The Pinot Noir Masters 2014: The medalists

The drinks business Pinot Noir Masters saw judges tackle almost 300 bottles to discover some worthy winners among the high volume of entries.

Pinot-Masters-Full-Judging-Room

Judges at work. The Modern Pantry provided plenty of natural light.

LONG BEFORE Hollywood delivered a eulogy to Pinot Noir in Sideways, Burgundy’s red grape has held a special position among wine lovers. Revered for its pretty aromas, smooth-textured sweet fruit, and an almost weightless sensation in the mouth, Pinot Noir can create a vinous experience no other grape can emulate, and, as a consequence, the world’s most expensive wine: La Romanée-Conti.

About the competition

In a crowded wine competition arena, The Drinks Business Global Pinot Noir Masters stands out for its assessment of wines purely by grape variety rather than region.

Divided only by price bracket and, for ease of judging, whether the style was oaked or unoaked, the blind tasting format allowed wines to be assessed without prejudice about their country of origin.

Wines were scored out of 100, with those gaining over 95 points being awarded the top title of Master. Those earning over 90 points were given a Gold, those over 85 points a Silver and those over 80 points a Bronze.

The wines were judged by Masters of Wine and Master Sommeliers on 5 February 2014 at The Modern Pantry restaurant in London.

However, as with any noble grape, there’s a wide range of styles depending on not just where it’s grown, but who has handled it, and for whom. And following a tasting of almost 300 unblended Pinots, it appears that this single grape is the source of remarkable diversity.

The tasting was part of db’s Global Masters series, begun last year with Chardonnay, and continuing this year with Pinot Noir, and, as Wine Society buyer Sebastian Payne MW – a judge and chair in both competitions – remarked after the latter tasting, “With Chardonnay, there were very few disappointments, but so many of the wines tasted the same; with Pinot though, the wines were much more varied.”

Payne was just one of eight Masters of Wine (and one Master Sommelier) who were selected to assess the Pinot Noirs, which were served blind, but arranged according to price band as well as style, so that wines were tasted in the fairest possible order: low-priced to high, unoaked to oaked, light-bodied to full.

This format saw the highly experienced tasters focus purely on the quality of the Pinots without any sense of where they were from, with as many as 16 countries featured in the line-up.

Sebastian-Payne-MW

Sebastian Payne MW

Of course, without prior knowledge of the source, the assessment of quality centred on style. Here, thankfully, there seemed to be consensus among the judges. At the cheaper end of the spectrum, it was felt that low-levels of residual sugar were acceptable – though not desirable – while the tasters also agreed that below £10, Pinot Noir is best without oak influence.

At higher prices, the tasters were looking for an open, pretty nose; an attractive, smooth texture, and enough freshness to ensure the drinker wanted more. Whatever the price though, the wine had to be recognisably Pinot – and although that meant the wine could exhibit flavours from red to black fruits, it needed to be combined with a relatively light body for a black grape, the aforementioned smooth texture and a refreshing finish.

Alex Hunt MW

Alex Hunt MW

Right combination

Without knowledge of abv, the tasters had to rely on any impression of excessive alcohol, usually a warming to hot finish. In search of natural balance, judges still scored moderately high alcohol wines generously, as long as the perception of alcohol complemented the fruit concentration. Similarly, when it came to the influence of oak, wines which did well had a good balance between barrel- sourced flavours and tannins and the weight of fruit. Where the oak dominated, medals were not awarded. Also, the level of fruit ripeness was a point of some discussion. The tasters rewarded those wines with bright flavours, particularly lively red fruit, and not examples with a stewed, sometimes raisined character. While the latter style can produce a sweet sensation, it also caused premature colour and perfume loss, and a flat, short finish. Of course, attempting to achieve optimum ripeness for Pinot requires not just cooler viticultural climes, but also well-judged harvest times. And as for achieving Pinot’s signature smooth texture, that requires not just the right site and careful vineyard management, but also cellar practices that are gentle. Heavy-handed maceration techniques can easily give harsh tannin and a drying sensation, although this was rarely seen in the competition entries.

Pinot Noir Masters 2017: Results & analysis

‘Care and attention’ is, according to Miles, the lead character in the film Sideways, what is needed to make a great Pinot Noir. Patrick Schmitt MW finds out how many entries in our Pinot Noir Masters deserve star billing.

