail and drying a little, but no tearing hurry. Top wine for two. GK 10/14
Really rosy garnet, the lightest wine. This one needed an hour or two after decanting, and only a swirl or two, to reveal a gentle sweet floral pale-roses bouquet which was totally non-aromatic, and thus totally Cote de Beaune. But the more you smelt it, the better it became, with heliotrope emerging and then more specifically the vanillin of new oak. In flavour immediately the new oak comes forward, which suggests that for a Corton, the fruit is already drying very slightly. But nonetheless this is lovely red-fruits pinot noir of great purity and charm, like the Volnay-Santenots unequivocally Burgundy. And like that wine, but even more-so, it is at the end of its plateau of maturity, even drying a little. Top wine for one. GK 10/14
Garnet and ruby, the second to lightest. Initially opened, and for a number of hours thereafter, including through the tasting, there was some deterioration of bouquet, more oxidation (or maderisation) than anything, as fits with 50 ml ullage loss. The next day it had freshened and sweetened unbelievably, so much so that one could see its former beauty clearly now even in old age, even faded rose-florals. Conversely in palate, it was right from the outset exquisite. The intensity, richness and concentration of pinpoint-perfect red and black cherry fruit, and the subtlety of the oak and new-oak component is absolutely benchmark. In terms of dry extract, I've not had a Drouhin Clos de la Roche as rich as this since the 1969 vintage, though over the years I have not tasted as many as I would wish, sadly. It seems the wine of another era. Had the bottle been in perfect condition for its age, it would have been the top wine of the entire tasting, by far. Few burgundies are so exquisitely floral, gently aromatic, yet astonishingly rich and perfectly Cote de Nuits as this. The de Vogue Musigny is bigger, but today's bottle otherwise lacking, and the Bonnes Mares is a little lighter, in terms of dry extract. The last bottle of the case, sadly again, and at the 45-year point, corks as a closure are becoming erratic. Perhaps best finished GK 10/14
Garnet and ruby, the second deepest. Bouquet is intensely aromatic in a darkly floral, black cherry and browning way, yet highly varietal too. There is quite a spicy component to the aromatic florals, and on the third or fourth pass the penny drops, ah yes, trace nutmeg aroma of the 4-EG phase of brett metabolites aroma, but at the level most people find elusive, enticing and saliva-inducing. Palate is flavoursome, dark cherry, some oak showing, hints of spice again, in a dramatically Cote de Nuits texture and style, very legitimate. Like the Corton, it is at the end of its plateau of maturity, and essentially for the same reason more new oak now showing. The Chalone was the top wine for four on the night, and this is winemakers speaking. So there is a lesson here for pretentious amateurs, who having learnt to recognise brett metabolite aromas, then affect the stance the wine is unacceptable to their rarefied sensibilities. A wonderful wine with more flavoursome foods, the parallel to Cote de Nuits being uncanny. No hurry. GK 10/14
Rosy garnet, among the lightest. This wine changed dramatically in the course of opening, decanting and breathing. If the witty comment that great burgundy is the assemblage of a suite of complementary faults be true, this wine (bottle) qualifies. At first opening, there was a dramatic whole-bunch component, with a compost undertone. Later the faintest hint of TCA added itself to the aromatic qualities, very hard to identify. And later again, as the floral and aromatic components expanded further, just a whisper of brett again in the 4-EG phase added further complexity. In terms of palate the wine is fleshy and rich, fruit dominant, with clear suggestions of new oak in the gentle, complex, long flavours, all highly burgundian and totally Cote de Nuits. A perfect bottle (cork-wise) would be exciting. Mature now, but it will hold another 10 years, on the flesh. One top place, and nowhere but France for origin, tasters thought. GK 10/14
Ruby and a little garnet, nearly as young as the Musigny, but just above midway in depth. Bouquet is a little to one side on this wine, initially a bit raisiny but with air expanding to include some whole-bunch suggestions like the Dujac, and lightly stewed rich-plum notes which are eloquent but not quite beautiful or floral. Palate and texture are good, however, the fruit ripeness not quite as good as the better burgundies, a trace of stalk underneath, but good body and all clearly varietal. It is let down a little by the high alcohol and trace sweetness to the finish. Opinions varied round the room whether the 'sweetness' was apparent or real. As with the St Helena, it was suggested young vines do produce this effect, at low cropping rates. The Home Vineyard includes some younger vines, but even in 2001 it was not predominantly a young-vine site. Or, the high alcohol could be correlated with higher than normal glycerol, giving an impression of sweetness. After picking the wine to bits, there was nonetheless the thought that it was a pretty exciting New Zealand pinot noir at 13 years of age, and only one taster (at the blind stage) recorded it as their least wine. Cellar 3 8 years, but (again) sadly I do not have further bottles to study. Later enquiries to the winemaker reveal residual sugar as sucrose / glucose is no more than 1.2 g/L, which is 'dry' in any terms. GK 10/14
