New Zealand Pinot Noir Tasting, Decant Wine Merchants, Christchurch, September 13th 2017

All wines were tasted blind. My comments are frank but 100% honest – and my criticisms are in no way intended to be offensive; they are all purely my genuinely held opinion based on what I saw in the glass before the wine was identified. Ratings are on the 20 point scale.

I make no apologies for being a hard judge and for playing no favourites: that’s how I was taught to taste in Australia by some of its finest winemakers and judges, and it’s how I do it to this very day. Given the amount of time and effort (and tastings) I have put into N.Z. Pinot noir from my time at Mountford (2000 – 2005) onward, I take a firmly critical approach to it, and I hold it up to, and expect, rather higher standards of quality than, alas, most of our producers are achieving. By contradistinction, it is overwhelmingly the case in this country that both in ‘wine reviewing’ and show judging we have an insidious (and frequently unconscious) tendency to lower our standards to flatter our wines. This has been going on for years now, in particular, with Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, but especially where cult or famed producers are concerned, it is sadly all too common with our Pinot noirs. This tasting review is illustrative both of my seeking to counter this disposition and to call out the level of smug self-congratulation among far too many of our producers. For where Pinot noir is concerned, overwhelmingly we can, and must, do better.

I should also add that if there is one (at least to me) utterly clear lesson to be drawn from this tasting (and many others of the same ilk) it is that despite the enormous hype that has accompanied them, the Dijon / Bernard clones of Pinot noir are, in this country at least, not the qualitative superstars they have been held out to be. One wine alone in this tasting really stood out, and its clonal cuvée is very much dominated by the Abel clone — currently not only underrated and under-used in New Zealand, but also probably the finest clone presently available here (followed fairly closely however by U.C.D.5 and its improved GRAD1 meristem-cultured version). I believe we have well and truly reached and exposed the limits and the limitations of the Dijon / Bernard Pinot noir clones in this country. They have produced a flood of either over-ripe, fat and flabby, short-lived Pinot noirs, or under-concentrated easy-drinking wines (like more than a few in this tasting): greatness simply does not mark them out (at all); industry hype keeps them afloat in the face of their increasingly obvious ordinariness in ever so many wines. Only very occasionally does a New Zealand Dijon clone wine — 2015 Blank Canvas Waihopai Pinot noir, made from B115 for example — really show true class, but is a rare exception. In general, easy charm and easy drinking utterly dominate the wines produced by these clones, as this tasting starkly illustrates. All this is to say therefore that while the Dijon / Bernard clones of Pinot noir were a big improvement over the Frank Berrysmith -imported Swiss Pinot fructifier lines (1o/5, 2/10, Bachtobel, etc.) and the I60V15 ‘false 20/5’ Pinot droit, they were no advance at all over (and are in no way superior to) U.C.D. 4, 5, and 6 (if these latter clones are grown with the right viticultural techniques and management). An honest reassessment, and the planting of new superior clones from other sources, is required I believe. (This being being something you will definitely hear more about in due course in this website’s ‘Products’ / GRAD Vine Catalogue section.)

Meanwhile, to the tasting:

1) Pegasus Bay Pinot noir 2013: (Noted added after wine’s identity was disclosed: Note that nothing on the label states the origin of the fruit, so it may not come from their old original vineyard or even from Waipara. There might therefore be fruit in here perhaps from a Kaituna Valley, Banks Peninsula, vineyard contracted to them, for example. I hasten to add that there is nothing suspicious or improper involved in this: it is not mandatory to state fruit sources on N.Z. wine labels other than to give the country / countries of origin.)

Colour and condition: Pale mid dusky cherry plum skin. 3

Aroma: Sweet macerated cherries, but with an undertone of something like cold tea. Not a lot of depth or intensity. Suggestions perhaps of tired cherry liqueur ‘writ small’. 5.8

Palate and Aftertaste: Lots of fine tannins but very short. Also rather hollow in the middle palate. Hot palate persistence. Oak character resembles old (damp) tea  chests and is rather earthy. [Was there a background of Brett. here?] Struggles to finish (because it’s short), and on re-tasting the tannins prove to be furry because they build up on the tongue and over-grip upon it. Could tire soon, and I can’t see any future for this wine. 6.8

TOTAL: 15.6

2) Terra ‘Slapjack’ Vineyard, Bannockburn, Central Otago 2013: (Noted added after wine’s identity was disclosed: Old Swiss clones and old Pinot droit).

Colour and condition: As for (1) but a little deeper. 3

Aroma: Easy fruit compote cherry aromas. (Is this wine from Central Otago?) Unsophisticated and straightforward, maybe with a portion of whole bunch. 6-

Palate and Aftertaste: Better acidity than (1), but this is set on edge against very fine tannins and low fruit impact. Seems a bit developed. Lacks depth or richness; not generous. Definitely short, too. Drink up soon. 6.7

TOTAL: 15.7

3) Burn Cottage, Burn Cottage Vineyard, Central Otago 2015: (Noted added after wine’s identity was disclosed: Cult biodynamic vineyard. Lots of hype!)

Colour and condition: As for (1). 3

Aroma: Caricature whole bunch confectionery aromas. Some finer warm cherry tart notes underneath. Too simple / easy. 5.7

Palate and Aftertaste: Easy soft fruit, but flabby and very easy going. Light easy drink; no depth. Fine tannins, better length than the above two wines, but still shortish. Balanced but nevertheless very straightforward. 7

TOTAL: 15.7

4) The Hermit Ram, Limestone Vineyard, Waipara 2015: (Noted added after wine’s identity was disclosed: Small number of vines, ca. 900, planted on limestone near a Waipara truffiere. Lots of ‘limestone hype’. Theo Coles product / project.)

