Pinot Noir on the Edge

There are many parallels between Oregon and New Zealand when it comes to their wine story, and in particular, the chapter on Pinot Noir. There are few places around the globe that have built a rock solid reputation for producing world class Pinot, widely regarded as one of the most fickle varieties. It’s not so much that the vines are difficult to grow, more that specific soils and climatic conditions are the starting point from which only sensitive and skilled winemakers can coax into producing something really special.

I attended this virtual tasting hosted by London’s 67 Pall Mall, titled ‘New Zealand & Oregon PInot Noir: Winegrowing on the Edge’, the ‘edge’ being another unifying factor of the two regions: both have vineyards at 46º latitude, towards the outer limit of viability for growing quality wine grapes, New Zealand at 46º South, Oregon at 46º North. That extreme latitude brings challenges in sometimes rainy and cold spring and autumn, but also a very dry, sunny and hot growing season with 15 hours of sun per day typically. These regions also happen to be in the ‘Ring of Fire’, studded with volcanoes.

The tasting was led by Bree Stock MW, from Oregon, and Master Sommelier, Ronan Sayburn. Each discussed further similarities in the two areas, such as sheltering mountain ranges and ocean influence, as well as differences like soil types and the predominance of Pinot Noir: in Oregon, 57% of all plantings is Pinot, while in New Zealand although it is the predominant variety in some regions, overall it accounts for only around 8% of vineyards.

Most of Oregon’s Pinot production is based around the Willamette Valley in the north of the state, first planted in 1965 and accounting for around 80% of the state’s production.  A number of sub-regionally AVAs now exist, such as the Dundee Hills, Chehalem Mountain and Yamhill-Carlton. These sub-regional names are often found on labels. Though Central Otago, Martinborough and other regions of New Zealand are known specifically for Pinot, it is Marlborough, powerhouse of the entire country’s wine industry, that supplies 48% of all Pinot Noir.

The Wines

(2020) From a small, biodynamically-run family vineyard in Marlborough, this is a blend of fruit from two vineyards that was destemmed and sorted, then fermented in small, open tanks. The wine was in barrel for 11 months, all French oak and 30% new. Beautiful colour, pale-ish garnet with a hint of violet. Fragrant, bright nose, though there is some chocolate and coffee, it's mostly floral and red-fruited a little bracken note too. There's a keen, decisive edge of acidity on the palate, a lemony grip that slices through the raspberries and cream. Quite crisp in the finish, lingering on fruit and accurate acidity. Made from Able and Clone 5 clones. Importer: Les Caves de Pyrene.
(2020) From a hot vintage and the Dundee Hills AVA of the Willamette Valley, this is a wine from the historic vineyard planted in 1965 by David Lett, the first Pinot vineyard to be planted in the Willamette. Farmed organically since inception, the vines are ungrafted, so not on rootstocks. It is fermented with wild yeasts and sees only around 10% oak. A little earthier, spicier than the Te Whare Ra, some game and truffle joins the red fruit. A blast of beautifully sweet, supple cherry and red plum on the palate, underpinned by some leather, game and earthy character, but the tannins and acid structure is truly lovely and gives perfect balance. Price and stockist at time of review is for the previous vintage. Pommard and Wädenswil clones. Imported by: Savage Selection.
(2020) A beautiful wine this, that I tasted at Craggy Range just a few months ago. It is 50% whole bunch pressed into into oak cuves and steel for fermentation, followed by ageing in barrels, 30% new. It really has such lovely sweet, intense perfume, tobacco and Sandalwood and ripe black fruits presenting a positively velvetty picture. The palate silky textured and concentrated, the supple but dense layering of black fruit, spice and mocha oak is lovely, still with agile, refined acidity.  Imported by Bibendum Wine.
(2020) From the Ribbon Ridge 'nested' sub-zone of the Chehalem Mountain AVA in the northern Willamette, this vineyard planted in 2012 abutts the famous Beaux Freres vineyard, in which winemaker Mike Etzel was, and remains, a founding partner. There are 15 differenet Pinot clones planted. The wine is fragrant and bold, with some plum and sous bois notes, an earthy hummus quality and red fruit. On the palate the most savoury of the wines so far, a salty, sour lick of plum and orange, the wine seems powerful and structured without being dense, and though lacking some of the charm of others, its clearly a serious high quality wine that should come into its own much more with food.
(2020) From the prime Bannockburn region of Central Otago, Valli again uses a variety of Pinot clones in its mix, this wine having loads of tobacco and spices on the nose, something like charcuterie, but a fine dark fruit edged with bay leaf, curry leaf and olive, helped by being whole-bunch fermented. Imported by New Generation Wines.
(2020) This Pinot comes from the Eola-Amity Hills AVA, now towards the south of Willamette Valley, harvesting around two to three weeks later than Dundee Hills for example. Biodynamically farmed since 2007, this vineyard is planted on its own roots and the wine sees around 25% whole bunches in the ferment. An interesting nose here, not nearly so buoyant and expressive as some, with a savoury, iodine, almost seaweed-herby character. The black fruit quality comes through on the palate - still savoury and dark, a little roasted chestnut note, firm and taut tannins and a cherry skin bite to the really quite salty, sour orange acidity, though a sweeter cherry flesh fruitiness does begin to assert, the whole picture structured, savoury and multi-faceted.  


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