Asian Pinot Noir Masters: Results and Analysis

Winemakers and ardent wine lovers wax poetic about the fickle and temperamental red grape variety, much as the lead character in the movie Sideways, Miles Raymond, when he declared that only the most patient and nurturing growers can “coax” Pinot Noir into its fullest expression. Compared with other noble red varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, a grape that virtually grows everywhere without much fuss, Pinot does require “coaxing” down from clone selection to disease management in the vineyards to colour extraction in the winery. In our Asian Pinot Noir Masters, the results showed that indeed the most patient and meticulous wineries are rewarded in crafting top Pinots.

Judges from left to right: James Kerr of Berry Bros & Rudd (observing), Sarah Heller MW; Amanda Longworth, head of marketing and wine services at Berry Bros & Rudd Hong Kong; Darius Allyn MS; Natalie Wang, managing editor of the drinks business Hong Kong (observing); Jude Mullins, International Development Director of WSET; Henry Chang, beverage manager of China Club; and Ivy Ng, publisher of the drinks business Hong Kong.

The Pinot Noir competition proved to be the most polarising judging session among all our Asian Masters series so far, with drastic variations in overall quality. The best should exemplify all the lovable traits that make people laud with Pinot including its delicate, lingering aromas and sweet juicy berry fruit, yet the worst (sadly in no short supply) demonstrate every fault that one can find with the grape; ranging from the extremes of bland and thin to overly alcoholic examples that lack tension and are prone to flabbiness.

With this in mind, our judges sat down to find the happy medium that best defines this most tricky of varieties.

Coaxing Pinot

Sarah Heller MW

Unlike Cabernet which is described as a “survivor” by Sideways Miles, Pinot is delicate, and selective with soil types and climate. Generally, the best quality Pinot Noir are found on calcareous soils and in cool climates. If too cold, however, the grapes will struggle to ripen, rendering green and weedy aromas but if where it’s planted is too hot, the wines can be jammy and alcoholic.

What complicates the matter even more is that there are around 50 Pinot clones alone in France, twice the number of Cabernet Sauvignon clones, and with each clone comes a problem. “Pinot Noir is notoriously fussy,” Sarah Heller MW, proprietor of Heller Beverage Advisory, stated. “Starting with its propensity to mutate, producing myriad clones each with its own issues. Many growers complain that Pinot is low-yielding, but that isn’t true with say the Abel Clone in New Zealand, so you have to figure it out as you go.”

Although they largely defy generalisation, though, all of the thin-skinned grape’s clones tend to bud early, so, as Heller put it: “The early budding makes the vine susceptible to frost, the thin skins make the bunches prone to rot, and they suffer from virtually all vine diseases.”

Ivy Ng, publisher of the drinks business Hong Kong, and Jude Mullins, WSET International Development Director

In addition to clone and rootstock selections, in the vineyard, “pruning in the right way and at the right time to get balanced fruit set; and avoiding issues with pests humidity” are ever-present challenges, noted Darius Allyn MS, proprietor of Wineworks Consulting Services.

Once picked and sent to the winery, “figuring out the correct time, temperature, vessel and method of extraction is even more challenging than with more sturdy grapes because there’s more risk of losing the delicacy and fragrance that are essential to Pinot’s character. On top of this, it tends naturally to start a hot, fast fermentation, which burns off delicate aroma molecules and leaves a pale, thin wine,” Heller said, before concluding, “So, it’s tough.”

In terms of oak, “it generally needs to be applied judiciously so as not to overpower the delicate fruit character of the wine,” Amanda Longworth, head of marketing and wine services at Berry Bros & Rudd Asia, added.

Expanding Pinot Map

As Heller wryly put it: “Every ambitious winemaking region in the world that is cold enough (or thinks it is) is trying its hand at Pinot, along with some regions that were previously too cold for red grapes,” the reality is Pinot Noir hit its zeitgeist with the ‘Sideways Effect’, especially in New World regions.

About the competition

the drinks business Hong Kong Asian Pinot Noir Masters is our latest varietal judging of our successful Asian Masters series. A departure from traditional judging wines by region, the competition assesses wines purely by grape variety. 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 judged 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 an expert panel of five judges including a Master of Wine, a Master Sommelier, Hong Kong’s top wine buyer and educator and sommelier on 20 September at Berry Bros & Rudd’s Hong Kong office in Central. This report only features the medal winners.

