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DOWN UNDER PINOT NOIR:
A WORK IN PROGRESS
Around this time last year, I was in Australia, visiting the wineries and soaking up the sun. I delivered a long report on Aussie wines. The biggest problem I noted there was with pinot noir. Amazing grenache, lush shiraz, some of the best fortifieds in the world....but really mediocre pinot noirs. Is that really as good as it gets? When I was in Australia last Spring, the pinots just didn't work. When the style was right, the flavors were flat. When the wines had flavor, they were often more reminiscent of shiraz. A lot of the tasting notes with the better pinots I tasted then are in the March and April, 1999 tasting notes.
My interest was piqued. My intellectual curiosity needed to be satisfied. So, as an outgrowth of that trip, I collected a goodly sampling of Down Under pinot noirs. I wanted to try them in a more controlled setting with some ringers, and blind. I got most of their top notch bottlings, although I would have liked the super premium Bass Philip and the Yarra Yerring. Still, if this group of wines couldn't impress, I figured that I could conclude that it wasn't possible to be impressed with Down Under Pinot Noir. The answer? It isn't. There was a smattering of good wine, nothing incredible, and a lot of odd, flat, atypical mediocrities. These weren't so cheap, either, and they seemed like very poor values. Had they all been $15 wines, it would be a different story, but many were between $30 and $50. Still, there were some things that should catch your interest. Read on.
Here's how it went. These were all served blind and in flights. Nine tasters. Prices quoted are from US stores in US dollars.
Flight One was a pretty good flight consisting of 1995 Coldstream Hills Reserve, a very highly regarded Aussie pinot, 1988 Corton-Maréchaudes (Prince de Merode), a Burg ringer, 1997 Dry River (New Zealand) and 1997 Macrostie Pinot Noir (USA).
The Coldstream was my fave wine in this flight at first. I loved the texture and the core of sweet, up front, pretty cherry fruit. It was focused and elegant, not clunky, but had good weight. But it faded so fast that it was startling, and I was left with a wine that was Burgundian in style and weight, but had gone flat and flavorless. Coldstream is made by Halliday, an Aussie writer and pinot fanatic, and is widely viewed down under as really having gotten it right. In texture and style, true. But in depth, finish and flavor.... NOT. Interestingly, I thought the same thing of the bottles I had in Australia last year. Good start, no finish. About $25 in the USA. 87 points.
The Corton was my guess for a Burg, showed some oxidation, good weight and some remaining tannins. It opened and developed nicely with air, and seemed broad and expansive, but always seemed a touch off, lacking some freshness. I liked how it gained weight. If it had had a bit more flavor, I would have been more impressed. Showed much better with some air, and the score went up accordingly. 89 points.
The 1997 Dry River from New Zealand ($43) won a lot friends, but I was not among them. I thought the style was right, and there was some nice raspberry flavor on the finish, but the wine seemed too thin and a bit hollow in the mid-palate. The finish wasn't bad, but showed some acid that I didn't like either. Not bad, but hardly what I would call a $40+ wine. 87 points.
My winner of this flight was the Macrostie, which showed a bit bretty, but had good balance and classic flavors, distinctive and rustic. It more or less matched the depth of the Corton, was but was fresher and more exuberant. The brett wasn't too bad. 90.
Still, if the wines in this flight were just OK, Flight One was enjoyable. I wouldn't rush out to buy them, but I'd be willing to drink them. Flight Two was more troublesome.
Flight Two This flight had 1998 Stonier from Australia's Mornington Peninsula, a cooler climate where they have high hopes of producing great pinots; 1995 Sand Castle (Pennsylvania); 1998 Spring Vale (Tasmania), also a cooler climate Aussie area where it is thought that pinot noir will do well, and 1996 Martinborough Vineyard Reserve (New Zealand). NB: There were lots of cool climate representatives, from New Zealand to Tasmania, to Mornington, and some other wines in the area outside Melbourne. They are making an attempt not to grow pinot in hotter areas like Barossa. But one would have to say that while the cool climate produced more stylistically true wines here, the flavors were often muted, and the mid-palates hollow.
This was our weakest flight, where the enjoyable wines were odd and atypical, nothing really excelled, and the rest were just plain mediocre. My fave: No shame here, I liked the Sand Castle best. It was thin and light, and very odd. As pinot noir, it wasn't so interesting. But it tasted good, with sweet, port like flavors, almost syrupy, with a touch of licorice and raspberry. Very eccentric, but I liked it. Which caused great chuckles all around when the bags were removed. IN my defense, I noted loudly that it was weird and nothing like pinot. But it had flavor. It tasted good. 85 points depending on how you feel about typicity.
Compare the flat Stonier, which lost flavor quickly and was barren of mid-palate fruit. It had cherries up front and was candied on the finish, but in the mid-palate seemed thin and hollow. It faded fast. 84 points.
