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Dublin, Ireland
Hi, I'm Dermot Nolan, and I became a Master of Wine (MW) in 1997, and resigned from the Institute of Masters of Wine in 2023 after being an MW for exactly 26 years. I opened a wine shop in Dún Laoghaire, Ireland, called The Wine Library, which closed in 2018, and this is my personal wine blog. I will do my utmost to be fair and responsible in my posts – please read my Who Pays article in re the ethics of wine trips and writing. I have worked in wine education, retail, and consultancy since 1990. I was a Director of the Institute of Masters of Wine (IMW) from 2008 to 2014 and was also a member of the Events Committee, founder of the Trips Committee, and member of the Governance Committee. Having had problems with potentially libellous comments from unidentifiable posters, I now require that if you post a comment, you must identify yourself properly or it won't be published. Please note that I do not review products or services on request so kindly don't ask. I value my independence and I believe my readers (few that they may be) do so also.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

What makes a good pinot noir?

My MW colleague, Gerard Basset, recently said that he is reluctant to recommend pinot noir as he finds it has become a safe drink - easy, not demanding. Following on from yesterday's Central Otago tasting I wonder about the role of pinot noir and how we view it and the wines made from it around the world. We know there are great wines from pinot in Burgundy, and we know (I hope) that there is very good pinot made around the world, but is Burgundy the only place where great pinot is made?
Let's do a quick run around the world of pinot. In Europe, we can consider Burgundy, Germany and Austria (please don't mention Alsace or the Loire in relation to great pinot) and nowhere else. In the New World we have the USA, Chile, Australia and New Zealand. (Ooops, did I hear somebody ask about South Africa? Great pinot?).
Burgundy stands out for a number of reasons - tradition is one but also the very identifiable differences between villages and vineyards. Due to the long history of making wine from pinot noir here it is the benchmark for all pinot wines. It's range of styles depending on origin make for a fascinating patchwork which variety adds spice to our tastings.
Germany and Austria can make some very good pinot but suffer from certain difficulties. In both countries scale of production is low so costs are high, and strong local demand raises these prices higher. German tastes are different with green flavours being quite common and acceptable in local wines.
In the USA there are very good wines produced in Oregon and California, with the latter being more consistent and approachable in price terms. However, leaving out a few producers (Saintsbury, Au Bon Climat, Acacia, La Crema to mention some) whose wines are widely available many US pinots suffer from the same low-scale, high cost problems as those of Germany and Austria.
Chilean pinots have improved no end over the last 7 years or so and the emergence of cool regions such as Leyda and Limari in the north and Bio-Bio in the south has brought about a really interesting range of wines.
Australia can certainly compare with California in terms of range and vintage depth - last year at Landmark I tasted a 1992 Coldstream Hills pinot which was lovely. New Zealand is the new kid on the block (excepting Chile) with Martinborough being the pioneer (at least from our point of view) and Otago  now making great waves internationally.
But here's the question - how easy are these wines to identify? If you got a flight of new world pinot noir do you reckon you could spot a Yarra from an Otago? A Santa Ynez from a Willamette? Maybe you can but I know I can't, yet I'd make a pretty good stab if it were a flight of Burgundies, even though I'm well out of blind tasting practice.
Almost all of the countries and regions mentioned produce good to very good wines, but all tend to a soft, red berry style, with easy tannins and moderate acidity, and generally very approachable and drinkable. And there's nothing wrong with that - better than many of the bad Burgundies I've tasted over the years - yet they still (to me at least) lack an identifiable style. Now, some will argue that identifiable style is not important, or not as important as quality, and it's hard to argue with that but when you hear winemakers from these regions talking about their wines, regional character is always mentioned. So, if the wine maker wants to push an identifiable style as a selling point then it ought to be there, no?
I don't think it is there and there's a few reasons for this. First, while both California and Australia have some heritage of making top pinot, almost all of these regions are fairly new. In my day (I'm very old, you see - which also means I'm venerable before you rudely reply!!) you didn't have to worry about new regions for pinot - it was the holy grail: always sought, never attained. Recent advances in clonal selection, viticultural techniques and winemaking attitudes have changed all that but 10 to 15 years is not tradition. Next is that in any new region winemakers are still looking for the style - in Burgundy it's more or less forced on you by some 200 plus years of tasteable tradition. Consequently, you're as likely to find that a wine from Limari resembles more a wine from Otago than it does one from Rapel because the winemaker is very, very important in terms of determining style.
As a quick aside, on the 1999 US West Coast MW trip we tasted 9 Oregon pinots - 3 producers, each of whom made wine from their 2 colleagues as well as their own. I found it very easy to identify who had made which wine but no so easy to identify which vineyard each wine came from!
And this aside leads into the final aspect - yeast. It is a fact that the only yeast which ferment a wine are those which live in the winery (not the vineyard) or in the winemaker's fridge. This was highlighted very clearly for me when, as an MW student, the late Peter Vinding-Diers showed two wines produced from the same vineyard but vinified in two different wineries - the two glasses were as different as chalk and cheese. In Burgundy, hundred's of years of winemaking has led to a natural selection of different yeast strains in each winery but this yeast diversity is lacking in new world regions. The spontaneous ferments that you see more and more often in the new world are likely to be very close to inoculate styles as the local yeasts can only be minor variations on the cultivated yeast which were once used.
I reckon that in some 20 years or so, we might be better able to differentiate pinots from New World countries once their ambient yeasts have had time to diversify but, until then, we're stuck with lots of yummy, fruity pinot. Hmmm - win win then!

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