In the US alone, plantings of Pinot grew to 40,000 acres in 2012, eight years after Sideways‘ release, up from 24,000 acres when the movie was made, wrote Jancis Robinson MW in her book The Oxford Companion to Wine. In 2016, California crushed 253,995 tons of Pinot Noir, compared to 70,062 tonnes crushed in 2004, based on figures from the California Grape Crush Reports.

The wine is made in those cooler parts of the US moderated by cool ocean influences including Sonoma Coast, Carneros, Chalone, the Gavilan mountains of San Benito, the Central Coast of California, but most notably in Oregon, to such an extent its wine reputation rests largely on the red grape variety. As its Pinot-making credentials rose it was no wonder that Burgundians were among the first foreign investors dipping their toes into Oregon.

“Oregon is still an unsung hero,” commented Longworth, adding it was an area, “where there are some very high quality, impressive wines that have a minerality and elegance reminiscent of Burgundy, combined with purity and richness of fruit that is immediately appealing.”

Burgundy producer Domaine Drouhin, which has just celebrated 30 years in Oregon, for instance, has been making elegant Pinot from Willamette Valley’s Dundee Hills for decades. Its Domaine Drouhin Dundee Hillsd Pinot Noir 2010 won the top accolade of Master at our competition for what the judges called its typicity, elegance and complexity. The wine “had the added delight of an emerging savoury, tertiary character that really showed the quality of the wine,” said Longworth in praise.

Equally impressed with the wine was Jude Mullins, WSET international development director. It is a wine where, “regional Pinot Noir character melded with classical varietal style to produce an outstanding wine”, she commented.

Amanda Longworth, head of marketing and wine services at Berry Bros & Rudd Hong Kong

Similarly, Jackson Family Wines’ Gran Moraine Pinot Noir from the Yamill-Cerlton AVA in Willamette Valley was awarded a Gold medal, proving the prowess of Oregon Pinot, although both wines are in the higher price bracket of HK$400-HK$799.

But in terms of value, New Zealand, Australia and Chile are by far the top performers. New Zealand’s Martinborough, Canterbury, Marlborough, and Central Otago are proven prime sites for Pinot Noir, the country’s second most popular variety after Sauvignon Blanc. Boutique winery Luna Estate from Martinborough is a good example of a producer making elegant and balanced Pinots. Its single vineyard Eclipse Pinot impressed the judges with its abundant berry fruits, savouriness and its transparency.

Although Pinot is naturally not the first red grape to be associated with Australia, increasingly fine examples are made in cooler regions of the country from Tasmania, Geelong, Yarra Valley and Mornington Peninsula. Yarra Valley alone netted four Gold medals, three for De Bortoli Wines – 2016 Villages Pinot Noir, 2015 Yarra Valley Estate Grown Pinot Noir and 2009 Riorret Lusatia Park Pinot Noir – and 2015 Santolin Wines Pinot Noir ‘Syme on Yarra’ Vineyard. The 2016 De Bortoli Villages Pinot Noir was one of a couple of the best value Pinots, costing less than HK$150 (US$19), but which gained high accolades.

Ripe Pinot 

The judges

Sarah Heller MW, Proprietor, Heller Beverage Advisory
Darius Allyn MS, Proprietor, Wineworks Consulting Services
Amanda Longworth, Head of Marketing & Wine Services, Berry Bros & Rudd, Hong Kong
Jude Mullins, International Development Director, WSET
Henry Chang, Beverage Manager, The China Club
Ivy Ng, Publisher, the drinks business Hong Kong

In addition, judge Henry Chang, beverage manager of the eclectic private restaurant China Club, noted the fruity and more contemporary style of Pinot Noir would be a good match for time-constrained diners at high-end establishments and suggested a riper style of Pinot might find a measure of popularity in markets like Hong Kong.

“This is not only happening for lunch, but also an interesting topic about styles of wine, ‘Classic or Modern’,” he said. “If you ask people this question, they will tell you that they would rather choose the classic and traditional wine. Opening the bottle 45 minutes to an hour before consuming will increase the enjoyment of the bottle of wine together with well-matched food. In reality, who likes spending three to five hours on a meal? And how many fine dining restaurants will allow them to do so in Hong Kong?” Chang asked rhetorically.

Continuing, he emphasised the difference of matching wine with Chinese and western cuisine. “For western cuisine, food is served course by course, all flavours are individual so this is easier to do the wine pairing. For Chinese cuisine, almost nobody will enjoy their food served course by course. When there’re different flavours of food on the table, sweet, hot and spicy, strong and mild…etc. Most of our guests they will enjoy the full bodied and rich Pinot with their Chinese dishes,” listing the De Bortoli Estate Grown Pinot Noir and Cono Sur’s 20 Barrel Limited Edition Pinot Noir as examples of this riper style.

