New world gets off to a flyer

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Indulgence - James Halliday

THE eighth an­nual Stonier In­ter­na­tional Pinot Noir Tast­ing (SIPNOT) was bound to be chal­leng­ing. It pit­ted the best of Bur­gundy against Aus­tralia, New Zealand, Cal­i­for­nia and Ore­gon. The prac­tice is to con­trast the Septem­ber-Oc­to­ber vin­tage of the north­ern hemi­sphere wines against the fol­low­ing March-April vin­tage of the south­ern hemi­sphere. This year it placed 2004 bur­gundies (and North Amer­i­can wines) against 2005 south­ern hemi­sphere con­tenders. Over the years the tast­ings (al­ways con­ducted blind) have fre­quently led to harsh judg­ments on some very dis­tin­guished bur­gundies.

It was pre­or­dained that this should hap­pen this year. The 2004 vin­tage in Bur­gundy pro­duced wines in stark con­trast to the ul­tra-ripe, flavour-packed ’ 03s and the sub­lime ’ 05s. The ’ 04s are very re­served and tight, with streaks of what might gener­i­cally be called green char­ac­ters. Whether it’s from stems, higher than usual acid­ity or sim­ply the flavour profile of the juice doesn’t re­ally mat­ter.

When placed against the plush, sweet fruit of the new world pinots, the lean char­ac­ters of the bur­gundies were in­evitably am­pli­fied. Yet, take them to their own en­vi­ron­ment and you know the vin­tage was good and that pa­tience will be re­warded.

Had the same grow­ing con­di­tions in Bur­gundy pre­vailed 20 years ago, when yields were higher, use of sprays more lack­adaisi­cal and sort­ing ta­bles rarely seen, the out­come would have been very prob­lem­at­i­cal. Yet, even then, Bur­gundy can sur­prise. The high-acid year of 1972 came af­ter the ex­cel­lent ’ 71 and was shunned by all and sundry. As the years went by, the ’ 72s started to re­veal a trea­sure trove of aro­mas and flavours, the palate glo­ri­ously length­ened by the acid­ity that kept the wines so fresh. I still buy any I see, fully ac­cept­ing that not all may have made the trans­for­ma­tion from sow’s ear to silk purse.

Com­ing back to SIPNOT, I should ex­plain that the 168 peo­ple at­tend­ing were grouped in round ta­bles of eight, and the 12 wines pre­sented in two groups of six, with a break in be­tween; each group tasted in si­lence for 15 min­utes, fol­lowed by a 15-minute dis­cus­sion led by the des­ig­nated ta­ble cap­tain, with the aim of agree­ing on the top three wines.

Four or five ta­bles are asked to give their views through the ta­ble cap­tain, but all put their pref­er­ences for the 12 wines on a form left at the ta­ble at the con­clu­sion of the night. More of­ten than not the room con­sen­sus is sim­i­lar to that of the few ta­bles whose views are known. I should add that the tast­ing book­let lists all 12 wines and gives de­tailed back­ground and tast­ing notes for each.

At the end of each room dis­cus­sion, the head panel of Brian Croser, Andrew Cail­lard and my­self, with Stonier wine­maker and wine se­lec­tor Geral­dine McFaul, who alone knows the or­der of the wines, gave our views. It was the first time the SIPNOT panel was not led by Len Evans, so we drank to his me­mory with our most pre­ferred wine.

Over­all, it was no sur­prise that the best of the new world wines came out on top (with one ex­cep­tion). It led one per­son to ask why this should be so when the bur­gundies were up to five times as ex­pen­sive. It is a mat­ter of sup­ply (fixed and lim­ited) and de­mand (cre­ated by rep­u­ta­tion built up over gen­er­a­tions) that sets the price of clas­sic bur­gundies.

The best new and old world wines have sim­i­lar costs of pro­duc­tion, in­fi­nite care in the vine­yards, strict con­trol on yield and sim­i­lar at­ten­tion to de­tail in the win­ery, ex­pense no bar­rier. But a hectare of grand cru bur­gundy may cost 50 times as much as a hectare of new world pinot. It is a rep­u­ta­tion that can be bought only at an as­tro­nom­i­cal cost or sev­eral hun­dred years of in­vest­ment.

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