At the shrine of goddess Pinot

09 February, 2007

There aren't many grape varieties that will fill a 500-seat conference room at 8.30 am. Riesling might do it (if you spread the word to a couple of German tour operators), as might Syrah/Shiraz, but there's something about Pinot Noir that inspires remarkable devotion (or Pinot Envy perhaps) in its aficionados.

To most of them, Merlot is the devil, Cabernet Sauvignon even worse. "I'd rather have a case of the clap than a case of Cabernet," read the T-shirt of a Pinotphile sitting in front of me at Pinot Noir 2007, the third edition of New Zealand's increasingly popular celebration of this most fickle of varieties. To the delegates who came to Wellington on the blustery southern tip of the North Island, Pinot is a goddess.

It's also a grape that seems to bring out the geek in wine professionals. For three days, we sat and discussed (or more often listened to other people discuss) the minutiae of yields, stem retention, clonal selection, terroir, regionality, biodynamics and Brettanomyces.

We also did an awful lot of tasting. A total of 40 wines were served in the main hall during the conference, while a ≠further 100 Kiwi Pinot producers opened bottles next door. I'm a Pinot nut and, by the end, even I couldn't take any more.

It's a measure of New Zealand's growing confidence with Pinot Noir that all but six of those 40 wines were home-produced examples of the heartbreak grape. We drank a transcendent 2003 Rousseau Chambertin Grand Cru from Burgundy and a very impressive 2003 Cristom Vineyards Louise Vineyard Pinot from Oregon on the final day, but otherwise, the focus was on New Zealand.

And quite right too. There aren't many countries that can make a good fist of Pinot (France, the United States, New Zealand, Chile and, at a push, Australia), so the Kiwis were right to promote themselves. After three days spent tasting what New Zealand has to offer, I would place it second in the Pinot pecking order behind Burgundy. Not bad when you consider that the first half-decent Pinot emerged as recently as the early 1980s at St Helena in Canterbury.

Talking of Burgundy, which many Pinotphiles still discuss with quasi-religious reverence, I reckon New Zealand is beginning to challenge for the number one spot. It hasn't produced anything to rival the best grands crus (at least not yet), but if you've got less than £25 to spend on a single bottle, I'd choose New Zealand over France for consistency, depth of flavour and, increasingly, complexity.

Worryingly for Burgundy, Kiwi Pinots will only get better. In 1998, there were only 596ha of the variety in the ground, compared with around 4,000ha today. That means that 85 per cent of plantings are under 10 years old. As the vines mature, so the Pinots are bound to improve.

My top 10 New Zealand producers would be Ata Rangi, Mount Edward, Felton Road, Neudorf, Pegasus Bay, Bell Hill, Rippon, Quartz Reef, Mountford and Martinborough Vineyard.

But there is a raft of producers whose wines aren't that far behind, including Greenhough, Peregrine, Dry River, Villa Maria, Dog Point, Carrick, Cloudy Bay, Palliser Estate, Mount Difficulty, Gibbston Valley, Escarpment, Rockburn, Fromm, Brightwater Vineyards, Craggy Range, Rockburn, Rimu Grove, Huia, Kaituna Valley, Johner Estate, Koura Bay, Prophet's Rock, Wild Earth, Richardson, Te Mania and Pisa Range.

Several of these producers make small quantities of expensive wine (although they are a lot cheaper than many 2005 ≠Burgundies of comparable quality), but we're going to see a lot more sub-£12 Pinot coming out of New Zealand over the next couple of years. There are two reasons for this: first, the 2006 vintage was the largest ever (Pinot volumes rose by more than 50 per cent on 2005); secondly, there are more and more producers targeting that sector of the market, from Montana to Oyster Bay, Villa Maria to Nobilo, van Asch to ≠Waimea Estates.

The most exciting thing is that we are beginning to discern differences between vintages, regions and even individual vineyards. The sticky thumbprints of the winemaker are still too present in some wines, but New Zealand is moving closer to what the Burgundy expert Allen Meadows calls "Zen winemaking" or "the absence of a signature". I'm already looking forward to Pinot 2010. In the meantime, let's take pleasure from some increasingly good wines.

Techno-cork is winning over screwcap fans

Like a Virgin train, it's been a long time coming. But has the cork industry finally found the solution to its TCA and oxidation-related woes? When I was invited to a seminar by Oeneo Bouchage, the company responsible for the discredited (at least by me) Altec closure, I raised a sceptical eyebrow.

But even in screwcap-obsessed New Zealand, where people who stopper their wines with natural corks are regarded as Luddites, Oeneo's Diam Technological Cork is beginning to catch on. One high-profile screwcap user told me that if Diam had existed five years ago, he would have stuck with cork.

The process sees corks treated with "super critical carbon dioxide" (science's answer to Brian Sewell, I presume) to eliminate compounds that can lead to cork taint. Using a combination of cork granulate, patented "microspheres" and a neutral food binder, the company has produced a reliable, taint-free closure. It is less permeable than a natural cork, but permits more oxygen ingress than an air-tight screwcap. It's also a huge improvement on Altec.

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