Pinot noir remains the most elusive grape to make into wine. An annual workshop called Passion for Pinot in Hong Kong brought together seven winemakers from France, New Zealand, Australia and the United States to discuss the intricacies of this variety. Altaya Wines has organized the event for the past four years
Nick Stock, an Australian wine writer who hosted the event, has twice won Australia’s sommelier of the year competition. He encouraged participants to listen to the “voice” of individual vineyard sites. All seven winemakers agreed that pinot noir was the “ultimate vehicle” for the expression of terroir, that mysterious combination of soil, climate and location that gives a wine its “sense of place” and beauty.
Discussion invariably focused on location and its influence on a pinot’s flavour profile. Other factors that affect pinot are vine age and cellar ageing.
Most winemakers agreed that young vines require more understanding. Care was especially needed in extracting the right level of tannin. In young vines, tannins can sometimes be harsh and green.
Pinot ages in two distinct phases. Youthful pinots have enticing aromas of spice, mint and black cherry, and taste of red fruits like cherries. Mature pinots develop earthy characteristics and smell of mushrooms, game and violets, and sometimes a “forest floor” aroma reminiscent of wet leaves and humous.
Regardless of age, good pinots are elegant and harmonious in the mouth with pleasant acids and soft tannins.
The workshop began with two pinots from Burgundy. The Vincent Girardin 2010 Bourgogne Rouge Cuvee Saint Vincent was a pleasant wine, its low price reflecting its drink-now status. The Michel Magnien 2011 Coteaux Bourguignons pinot had similar soft tannins to its compatriot with red fruit flavours.
Three New Zealand pinots from different parts of the country were served next. The first, the Ata Rangi 2012 Crimson, was about the same price as the two French wines (from HKD 200-220) and that vineyard’s entry-level pinot. It had more pronounced fruit aromas and flavours than the French wines, and firmer tannins. Ata Rangi, from the Martinborough region at the base of New Zealand’s north island, has a fine pedigree. Winemaker Helen Masters uses organics growing methods and indigenous yeasts. The latter means the yeasts are from the vineyard and not produced from a packet.
The other four wines presented were of a different nature, in the sense of being designed to be cellared. They also had much higher price tags, ranging from HKD 240-590.
The 2010 Pyramid Valley Calvert pinot had much more pronounced aromatics – licorice, black fruits and spice – and tasted of ripe blackberries and cloves. The vineyard is in North Canterbury, an hour’s drive from Christchurch, though the grapes come from Central Otago.
Winemaker Mike Weersing has introduced bio-dynamic grape-growing methods and once told me he spent four years travelling the world looking for the ideal vineyard site. Like Ata Rangi, Pyramid Valley is on a former seabed, which means plenty of limestone and calcium in the soils that gives that chalky or mineral sense to the wine.
The 2010 Rippon pinot is estate grown on the edge of Lake Wanaka in Central Otago, also using bio-dynamic methods. It has aromas of ripe blueberries and red currants, and tastes of blackberries with a hint of soy.
Winemaker Nick Mills said Lake Wanaka acted like a “giant hot water bottle” to warm the vines in winter. Central Otago has New Zealand’s only truly Continental climate, and is the most southerly winegrowing region in the world.
The sixth wine was from the Yarra Valley in Victoria. The 2011 Giant Steps pinot had medium tannins giving structure to a core of dark chocolate flavours and aromas. Winemaker Steve Flamsteed said the region also had a Continental climate.
The final wine was one of the best I’ve tried from Oregon in the United States. It was the 2011 Beaux Freres Willamette Valley pinot made by Mike Etzel. His estate grows only pinot, and Etzel bought it in partnership with his brother-in-law Robert Parker Jr, one of the world’s best-known wine writers. He planted vines in 1988.
This pinot has silky tannins that envelop a delightful array of perfumes of cherries, raspberries and spice. It is the most expensive but also the most charming of the initial seven wines presented.