Darius Allyn MS

While referring to Santolin Pinot, Allyn lauded it as the archetypal example of the grape. “If I had to say, the first that comes to mind was Santolin ‘Syme on Yarra’. I found it well made and an expressive Pinot Noir with an archetypal profile. They are a young family winery in Yarra Valley, but focusing on small, crafted production with minimal intervention. So far so good for their wines to date,” commented the Master Sommelier.

In other parts of Australia, Adelaide Hills’ Wakefield Taylors Pinot Noir 2016 despite being young was already showing well in the blind tasting, and took home a  Gold medal for both its fruitiness and elegance; and especially as it costs less than HK$150.

In South America, Pacific-cooled wine regions such as Casablanca and Limari in Chile are making marks on the Pinot stage. The 2015 Pinot Noir from Cono Sur’s top premium ’20 Barrels Limited Edition’ range is an expressive example of Casablanca’s potential in Pinot, and was recognised for that by the judges with a Gold medal.

Old Guards in Europe 

It would be remiss not to discuss the fine examples of Pinot coming from Europe. Although lacking Champagne made from Pinot this time in the competition, the still wine samples submitted amply attested to Germany, Switzerland, Italy and even Austria’s Pinot Prowess.

In addition to go-to Burgundy for Pinot, a few of the judges highlighted Germany, Switzerland and Italy’s Alto Adige for their potential in growing honest Pinot faithful to their respective terroirs and the grape’s typicity. Most impressively in the competition, a Swiss Pinot from Domaine Jean-Rene Germanier SA in the sun-trapped Valais, bordering France and Italy, earned heaps of praise from the judges with the top honour of Master. Praised by Heller as the “perfect sensuous package that Pinot Noir should be”, the red wine had, “a perfumed, almost musky character, lovely cedar and mushroom savouriness and best of all, a luscious, slippery texture,” she explained.

Henry Chang, beverage manager of China Club

Germany Pinot Noir, increasingly, is seen as a more accessible alternative to ever-more expensive Burgundy. The grape known locally as Spätburgunder has become the country’s third most planted variety only after Müller-Thurgau and, of course, Riesling. Baden and the Palfz are the top regions generating buzz for Pinot and Weingut Burg Ravensburg’s Lochle Pinot Noir VDP Grosses Gewachs 2013 from Baden impressed judges with its fine structure and brightness.

“With warmer climate these days, they produce some surprisingly delicious Spätburgunder. In places there’s no longer the issues of ripeness, especially in Baden,” Allyn explained, a point echoed by Longworth who added as well that it was a place, “where quality wines are in hot demand, where you can get wines that have a great combination of concentrated fruit, finely structured tannins and zesty acidity”. Due to German Pinot Noirs’ small export quantity, “unfortunately, though we don’t see many in Hong Kong. The best quality ones are often snapped up locally or by UK buyers,” she said.

Click through the pages to see full results.

Special thanks to Berry Bros & Rudd for providing the venue for judging. 

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.

Global Pinot Noir Masters 2015: the results

There’s little doubt that Pinot Noir is fashionable these days, but such a sensitive grape’s transition into the mainstream is hardly guaranteed.

1

By bringing together over 350 examples from 16 countries to be scrutinised by some of the trade’s most experienced MW and MS palates, The Drinks Business Pinot Noir Global Masters offered a perfect opportunity to assess the status quo.

One thing the results made abundantly clear is that top quality examples of this grape variety can now come from just about any of the world’s major wine producing regions. Represented among this year’s gold medal winners were New Zealand, South Africa, Austria, Australia, Chile, Germany and Italy. Although both California and Oregon failed to achieve the same level of accolade as last year, they were nevertheless well represented in the medal table along with Romania, France, Argentina, Canada, Bulgaria, Spain, Switzerland and indeed England.

“My overall impression is that the competition is hotting up,“ remarked Sebastian Payne MW, buyer for The Wine Society. “There seem to be more and more places all over the world getting things right.” While noting the particular strength of New Zealand, whose clutch of gold medals and a Master proved its ongoing prowess, Payne added: “Countries like South Africa and Chile show steady improvement, and there were some surprisingly good wines at under £10 a bottle, which used to be a price point to avoid for Pinot Noir.”