Elegant very rosy light garnet, below midway. Freshly opened and decanted this wine was straightforward good burgundy. By the time of the tasting, there was trace TCA, but only two tasters thought it interfered. Because of the aromatics, it was sequenced immediately after the Auxey-Duresses, to highlight the difference in essential winestyle between Cote de Nuits and the softer Cote de Beaune. This it did very well. The floral component includes buddleia and roses, on cherry fruit red grading to black. Oak is subtle. The total harmony and gentleness in mouth is a delight, though it is not a big wine. Mature wine, but this too still has 3 8 years left in it, I think. One top place. GK 10/14
Rosy garnet, right in the middle for depth. Bouquet is strong, with a clear whole-bunch component, plenty of berry fruit in a robust way including something a bit more obvious than cherry, more browning blackboy peach perhaps plus a hint of feijoa, and a convincingly burgundian and surprisingly fresh undertone. In mouth the richness of the wine 32 years later is staggering, since 'everybody knows' that New Zealand pinot noir doesn't keep. This wine merely proves what long-sighted commentators in the 1980s observed, that when New Zealand winemakers start to cultivate their grapes at internationally-accepted cropping rates, as this wine was, then the wines will cellar perfectly well. Needless to say such observations were not acceptable to the mostly-blinkered winemakers of the day. Closer tasting of this still-surprisingly-rich wine reveals both a leafy under-thread, not unpleasant, and an apparent trace of sweetness, like the Neudorf, but all still convincingly varietal. The nett achievements of the wine, against the norms of early 1980s New Zealand reds in general (1982 and 1983 Te Mata excepted), and pinot noir in particular, remain an absolute eye-opener. It stands as a credit to Danny Schuster as winemaker, and Graeme Steans as grapegrower. No hurry to finish. Top wine of the tasting for two. GK 10/14
Garnet and ruby, above midway in depth. Bouquet is clear-cut pinot noir, almost straightforwardly or simply so, red cherry browning now, not exactly any florality but there is a patina of wine-age which is attractive. Closer examination makes one wonder if there is a hint of leaf. Flavours are surprisingly rich for such a minor appellation, and a village wine too, until one remembers that Auxey-Duresses is home to Maison Leroy, so they presumably have access to first-rate vineyards. On palate there is a hint of leaf, and one even wonders from the slightly red-candy flavours if a little chaptalisation may have occurred, notwithstanding the warm year. There is a pleasing simplicity and robustness to the flavour, and seemingly only larger / older oak to not complicate the picture. The richness has to be rewarded by the wine just sneaking into silver, not bad for the appellation at 38 years of age. It will even hold a little while yet, but in a fading way. The parallel with the St Helena is simply startling, a great juxtaposition. Top wine for one. GK 10/14
Garnet and ruby, right in the middle for depth. Bouquet is strongly aromatic and stimulating in one sense, but also clearly nutmeg-spicy in the sense of the brett metabolite 4-EG. Below there is browning cherry fruit, but the other aromas are so prominent, detecting floral notes is not easy or maybe even possible. Flavours though are delightfully correct for pinot noir, as are texture, weight, and acid balance. You would never pick it as an Australian wine, in the sense of untoward tartaric acid additions, or euc'y notes. It is on the oaky side, but it almost has the fruit and fruit ripeness to carry that. It is perhaps the most obvious or clear-cut wine in the tasting, depending on how far you peer into it, and was rated the top wine by seven tasters. I would argue that while it is in style in terms of palate weight and texture etc, it lacks varietal precision on bouquet. In the context of this wine, my top wines, especially the Domaine Lafon, are wondrously subtle in comparison. All these notes need to be read with these values in mind, therefore. The Bannockburn is fully mature, but there is no hurry, even with the the brett. GK 10/14
Ruby and velvet, scarcely any garnet, clearly the deepest, richest and youngest wine in the set. But on bouquet, unbreathed, what a disappointment. In the simplest terms this wine was intended as the piece de résistance of the tasting, the Vieilles Vignes having a stellar reputation. On opening, the apparently oversize cork showed no sign of leakage, and wine penetration was less than 5 mm, outstanding for its age. Yet the wine smelt brown, heavy, and oxidised. Flavour was another matter, the wine being immensely rich, velvety, darkly plummy more than cherry, huge, yet still in style texture-wise for pinot noir. But there were these oxo cubes bespeaking oxidation on palate as well. Dismay, for a multi-hundred-dollar bottle. Eighteen hours later it had to a degree, but nothing like the Drouhin, dissipated some of its oxidative smells and flavours. It is immensely impressive pinot noir wine in terms of weight. But there are still no flowers, and little positive aroma or beauty. Even as chateauneuf-du-pape it would be rich but not beautiful. So it is not clear if the dilemma is this bottle, or a transatlantic translation one, whereby American palates favouring rich wines see this winestyle favourably, and European palates seeking beauty, florality and varietal precision more than size are not so enchanted. I have no other reviews for this wine. Score has to acknowledge the magnificent palate weight and texture, with the benefit of 18 hours ventilation. It will cellar for many years. Much the least-favoured wine on the night, and with the benefit of later re-examination over a day or two, that seemed the correct impression for this bottle. GK 10/14