The London debut: Stonier International Pinot Noir Tasting, 17 January 2011

Take a dozen Pinot Noirs, taste blind and stir, the people not the Pinot, and you’ve got a winning formula on your hands, a.k.a. Stonier International Pinot Noir Tasting which, last month, made its London debut. I love this type of focused yet fun event which produced plenty of passionate, provocative (polarised even) debate between panel members (pictured) and the floor.

In London, the tasting was attended solely by members of the trade but, in Melbourne, Victoria this annual event is open to the public too.  It was initiated by one of Mornington Peninsula’s Pinot Noir pioneers, Brian Stonier of Stonier,  back in 2000 when, according to Stonier’s winemaker, Mike Symons, Pinot Noir was “very much a secondary variety.” 

How things have changed.  Symons says “today Pinot Noir is considered a key variety in the marketplace” and Melbournites have the good fortune to be surrounded by serious Pinot country (the Yarra Valley, Gippsland, Macedon Ranges, Geelong, Mornington Peninsula and, just over the Bass Strait, Tasmania).  On my table, our top three wines across two flights of six comprised three Burgundies and three Australian Pinots from Victoria – ‘nuff said!

Referring to the progress made with Pinot, Symons says it’s been fascinating to see the concomitant evolution of comments over the years.  Though discussion initially revolved around the differences between Old World and New World Pinot Noirs, as New World vine age and know how has increased, the discussion has shifted its focus onto stylistic differences related to winemaking technique and/or vineyard expression as more single vineyard New World wines have emerged.  Referring to Stonier’s Windmill vineyard, the source of one of Australia’s first single vineyard Pinots, Symons reckons “vineyards need to be well above 10 years old and preferably 20-25 years old to get a full expression of grape and site.”

Below you’ll find my tasting notes on the wines shown at this tasting (a repeat of September’s Melbourne line up), followed by a round up of observations from panellists Symons, Tim Atkin MW and Matthew Jukes.  First I should mention our delicious aperitif, Stonier Pinot Chardonnay, a rosé fizz. To borrow from the title of October’s report of my visit to Mornington Peninsula (here), it struck a fine balance between flavour and freshness, finely honed and beaded with a pretty, persistent palate showing delicate red fruits and an equally subtle savoury edge.  Just one downside, though Stonier’s wines are imported into the UK by Bibendum (see here), the fizz is not available over here….

The wines are listed in the order in which they were tasted (my scores in brackets).   

Flight one

Bouchard Père et Fils Beaune 1er Cru Grèves Vigne de l’Enfant Jésus 2007, Burgundy, France  – a ruby/garnet hue with a toasty overlay of oak dominating a rather reduced nose and palate, though leaf-edged crunchy red fruits are discernable beneath.  Lacks charm and animation at present; needs time to open up.  5/10

Rippon Mature Vine Pinot Noir 2008, Wanaka, Central Otago, New Zealand – a deeper,redder hue than the Beaune with a smoky, medicinal eucalypt note on the nose which is subordinated on the palate to a lively seam  of red berry and cassis fruit wed to long, fine spine of tannins.  A lovely freshness to this lingering, persistent wine, the oak well integrated.  8+/10

Yeringberg Pinot Noir 2008, Yarra Valley, Victoria, Australia – paler than the Rippon with garnet flashes to its bright ruby core, it has a restrained, delicately floral nose and, in the mouth sweet but crunchy, juicy cranberry and redcurrant fruit with hints of chocolate.  Very fine, silky tannins bring fluidy and length. Going back, some creamy oak notes start to surface.  7+/10 and my table’s second favourite wine of flight 1.

Domaine Dujac Gevrey-Chambertin 1er Cru Aux Combottes 2007, Burgundy, France – a stemmy, spicy quality to nose and palate finds echo in the firm, slightly clamping even, tannin structure of this wine. A dense Pinot, its underlying fresh red fruits and minerality yet to unfurl and reveal its full potential, but lots of promise here. I It was mine wine of the flight but it polarised.  For Atkin for whom it was also favourite wine of the flight the whole bunch (stemmy) character is a matter of personal preference – “done well (some do it very badly) it gives sous bois.”  Jukes said his preferred style was “more demure less pagan” so, though he appreciated it (“[whole bunch] helps the length of the wine and amplitude of flavour”), he didn’t adore it.  8.5+/10 and my table’s favourite wine of flight 1.