OF ALL the Global Masters tastings we run – and it’s an extensive series covering noble grapes and major wine styles – it is the Pinot Noir competition that yields the greatest range of results.

Within the same flight you might find a group of judges either grimacing or grinning, depending on whether the sample had caused great offence or glorious pleasure.

Unlike, say Cabernet Sauvignon, where there are gradations of quality and style, and few failures, Pinot Noir seems a boom-or-bust grape – it either excites with perfume and sweet berry fruit, or severely disappoints with a thin body and unripe aromas.

It’s why Miles – the lead character in the Hollywood film Sideways – was “so into Pinots”.

About the competition

In a crowded wine-competition arena, the drinks business Global Pinot Noir Masters stands out for its assessment of wines purely by grape variety rather than by region. Divided only by price bracket and, for ease of judging, style too, the blind-tasting format allowed wines to be assessed without prejudice about their country of origin.

The best wines were awarded medals that ranged from Bronze through to Gold, as well as Master, the ultimate accolade, given only to exceptional wines in the tasting.

The wines were judged by a cherry-picked group of Masters of Wine and one Master Sommelier on 10 February at Bumpkin in London’s South Kensington.

As he said in the blockbuster movie, which is now more than 10 years old: “It’s a hard grape to grow… It’s thinskinned, temperamental… it needs constant care and attention…. And it can only grow in these really specific, little, tucked-away corners of the world.”

But what he didn’t mention was Pinot’s huge commercial significance, mainly because the demand for this single variety rocketed after this particular film’s success.

Consequently, those “tuckedaway corners” mentioned by Miles have expanded to include pretty much every major wine region that will allow it.

And, as you can see in this year’s Pinot Masters results, we’ve added to our broad list of medal winners with Turkey and Greece: two countries without a long history of nurturing this most pernickety of grapes.

But what is it about Pinot that creates such variation in wine quality? After all, it does seem to perform well in a range of soil types, from volcanic to sedimentary. The key is climate – the grape performs poorly in either very cool or hot places.

For example, some entries this year that failed to attract high scores were too green and weedy, because they hailed from areas that struggle to fully ripen the grape in weaker vintages. Others that didn’t win over the judges were alcoholic and jammy – a result of high temperatures during the growing season, as well as picking too late.

As Miles also said about making good Pinot: “Only the most patient and nurturing of growers can do it.” And that’s because it’s a grape that needs careful handling in the vineyard – it will punish growers who push yields too high or leave bunches exposed.

It’s the same in the cellar, where insensitive techniques to extract colour and tannin will produce grainy, unappealing wines. But, for all the things that can go wrong with Pinot, we are pleased to note a higher proportion of Golds and Masters in this year’s competition.

Although the variability in quality is still a hallmark of the Pinot Masters – and winemaking with this grape in general – the overall standard of wine appears to be on the up. In the past, entries have been criticised for being either too hot (from unbalanced alcohol) or too sweet (from excessive oak).

Last year in particular, we reported on the worryingly high number of entries with reductive aromas, ranging from a whiff of burnt rubber to the stink of rotten eggs (Pinot Noir is naturally susceptible to the production of sulphur-like odours).

However, in 2016, very few wines seemed to have a burning sensation from high abvs, while the structure and flavour from oak barrels appeared to have been used to complement rather than smother the fruit.

Also, the incidence of reduction in the samples was much lower. If there were criticisms that seemed common among the judges this year, however, it concerned the structure and body of some of the wines.

It was felt that perhaps extraction methods had been too heavy handed on relatively delicate berries. The judges wanted to see more juicy sweet fruit, and fewer firm tannins. Looking specifically at the medalwinners, like previous years, the Masters show Pinot’s versatility, and above all, its ability to make great sparkling wines.

Although more commonly blended with Chardonnay, Pinot can, on its own, make delicious fizz, proved by a Pinot Noir specialist such as Champagne’s Gremillet in the results – this Aube-based producer gained a Gold for both its entries.

But we shouldn’t forget Italy’s sparking winemaking expertise, and the Berlucchi vintage Franciacorta also picked up a Gold, although this was at a higher price point. Meanwhile, when it came to pink fizz, although we didn’t award a Gold, the results show that English sparkling sits on a similar quality rung to Champagne, with both Gusbourne and Laurent-Perrier earning Silver medals.