Nevertheless, the feeling among most of the panel chairs was that the perfume and charm that are so intrinsic to Pinot Noir’s appeal tend to emerge at higher price brackets. “It is a tough ask to expect to produce good Pinot at under £10 a bottle with the UK tax regime and generally you need to set the sights a bit higher if you want to be rewarded,” commented Mark Savage MW, managing director of UK merchant Savage Selection. “There are certainly some possibilities at around £15,” he continued. “At over £25 then you deserve to see a good depth of Pinot character.” Excitingly for fans of this variety who are prepared to pay a bit more to indulge their passion, there was certainly no shortage of successfully ambitious examples at these upper price points. Indeed, observed Payne pointedly, “Burgundy seems too scared to enter many wines; perhaps they have more and more reason to watch the competition.”

Tender loving care

4So what is it that winemakers around the world are getting right to produce such an abundance of high quality styles?

According to the drinks business editor in chief Patrick Schmitt, “Something positive that was immediately apparent among this year’s entries to our Pinot Masters was a more sensitive handling of the grape. Not only did we rarely encounter harsh tannins from heavy-handed extraction methods or too much new oak, but there appeared to be a better balance between fruit sweetness and freshness among 2015’s entries.” What’s more, he noted, “fewer examples had fallen victim to the raisined flavours or alcohol burn that can result from picking too late in a warm climate.”

This analysis was echoed by Payne, who pointed to “much subtler wood treatment than I remember from last year, with a touch of American oak working quite successfully on some lower-priced wine.”

For those producers working to make good quality Pinot Noir at the commercially important sub-£10 price point, consultant Richard Bampfield MW had the following advice: “Restrict yields as much as possible, don’t try too hard on extraction and try to add an oak component, even if small.” More generally, Savage highlighted the right picking date as being “crucial” for producers’ success. “A day or two too early and you will get green tannins, while a day or two beyond optimum and you may have prune juice,” he warned.
For all the evidence that excellent Pinot Noir can come from very different corners of the world, he linked this picking decision closely to the importance of finding the right spot to plant such a sensitive variety. “You need to be confident that the vineyard site will allow for marginal ripening with maturity in the fruit that will render unnecessary any correction by either chaptalisation or acidification,” insisted Savage, adding: “The vast majority of vineyard locations in the world will not be suitable.”

Forgetting their roots

2Despite the abundance of high quality Pinot Noirs emanating from different corners of the world today, Bampfield questioned the clarity with which these wines express their origin. In contrast to the deeply nuanced distinctions displayed so famously by the grape in Burgundy, he remarked: “I don’t think that national and regional differences are yet nearly as clear in Pinot as they are with grapes such as Cabernet and Shiraz.” With entries for the Masters series arranged by price bracket rather than country of origin and all wines tasted blind, Bampfield suggested that it would have been “extremely difficult” to pin down wines to specific parts of the world, “whereas, with Cabernet I think I would be more sure of my ground,” he remarked. Indeed, looking ahead to the evolution of this competition in years to come, Bampfield predicted that the line-up is likely to become “more and more interesting as new sites in the New World in particular are developed.”

That suggestion certainly opens up an exciting future direction for Pinot Noir’s international development. As this in-depth assessment of the current state of affairs demonstrated, winemakers have certainly secured a solid base of quality on which to refine their offer in ever more nuanced directions.

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. The wines were scored out of 100, with those gaining more than 95 points being awarded the top title of Master. Those earning more than 90 points were given a gold, those more than 85 points a silver, and those more than 80 points a bronze.

The wines were judged by a group of Masters of Wine and Master Sommeliers on 4 February at The Drapers Arms in Islington, London.

Click through to see this year’s medal-winning wines….

Pinot Noir Masters 2016: the results

This year’s Pinot Noir Masters revealed an encouraging number of balanced and refined entries, particularly at higher price points, reaffirming the judges’ perceptions of this most pernickety variety.

5

However hectic your wine tasting schedule, it’s hard to get a truly global handle on the stylistic trends concerning any single grape. But with our annual Global Masters, you gain exactly that – a current snapshot of winemaking fashions among the major noble grapes.

Not only that, but this is delivered in just one day – each judge tastes up to 70 different wines from the same grape within a matter of hours.

As we’ve reported before, with Chardonnay, wherever it’s from, we’ve seen a shift from heavier styles, as winemakers dial down the diacetyl and new oak. On the other hand, we’ve seen the emergence of matchstick characters in this grape, as cellar masters engineer the production of volatile sulphur compounds, or sulphides, which are a by-product of a reductive winemaking approach – such as leaving the wine on its lees for extended periods without stirring.