The somewhat bitter and also slightly flat Martinborough from Marlborough, New Zealand was another heralded wine that left me cold. Cherries up front, but not much intensity, depth or finish. It turned flat and boring quickly. 85 points.
The Spring Vale presented a different choice. It was pinot noir made like Jim Barry Armagh. Drenched in American oak, and of greater weight than other wines in the flight, the wine had fairly good depth though a bit too much acid on the finish. Still, I liked the weight and concentration. But it was hard to tell that this was pinot in either style or flavor. If overoaking shiraz can be objectionable, doing it to more delicate pinot noir is a bit of an offense against nature. I think the Spring Vale was arguably the deepest wine in this flight, but American oak and pinot noir...I shudder. I had nightmares for a week. Poor, poor pinot noir. 86 points.
Flight 3 This flight was marred by some TCA but there was at least one spectacular wine. It wasn't Aussie though. --1993 Beaux Freres (Oregon). Also, we had 1996 Massoni Red Hill (another hot, Mornington Peninsula wine) --1995 Bass Philip Premium (corked) --1994 Bass Philip Premium
Beaux Freres was a unanimous winner, and as that wine has done so often, it has changed again, and seems to have picked up weight since my last try. I thought it was fading. It seems riper and richer than ever.
The Massoni, ($32) supposedly a hot wine of the moment, was sour and bitter, one of my least favorites. I cannot describe the depth of my dislike, so let me say...80 points.
Bass Philip is Australia's superstar pinot maker. The American analogy is Williams-Selyem. Their top of the line wine is unobtainable like Rochioli was. Their mid-level, around $40 (I actually paid $50), is the "Premium." The 1994 was pretty good, but a poor value at that price. Good texture, good finish, some typicity, some hints of game and character. I liked the hints of strawberry and the texture, although it did not develop much. It lacked a bit of intensity in the mid-palate, but was a pretty nice wine. So far, I'd say, this was my favorite Down Under pinot, and frankly, the only one I'd considering buying again to this point if price were not a concern. Factor in the price, and I have to pass. 89 points.
However, Down Under saved some good ones for Flight Four.
Flight 4 Our strongest flight nonetheless saw everyone else unanimously aced by the 1997 Martinelli Russian River Reserve from California! It just outclassed everything in depth. Roasted meat nuances were eventually overwhelmed by gorgeous, sweet fruit. The wine was lush and deep, with a creamy texture, concentrated and powerful. It is perhaps not a Burgundy fanatic's wine, but it was one of the class items of the evening. 91 points.
Also, in order of service: --1997 Cloudy Bay (New Zealand) In New Zealand, this is a $14 wine, and I thought it was a lovely effort, with typicity, although rather short and light. For a simple wine in its price range, terrific. Hard to get pinot of this quality for less. The fruit has a hint of licorice which integrates quickly, and then some game and nuances come out to give it character. 88 points.
1995 Moss Wood (Margaret River) This, from Western Australia, is another highly touted Aussie pinot, and I saw personal evidence of how well it ages when an Aussie friend gave me a 1983 recently. This had more depth and power than any Aussie pinot, including the Spring Vale. While it did have a touch of American Oak, it wasn't drenched in it like the Spring Vale. Exotic, lush, complex. Combines rustic and flamboyant, combines game and mint flavors, with rich fruit. 90 points. Down Under pinot of the night. I'd rate the Bass Philip 2d, and the Cloudy Bay 3d. Nothing else was really compelling, although the Coldstream and the Spring Vale had their moments.
This flight had one wine unanimously panned all around. Startled, guilty glances were noticed when the bags came off to reveal a flat, flavorless 1995 Beaux Freres. It showed so well young....but it was a light vintage.
And then finally, Worst wine of the evening. 1997 Spatburgunder Durkheimer Feuerberg (Fitz-Ritter). This is under $12, but even at that price, it's a bit of a disgrace. Thin and watery, flavorless, wholly undistinguished. Drink chilled, treat it like cheap Beaujolais. Maybe my next tasting should explore German pinot.
Finally, 1990 Clos St Denis (G. Lignier) This was served after the German pinot above, so it has no excuses. This is a wine I've loved in the past, but I didn't think it showed well from this bottle. I liked the Moss Wood and the Martinelli a lot better...! In the past, I have thought this was simply gorgeous and spectacular. 89 points.
Moral: There is some useful stuff in Down Under Pinot. They should get it right. Some of the wines show depth, some show pinot elegance. Just about nothing did both. And they have to ditch the combo of pinot noir and American oak. Given the glories of Aussie fortifieds, grenache and shiraz, and NZ whites, pinot is a backwater project at the moment. Check back in five years, let's do it again.
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