There’ll be no ‘paradox of thrift’ should any of Uncle Kevin’s largesse wash up at Chateau Shanahan. We’ve developed a taste for expensive pinot noir so we’re hoping to stimulate the economy most nights. And we’ve got our sights on a long list from Australia, New Zealand and Burgundy.
It’s an old craving, fanned recently by three nights and two and a half days of pinot tasting at Mornington Peninsula’s International Pinot Noir Celebration. The locals down there make some of the best pinots in Australia – and had the confidence to show their wines alongside top examples from other Australian regions, New Zealand, Chile, California, Oregon, British Columbia and even Burgundy, pinot’s home.
The Aussie wines – and not just those from the host region – scrubbed up beautifully in a range of styles, from pale and delicate to deep, dark and brooding.
Indeed, the tastings, attended by about 170 people, focused on these style differences and whether they could be attributed to nature or nurture. Were the flavour differences shaped by humans? Or had they more to do with ‘terroir’, the French term, for which there is no English equivalent, meaning roughly ‘the sum of the effects that the local environment has’ on the vine, its fruit and, ultimately, the character of the wine it produces.
The concept is an article of faith in Burgundy, pinot’s home, where the variety has been noted since 1395. As Burgundian winemaker, Frederic Mugnier, reminded us during discussions, over many centuries the Cistercians of the Abbey of Citeaux systematically mapped and described in fine detail the vineyards of Burgundy, providing the basis of today’s classification system.
Their concept of beauty in simplicity, said Mugnier, underpins the Burgundian approach to pinot, a variety that he believes expresses the site on which it’s grown. And in a region where land surfaces vary noticeably in short distances, this results in countless ‘terroirs’ producing wines that differ, sometimes subtly, sometimes dramatically.
UK critic Jancis Robinson said our tastings would look at three levels of ‘terroir’ – macro (different world regions), mezzo (different regions in one country) and micro (different vineyards in one region).
Like Fred Mugnier, Robinson sees pinot as a delicate and fine variety that ‘interprets’ the site on which it’s grown and she assumed, correctly, that the room was full of ‘terroir’ true believers.
She made the point that there are bad ‘terroirs’ as well as good ones, where vines struggle so humans intervene to get a half decent result – for example, a winemaker might make up for poor fruit flavour with a dose of spicy new oak. And there are good ‘terroirs’ where humans overwhelm delicious fruit flavours with heavy-handed winemaking.
After Jancis’s talk we moved on to a series of thoughtfully structured small tastings, knowing what the wines were but, for most of the groupings, not their serving order.
We began with a little, high-quality snapshot of Australian pinots from South Gippsland, Macedon Ranges, Yarra Valley, East Coast Tasmania, Mornington Peninsula and Southern Tasmania.
The follow up was a big-picture new world group – from Willamette Valley Oregon, San Antonio Valley Chile, Martinborough New Zealand, Anderson Valley California, Waikari New Zealand and the Okanagan Valley, British Columbia, Canada.
From there it was on to micro ‘terroirs’ tasting five pinots from Pommard, a Burgundy sub-region. The wines were all from the same vintage and all from the same maker.
We followed this with two Mornington brackets, examining the marked style variations of this one region, and finished with a line up of Frederic Mugnier’s wines from two Burgundy sub-regions, Nuits-St-Georges and Chambolle-Musigny.
These were formal tastings with facilitators directing discussions between 170 of us on the floor and a panel of winemakers for each bracket. With informal tasting over lunch and dinner, we tasted perhaps 70 top-notch pinots during the event.
We’ll look at some of these next week.
Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2009