Colour and condition: Mid-range cherry plum dusky red. 3

Aroma: Cherry tart, but a sawdust / balsa wood note intrudes (like pie crust mixed with balsa). Rather reticent and disjointed / unharmonious. 5.5

Palate and Aftertaste: Sour cherry (!) Stalk traces, but gives to tamarilo overtones too. Subtle astringency persists. Better length and acidity than the foregoing trio, but balance is not to be found here. Best so far though. 7.5+

TOTAL: 16+

5) Clos Henri Marlborough 2012:

Colour and condition: Pale mid dusky cherry plum skin. 3

Aroma: Very pure cherry liqueur aromas. Quite direct but undeniably appealing. 6.4

Palate and Aftertaste: Soft, easy, round but undisciplined palate (sadly). Easy direct fruit fading into a shortish finish. Tasty easy short drink. Won’t go anywhere; drink up. Pervasive very fine tannins. 7

TOTAL: 16.4

6) Louis Jadot Clos de la Barre [monopole] Volnay 2015: (Noted added after wine’s identity was disclosed: Burgundy ring-in from great recent vintage!)

Colour and condition: Blackboy peach skin. [Atypical colour: suspicion of extractive pectinase enzyme use.] 3

Aroma: Glacé and maraschino cherry — altogether different from any of the foregoing. Cherry jam. Appealing but tending to be rather straightforward. 6

Palate and Aftertaste: Furry, (short-chain / coarse ‘green’) tannins. Fruit struggles underneath. A bit short. Unbalanced and very clearly over-extracted. 6-

TOTAL: 15- (poor wine)

7) Prophet’s Rock Cuvée Antipodes, Central Otago 2015: (Noted added after wine’s identity was disclosed: Burgundy winemaker. Lots of whole-bunch and Bugundian techniques / influence. Has received some rave reviews from the likes of John Saker, although Jancis Robinson rated it a lesser wine than their standard 2015.)

Colour and condition: Dusky cherry plum. 3

Aroma: Weird Seville and Jaffa orange (or even blood orange grapefruit) notes at first. Cherry liqueur underneath (one trusts). 6?

Palate and Aftertaste: Fairly complete, subtle, light, but charming, cherry pie palate. Touch of class here (at last)! 8.5+

TOTAL: 17.5 (good wine — but $110 retail)

8) Greystone Thomas Brothers Cuvée Waipara 2015 : (Noted added after wine’s identity was disclosed: Tête de cuvée wine where they go the whole nine yards and then some. Previous vintage was so over-ripe: it was Pinot noir jam-and-raisins in a glass. I also wish to add as a further post-tasting observation that this ‘super cuvée’ is, sadly, a New World clichée style in my frank opinion: over-ripe, low in acidity, jammy fruited, over-alcoholic, and over-oaked: a case study in why more is less — and a clear example of why you must have great fruit (and an understanding of what that really is) to make a great wine in the first place. Greystone — one of Waipara’s leading producers — can and do produce much better wines than this, and it troubles me that they think that this is what a truly top-of-the-line Pinot noir should, or even must, look like.)

Colour and condition: Dusky mid cherry plum. 3

Aroma: Reticent cherry liqueur, cherry compote. Like several others above, and rather straightforward too. 5.7

Palate and Aftertaste: Soft, easy, Malbec-meets-Pinot-noir fruit. Oak pushes the palate length out (a la Felton Road). Finish is too warm / hot (thanks to the high alcohol and low acidity). Easy stuff. Very quaffable. No basis for exceptional quality here! Drink up. 7-

TOTAL: 15.7

9) Felton Road Block 3 Bannockburn Central Otago 2016 : (Noted added after wine’s identity was disclosed: Old Swiss clones and Pinot droit I believe.)

Colour and condition: Translucent cherry plum skin. 3

Aroma: Formulaic cherry / cherry tart. Clean, fresh, but not at all individual, distinctive, or distinguished. 5.6

Palate and Aftertaste: Very creamy-textured. Cherry tart flavours, but straightforward and easy. Suggestions of slight raisining / surmaturity. Persistent fine tannin. Altogether unremarkable. 7

TOTAL: 15.6

10) Ata Rangi Martinborough 2104 : (Noted added after wine’s identity was disclosed: Very much Abel-dominant cuvée from a good vintage up there.)

Colour and condition: Very dusky cherry plum skin. 3

Aroma: Nice warm fruit overtones, more complex than most, if not all, so far. Red rose notes too. This is in a superior league to any of the foregoing. 6.6

Palate and Aftertaste: More textured / layered palate than any of the previous wines. Good fruit with medium-fine persistent tannins, depth, and more seriousness than any of the others here. Lots of spice in persistent finish. Distinctive, but could still be longer though (and is thus a little down on acidity and ideal dry extract levels). Much more depth and interest than all but wine no. 7, but more powerful than that wine. Fair length; but more would engender real class. 8.7

TOTAL: 18.3


I emphasise again that these wines were all tasted blind; no original bottles were used (as the wines were decanted into Burgundy bottles(!)); no labels were to be seen. There were only two good wines here, and of those one was clearly better than the other and was the only wine really worth buying ($76 on special): Ata Rangi 2014. Its very-much Abel-dominant clonal cuvée just flicks the mass of (light and easy) Dijon clone cuvées and the older vines Swiss clone and Pinot droit cuvées into the weeds. Lack of richness (dry extract) and lack of complexity, as well as short soft -low acid – easy palates were major defects in many of these wines. All were clean and fresh, but you need a lot more than that to achieve real quality in Pinot noir. Frankly, the Ata Rangi embarrassed the rest (give or take the Prophet’s Rock Cuvée Antipodes).

Author: Dr. Gerald Atkinson

Company director, viticulturist, grapevine researcher and historian, and sometime wine-writer.