Meanwhile, in Sauvignon, as we wrote last month, there’s a move towards more textural styles, created through later harvesting, increased lees contact, and the use of barrels or foudres for fermentation and ageing, among other techniques.

But what about Pinot? With this grape too, judged on 18 February by nine Masters of Wine and one Master Sommelier, there are clear developments. Most of these are good, such as the emergence of more balanced wines. This year’s competition certainly saw fewer examples where the oak was too dominant, tannins too coarse, or alcohol levels so elevated that you’re left with a burning sensation on the finish.

It seems that those who choose to work with Pinot understand that it’s best when handled gently, and grown in cooler sites, as well as picked when ripe enough to ensure the retention of bright fruit, and avoid that bland raisined character.

4Reduction problem

Nevertheless, one development that was emerging last year, and more widespread in 2016, was the occurrence of unpleasant reductive aromas. As Jonathan Pedley MW, a regular judge in our Global Masters, said: “Reduction was a problem: I guess that winemakers, in their quest to preserve the fragile fruit aromas of Pinot Noir, are avoiding any oxidation, but have gone too far to the other extreme.” As a result, he observed: “So many of the wines had vibrant colours but were flat, tarry, rubbery and smoky on the nose; no oxidation but no Pinot Noir charm either.”

This did mean that, compared with other Global Masters tastings we run, a high number of wines were rejected in the Pinot competition, which was a shame for those producers who had made the effort to enter. Although you won’t see those wines in this report, let’s hope that this wine fault doesn’t continue to plague the grape, particularly as it holds an enviable upmarket reputation and is liked by so many for its attractive perfume.

What did the judges think?

PATRICIA STEFANOWICZ MW

“The tasting confirmed that a vineyard must have a very good site and an appropriate growing year to achieve substance, balance and harmony and some longevity for high quality. It also confirmed my opinion that a cool climate (or site) probably produces the best Pinot Noir. Apart from Burgundy, one might find good examples from parts of New Zealand, especially Martinborough and Otago, and the best parts of the Willamette in Oregon. A few sound examples appear from parts of Chile and, in a richer style, from California and, in a more delicate style from eastern Canada around Niagara.”

SALLY EASTON MW

“There’s still a long way to go with too many Pinot Noirs; too many of my notes said something along the lines of ‘red wine not Pinot Noir’, ‘lacks varietal definition’, ‘too little characteristic perfume’… Those that scored poorly need to get the heat and hulking body out of the wine, get perfume, typical fruit, elegance and silky smooth texture in. Pinot noir is such an exciting cultivar, and is doing great things in places such as Australia and New Zealand. The benchmark in the New World is so much higher than even just a decade ago.”

JONATHAN PEDLEY MW

“The tasting re-confirmed what we all know: Pinot Noir is very hard to get right, particularly at the cheaper end of the price scale. In terms of sources, there were some good wines from cool climate Australia and New Zealand, and, overall, there were a handful of graceful, aromatic, elegant wines, but they were few and far between. Oak, where it was used, was generally well handled. Reduction was a massive problem. A few wines were over-extracted, with excessive toughness and dryness killing the silky palate texture that characterises great Pinot Noir.”

NATASHA HUGHES MW

“The results of the tasting were in line with my perceptions of Pinot Noir. It’s a finicky grape that only seems to thrive in certain regions. I get the feeling that some countries and some producers feel that they should have a Pinot Noir within their range, and therefore plant the grape in inappropriate areas. The resulting wines demonstrate the weakness of such practices. When Pinot producers get it right, the wines have it all: gorgeous aromatics, silky texture, bright acidity and supple tannins.”

Pinot performers

Now, to get back to the positives. As always, once the medals have been awarded, we can see whether there are certain countries or regions that perform particularly well. And it was satisfying to witness that areas which are becoming renowned for great Pinot picked up Golds in this year’s competition, in particular Central Otago and Martinborough in New Zealand, the Yarra Valley in Australia, Leyda and Casablanca in Chile, Hemel-en-Aarde in South Africa, Willamette in Oregon, Edna Valley in California, and Alto Adige in Italy.

