John Saker reports on a tasting held to honour the French-Kiwi pinot bond
THIS IS A STORY of pinot noir and two lands – the place from whence it came (Burgundy in France) and a country (New Zealand) where it has relatively recently been granted residence.
Helping Cuisine bring the two together for this special French issue was the ambassador of France to New Zealand, Madame Florence JeanblancRisler. The ambassador offered to host a blind tasting in the reception rooms of her Thorndon, Wellington residence. The tasting comprised 12 New Zealand pinot noirs and 12 from Burgundy, of similar vintages (201213) and with not wildly different price tags (inevitably, the Burgundies were on the whole more expensive).
The Cuisine judging panel was made up of regular panel chair John Belsham, experienced wine judge and Wellington lawyer John Comerford and me, Cuisine’s New Zealand wine writer and judge John Saker.
The tasting was not intended to be a vinous sparring match between “them and us”. That would serve no useful purpose, especially as the playing field was hardly an even one. While the tasting attracted members of the New Zealand pinot noir aristocracy, Burgundy’s finest (single bottles of which each sell for thousands of dollars) were never going to be present. What’s more, a quality red Burgundy needs more time (five or six years at least) to start realising its potential, while New Zealand pinot is generally approachable earlier.
Rather, we wanted this event to be a celebration – of the grape itself; of the expression of place that is one its hallmarks; and of what is a special wine relationship.
New Zealand enjoys close relations with France in several spheres. But there is something remarkable about the ties that have recently formed around pinot noir.
The red grape of Burgundy is not the best of travellers. It only enjoys cooler climes on the outer reaches of the wine world, places where grape growing can be a chancy business. Importantly, it also demands a rare level of devotion from the growers and winemakers who take it on.
Pinot noir found such conditions in New Zealand. And soon after it took hold here, New Zealand winemakers began travelling to France to acquire some of the knowledge of the vignerons of the Côte d’Or in Burgundy. The welcome the Antipodeans received from Burgundians was generous, and they returned home inspired. Before long the traffic had become two-way; Burgundian winemakers – particularly the young – were coming to New Zealand to work vintages.
Nowhere is the bond stronger than between Central Otago and Burgundy. A programme of exchanges between the two regions was established some time ago. The relationship’s depth became apparent during Burgundy’s recent successful bid to have the Côte d’Or, the region’s viticultural centrepiece, granted UNESCO World Heritage Site status. The Burgundians asked only one other wine region in the world to support their effort, and that was Central Otago.
A number of the labels in our tasting held stories of these Franco-Kiwi pinot ties. Domaine de l’Arlot, for example, could almost be described as a New Zealand pinot finishing school, so many of our winemakers have worked vintages there. On the New Zealand side, Aurum Wines has a Burgundyborn winemaker in Lucie Lawrence.
For Leblanc-Risler, this event was a welcome exercise in cultural diplomacy. Born and raised in the northeast of France, she confesses to a personal fondness for red Burgundy. “I hope the tasting will help raise awareness about what is happening here – about the closeness of this wonderful bilateral winemaking relationship. It’s a thrill for me to enter into the spirit of it… and to have the chance to taste some beautiful wines!”
The 24 wines in the tasting were tasted blind and in random order. A top Burgundy was selected, along with a top New Zealand pinot, with four other wines from each country achieving “honourable mention”.
“The differences between Burgundy and New Zealand were respectfully apparent,” said John Belsham after the tasting. “They underline the fact our best winemakers are producing beautiful pinot noir that are of their own place, on a windswept archipelago 20,000 kilometres from Burgundy.”
John Comerford said: “New Zealand pinots are now more harmonious, with better integration of the fruit with the tannins. Vibrancy from acidity remains distinctively Kiwi, making our pinots more approachable in youth. The French wines were noticeably more reticent and need more time to open out.”
For their support of this tasting, the Cuisine wine team thanks the Embassy of France to New Zealand; Dhall & Nash; Glengarry; Invisible Wines; Maison Vauron; Negociants; John Comerford; Jeannine McCalllum and the 12 participating New Zealand wineries.