Moving to the still wines, the relatively low number of unoaked Pinots in the tasting, and comparative lack of topscoring wines, shows that Pinot performs best when its smooth berry fruit is married to oak, particularly new oak, in varying proportions depending on the wine. Nevertheless, De Bortoli showed that it’s possible to create a top-scoring Pinot without any oak influence.

The under-£10 category is another area of the Pinot masters with relatively few entries and top scores, although the four silver medallists this year showed that it is possible to craft an appealing wine from Pinot Noir at low prices (in the past, we have been tempted to suggest Pinot lovers switch to Gamay or Grenache when they need to buy wine on a budget).

Scanning over the results among wines priced over £10 but under £20, it is clear how Marlborough is becoming a place for good-quality keenly priced Pinot Noir, despite this region’s much stronger reputation for Sauvignon Blanc.

While New Zealand’s Central Otago may have the more premium image for Pinot, and produces darker more concentrated styles, the southerly region rarely produces examples at sub-£20 retail prices.

And £15-£20 seems a particular sweet spot for Pinot Noir from both New Zealand and Chile, with the latter country proving it’s now a serious player when it comes to this grape, with the now fully mature vineyards of Casablanca, and maturing sites of Limari definitely places for great and good-value Pinot Noir from Chile.

Between £20 and £30, it was Australia that really stood out this year. Interestingly, the top performers in this price band weren’t from the country’s most famous places for Pinot: Mornington Peninsula, Geelong or the Yarra.

Rather, we had Tapanappa gain the most keenlypriced Master of the day for its Pinot from the Southern Fleurieu Peninsula, closely followed by Burch family for its example from Porongurup in Western Australia’s Margaret River.

At these prices the US showed its aptitude for crafting great Pinot, particularly from California’s Sonoma Coast, along with Edna and Santa Maria valleys.

Over £30, and Oregon also featured from the US, with Angela Estate picking up a silver and a Master for its wines from the Yamhill-Carlton AVA, along with same region’s Eola Amity Hills AVA, where Ste Michelle Wine Estates is crafting Gold-medal winning Pinot from the Willakia Vineyard.

At these higher prices, with a Gold medal for Giesen and Marisco Vineyards, it was apparent that Marlborough can craft top-end wines to rival other great Pinot-producing regions, including the more famous source of great Pinot from New Zealand, Central Otago.

Although it was this latter area that took home the only Master in the £30-£50 price band, which was awarded to the China Girl Pinot from Central Otago’s Crown Range Cellar, while Hawkesbury Estates Atkitu A1 from the same region got a Gold.

AUSTRALIAN PROWESS
Australia also showed its Pinot prowess, with Tapanappa’s top expression from its Foggy Hill vineyard picking up a Gold, along with Shawdowfax for its Little Hampton Pinot from the Macedon Ranges and, the pricier Moorooduc McIntyre Pinot from Mornington Peninsula.

Among our final flights for the priciest wines of the day, and within the US, the judges were (like last year) very impressed by the wines from Edna Valley’s Tolosa, which makes rich, ripe but deliciously perfumed Pinots, along with lovely wines from the Mira winery, using fruit from the much sought-after Hyde vineyard in Napa.

Elsewhere, South Africa’s Bouchard Finlayson proved a standout, along with Switzerland’s Jean Remé Germanier, which makes wonderful Pinot Noir from the Valais. Of course, no report on the world’s great Pinot Noirs would be complete without mentioning Burgundy, and it was pleasing to see that where the region did compete, it scored well, with two wines from Château de Pommard proving among the six Master winners in total for this year’s tasting.

In all, 2016’s Pinot Masters had proved that the wine world is right to get excited about certain tucked-away corners for this grape, whether it’s the Côte d’Or in Burgundy, Limari in Chile, Central Otago in New Zealand or parts of Oregon and California, Australia and South Africa.

It had also shown that there are plenty of other places producing first-rate examples from this difficult grape, and from a broad sweep of countries, taking in England, Switzerland, Turkey and Greece.

While such samples were stylistically diverse, when it came to quality, there were similarly high – and, with the competition’s aim to sample wines without prejudice about their source, it is quality first and foremost that the Pinot Masters exists to reward.

 

The judges (l-r): Jonathan Pedley MW; Clive Barlow MW; Richard Bampfield MW; Michelle Cherutti-Kowal MW; Will Heslop; Patricia Stefanowicz MW; Michael Palij MW; Patrick Schmitt MW; José Gonzalez Godoy; Matthew Forster MW

 

Pinot Noir Masters 2018: the results in full

The results for 2018’s Pinot Noir Masters are out, with top performers hailing from Oregon, California, Marlborough and… the Languedoc.