Furthermore, a special mention must go to Champagne, which collected four golds and one Master – the competition’s highest accolade – for blanc de noirs made from just Pinot Noir. Although a style of fizz that can be hard to get right, as we pointed out in this year’s Champagne Report, more Pinot Noir is grown in Champagne than along the whole length of Burgundy, and the famous sparkling wine region has been benefitting from a succession of ripe vintages, bringing riper phenolics along with poised fruit. As Michael Edwards writes about Pinot in Champagne, not only are producers making “balanced” and “silky” blanc de noirs, they are “costing less than the now ruinously priced grands crus of Burgundy”.

Top sparkler

A chart topper in this year’s Pinot Masters was the example from Philipponnat, combining not just a great site – grapes sourced from premier and grand cru plots in the Montagne de Reims and the brand’s own vineyards in Mareuil-sur-Ay – but also a first-rate vintage: 2008 was one of the greatest harvests of the last 50 years. As always, the wines were tasted in price bands, and the day began with those below £10. This is a hard place for Pinot, which requires careful handling in the vineyard and doesn’t respond well to higher yields, which can be necessary to produce low-priced examples. Nevertheless, there were good examples, with Les Domaines Paul Mas standing out as a source of Pinot that is inexpensive, tasty and with varietal typicity – and as a result several of its entries gained Silvers. But we also discovered a pleasing Pinot from Romania and the Pfalz – the latter debunking an idea that German Pinot has to be pricey.

Chilean stars

Moving over £10, but staying beneath £15, it was good to see Chile cement its reputation as the source of excellent value for money Pinot, while also highlighting the superiority of Leyda and Limarí as homes for keenly-priced wine from Burgundian grapes. But Marlborough too performed strongly within this price band, prompting one judge, Patricia Stefanowicz MW to comment: “There were some rather elegant, plush-textured, but not overly herbaceous samples from Marlborough,” which, she admitted, “was a surprise for me.” Between £15 and £20, we had 10 Silvers from a wide range of sources, including Baden in Germany, North Canterbury in New Zealand and the Santa Lucia Highlands of California’s Monterey County. However, it was not until we moved over £20, but below £30, that we saw plenty of Golds awarded, confirming that Pinot is a grape requiring expensive handling. Significantly, two of the Golds in this price band were from Monterey – Jackson’s Carmel Road and Hahn’s SLH ­– marking out this area of California as a source of juicy and balanced, but still relatively inexpensive Pinot.

The same too should be said of New Zealand’s Central Otago, which gained three Golds, though two of these were from the same producer, Rockburn Wines. Beyond £30 and over £50, the same regions dominated, complemented by Chile’s Casablanca and California’s Sonoma Coast. As for producers, Bouchard Finlayson, Craggy Range and De Bortoli have a history of doing well in our competitions, and didn’t disappoint this year, while proving the high quality of Pinot produced in Hemel-en-Aarde, Martinborough and the Yarra, respectively. We also discovered a name that was new to us from Oregon: Van Duzer, which is making lovely and distinctively packaged Pinots. We were impressed too by the range from Tolosa, in Edna Valley, which submitted three wines, and, impressively, picked up three Golds. Another strong performer, first spotted in last year’s competition, is the Alto Adige’s Castelfeder Winery, as well as Cono Sur, particularly with its range-topping Ocio Pinot, a wine that has consistently done well in the Global Masters.

3Highs and lows

Like any of our tasting competitions, there were highs and lows, but it does seem, with Pinot Noir, that it really is a case of great peaks and deep troughs. As two of our judges independently said, Pinot is “like the little girl who had a little curl: when it is good, it is very, very good; when it is bad, it is horrid”. Nevertheless, as noted above, the overall trend is good for Pinot, wherever it’s grown. Whether it’s red or black fruit, more producers appear able to capture a delicious combination of mid-palate sweetness with a refreshing finish. Oak is increasingly complementary, not dominant, adding to Pinot’s inherent sweetness, while providing a structural boost. And thankfully, alcohols, which can easily rise to high levels in warmer climates, seem to be more moderate, or at least in balance with the wine. As Natasha Hughes MW summed up “When Pinot producers get it right, the wines have it all: gorgeous aromatics, silky texture, bright acidity and supple tannins. What’s not to like?”

The judges (l-r)

Miles Corish MW
Hugo Rose MW
Patricia Stefanowicz MW
Patrick Schmitt MW
Rosemary George MW
Jonathan Pedley MW
Clément Robert MS
Keith Isaac MW
Natasha Hughes MW
Sally Easton MW

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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, 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 a cherry-picked group of Masters of Wine and Master Sommeliers on 18 February at The Princess of Wales in Primrose Hill. This report only features the medal-winners.

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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