New world gets off to a flyer
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.