Stonier Windmill Vineyard Pinot Noir 2008, Mornington Peninsula, Victoria, Australia – darker, with a more overtly fruity nose and palate with a blurt of sweet, ripe raspberry beneath which lies a firm backbone of tannin, providing the structure for ageing.  Looking a little simple in comparison with the others – needs time to develop in complexity. 7.5/10

Bindi Block 5 Pinot Noir 2008, Macedon Ranges, Victoria, Australia – deep ruby with garnet hints and a distinctly different sweet and sour twist to its plum, damson and cherry underscored by vivid, fresh picked/crushed red and black berry fruits with a lick of vanilla oak. Very expressive fruit which good freshness helps keep in check. 7/10 and and my table’s third favourite wine of flight 1.

Flight 2

Felton Road Calvert Pinot Noir 2008, Central Otago, New Zealand – very pure, ripe fruit scented nose though, in the mouth creamy cassis is accompanied by overripe raisin notes; not as fresh or persistent as others.  6.5/10 

Domaine Comte Georges de Vogüé Chambolle-Musigny Premier Cru 2007, Burgundy, France – a sappy, youthful nose and palate with perfumed floral notes, some leafy, even peppery notes too which follow through in the mouth.  A little closed right now though it has a lovely freshness and florality with seductive silky tannins.  Needs time to put on weight, but promising assuming those leafy/vegetal notes remain in check. 7.5+/10 and and my table’s third favourite wine of flight 2.

Evening Land Vineyards Seven Springs Vineyard La Source Pinot Noir, Willamette Valley, Oregon  2007 – deep plum hue, on the nose, quite stemmy, feral even, with raw beetroot and a smoky quality which follows through on the palate.  In the mouth, there’s good definition to its concentrated, juicy fruit and fair length though slightly dry tannins make for a lack of fluidity – solid and lacking subtlety. 6.5/10

Stefano Lubiana Estate Pinot Noir 2008, Southern Tasmania, Australia – deep in colour/opacity and presently quite closed on the nose.  In the mouth, there’s no shortage of rich, ripe, spicy dark fruits with earthy beetroot, wed to a sturdy backbone of tannins which show a trace of bitterness on the finish.  Nonetheless, impressive in breath and structure.  8.5/10.  Atkin loathed this wine describing it as “vile and extracted,” though it had plenty of support from elsewhere, indeed my table’s second favourite wine of flight 2.

Domaine Jean-Jacques Confuron Vosne-Romanée 1er Cru Les Beaux Monts 2007, Burgundy, France – the oak is a dominant force right now, the fruit relatively closed though undeniably fresh.  Compact/buttoned up right now the oak is just too distracting for me though not others – this was a favourite of the night.  6.5/10, my table’s favourite wine of flight 2.

Argyle Nuthouse Pinot Noir 2007, Willamette Valley, Oregon  – relatively straight forward, confected even, vanilla glossed summer compote with black and red cherry, creamy yet slightly tart on the palate.  Lacks dimension/nuance. 6.5/10

General observations

Symons and Jukes both remarked that these very youthful wines have opened up since Melbourne (see Jukes’ report of the Melbourne tasting last September here).

The first flight was quite pale, the second significantly darker in hue with greater opacity.  There was a general consensus that colour no longer provided a clue to the origin of the wines with less variation than used to be the case.  Atkin summed it up – “it’s getting harder to spot the difference between New World and Old World Pinots compared with 10 years ago.”  On my table, we felt that fruit sweetness and perception of alcohol by volume (the latter specifically with reference to wines 2 & 3) still tended to point towards New World Pinot.

Atkin attributes the stylistic narrowing between the two to a range of developments – “cross-pollination between Old World and New World,” clonal selection (“which has come on hugely”), rootstock ,soil type, vine age (“crucial from what we’ve seen”) with lower yields in the New World, more extensive use of whole bunches in the New World, also more judicious use of oak.  In his view, Australia is now producing some wines of Grand Cru Burgundy standard. 

Remarking that Burgundy has also come a long way (i.e. much more drinkable) since he first started crafting the wine list at Bibendum restaurant, Jukes congratulated the New World for catching up so fast.  Agreeing with Atkin that “vine age is the single most important thing,” he said a dedication of manpower and absolute obsession with site have also played their part.

Referring to vine age, for Symons 10 years old “seems to be the magic number,” when vines hit their straps.  As for clones, Symons observed that they have become of peripherary importance relative to site, climate and winemaking.  Indeed, many top Pinot Noirs are made from Australia’s original MV6 clone.  It’s a point that hadn’t escaped my attention.  Even five years ago Dijon clones were being talked of as a silver bullet but those MV6 clones which have not been supplanted in producers’ affections, arguably those planted in top spots, are demonstrating their worth  – all routes (and roots) lead back to site!

 If you’d like to learn more about the history and evolution of Australian Pinot Noir, watch out for my post this Friday reporting on Tom Carson’s excellent Landmark Tutorial on Australian Pinot Noir.

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