Continuing a theme seen over past Pinot Noir Masters, this year’s competition highlighted the quality on offer from the US and New Zealand in particular, although, in keeping with previous judging sessions, the results, whatever the source nation, were hugely variable – more so than in any other competition we run.

Indeed, the judges this year were to some extent flummoxed as to how a particular place can produce a star wine in one flight, and a disappointment in another.

Nevertheless, such an outcome did lend weight to the notion that Pinot is a difficult grape to get right, even when the climate is perfect.

While we had some wonderful examples with ripe fruit, fine tannin, floral overtones and a touch of sweet oak, we also had some wines that swung towards two extremes – either too light and green, or too rich and alcoholic, although the latter was rarer, suggesting that producers are trying to capture the delicate side of this variety.

The greatest wines were from a fairly wide sweep of sites, proving the commercial significance of this grape: everyone wants to crack Pinot, both because it’s a sign of winemaking and viticultural prowess, but also because there is such a strong market for the variety.

Jonathan Pedley MW

Highlights this year, like 2017, included blanc de noirs from Champagne, in particular those from De Venoge and Gosset, confirming Pinot’s suitability for the creation of truly great sparkling wines.

Among the still wines, it was notable that only Pinots over £10 achieved really high scores, with the best-value Golds coming from Chile’s Limarí Valley, California, the Yarra and Marlborough (Marques de Casa, Three Thieves and De Bortoli).

Moving into the £15-20 price band, a notable top performer was the Montes ‘Outer Limits’ Pinot Noir from Zapallar in Chile, showing that this producer is adept at finding new terroirs for crafting great wines.

But we were also impressed by the quality-to-price ratio from Copain in California, and there were lots of very good wines achieving Silver medals in this price band from a range of sources, from southern France to the Adelaide Hills, Central Otago and Baden.

Once the wines surpassed the £20 mark, as one would expect, the number of Gold medal-scoring samples increased significantly, with great Pinots from Napa, Yarra, Marlborough, Oregon and Aukland, as well as perennial high performer, Tapanappa, the only Pinot from Australia’s Fleurieu Peninsula.

Above £30 and the judges tasted their first Master-winner – an award only handed out for the truly outstanding – and this went to Penner-Ash in Willamette Valley, proving that Oregon really is a great place for perfumed New World Pinot.

In fact, two further Golds in this price category were awarded to Oregon (Domaine Serene), along with delicious Pinots from Wairarapa (Matahiwi) and California (Hahn).

Keith Isaac MW

The day’s tasting then finished with the very top end in terms of price, and also the greatest wines of the competition. Again, Oregon featured, with a further wine from Domaine Serene wowing the judges with a Master-earning score – this really is a producer with a great talent for crafting fine Pinot – while Oregon’s new Gran Moraine brand, founded by Jackson Family Wines in 2013, gained a Gold, proving that this label is already a wonderful addition to the world of great Pinot.

However, along with Domaine Serene, this year’s other Master in the over £50 flight turned out to be somewhat surprising. Hailing from France, but not Burgundy, it was made by Languedoc star producer Gérard Bertrand, and come from a particular site in the northernmost part of the Haute Vallée de l’Aude winemaking region, where a vineyard 500 metres above sea level combines cool nights from high altitude conditions with Pinot’s favoured soil type: clay and limestone.

Finally, seriously impressing the judges too were the wines of New Zealand’s Marisco Vineyards. Founded by famous Marlborough winemaker Brent Maris (formerly of Wither Hills), these great, layered, medium-weight and pricy Pinots from the land of Sauvignon Blanc were a real find for the judges, and proved that the deeper clay soils of inland Marlborough – the Southern Valleys sub-regoin – can now claim to be a source of New Zealand’s best Pinots, along with Otago and Martinborough.

So, once again, our tasting format that sees wines assessed without knowledge of the source region drew attention to the hot spots for Pinot in the world. Some of these we knew, some of these required confirmation, and some of these were complete surprises. But, importantly, every result was significant.

The judges (left to right): Alistair Nicoll MW, Patrick Schmitt MW, Tobias Gorn, Nicola Thomson, Keith Isaac MW, Patricia Stefanowicz, David Round MW, Emma Symington MW, Roberto della Pietra, Jonathan Pedley MW

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