24 December 2007

New Zealand Pinotage Tasting

New Zealand has been making Pinotage for forty years. The variety is not now as fashionable there is it once was, but there are some first rate Pinotages being made. Unfortunately, few are available outside New Zealand and it seems to me that they are not that widely marketed inside the country.

I was able to taste many of New Zealand’s Pinotage when I visited there last month. My trip was thanks to being able to fill the place of someone who dropped out at the last minute of a wine-writer’s tour of New Zealand, but my welcome to New Zealand and the tasting was thanks to Sue Courtney.

Sue Courtney is a wine-writer and wine-judge based near Auckland in New Zealand. She and I both started our websites in the early days of the public world-wide-web and over the past decade we have been in regular contact via email, and for more than a year I wrote a column on her site at www.wineoftheweek.com.

As soon as I knew I was flying to Auckland with a couple of days to spare before the formal tour started I emailed Sue and suggested we meet. Little did I expect that Sue would cancel all plans for two days and give me a royal tour of the area, finishing with a mammoth Pinotage tasting.

Unfortunately, although I travel a lot, I am increasingly finding jet-lag a problem. After a journey from London, via Singapore to Auckland of more than 24 hours door-to-door it seemed to me that while my body was in Auckland my brain was still in transit. So Sue had a Peter May who was unusually subdued and who kept dozing off like the Dormouse at the Mad-Hatters tea-party.

It was a shame that the Pinotage tasting was in the evening as I was struggling to stay awake.

Sue had assembled, thanks to many wineries that had sent samples, a veritable wall of Pinotage bottles. These were opened and presented blind in flights by Sue’s hubby Neil who uncomplainingly did all the donkey work of documentation.

The first flight included four still rosés and two sparklers, one pink and one red. While pink wines have their place, I can’t say that place is close to my heart. The still roses were competent but they didn’t light my fire, the best being Matua Valley Northland Rose (Almost fluorescent pink, with a sweet front palate, tangy finish and nicely balanced.) The sparkling red from Soljans (Soljans Sienna Methode Traditionelle Rouge) had been bottle matured by Sue for four years. It was first released in 2002 and the base wines were from the 1998 vintage. As is the problem with sparkling red wines, it is difficult to see the bubbles rising and they were not prominent in the mouth. It was tangy with some tannins and a pleasing sweet finish. I thought it would have been better as a still wine because the bubbles distracted from what could have been a serious wine.

I was fading fast and feared I wouldn’t be able to remain awake, so I cheered for the ‘real’ – meaning the still red Pinotages - when they appeared, forgetting that my every comment was likely to be documented by the reporter sitting opposite. Sue blogged that I said "I don't know why they bother," in reference to all the pinks. OK, I put my hands up. But I’d like it to be taken into consideration that I have spent much money on Simonsig’s sparkling pink Pinotage and drank and praised Delheim’s still pink stunner.

We then were presented with two flights each of eleven red Pinotages. There was one ‘ringer’ among the New Zealanders; it was a South African wine from Beyers Truter that I’d brought with me. I was certain that it would stick out and thus I was sure that I would identify it. We scored the wines, and chose our favourites.

In the first flight I rated the last wine highest. It had blue-red colour, a coffee nose and soft mouthfill, with juicy blueberry flavours, gentle acids, medium body and a good finish. This turned out to be the sole South African wine, a Beyers Truter Pinotage 2005 bottling for Tesco’s supermarket. This just pipped by half a point Lincoln Heritage Gisborne Pinotage 2004 (Spicy nose, light and tart with red currant fruits; really nice moreish sweet finish makes you want to drink another glass) and Marsden Estate Bay of Islands Pinotage 2004 (Coffee nose, well balanced, berry fruits, some mocha and refreshing acids on finish).

In the second flight my favourite wine was Ascension 'The Parable' Matakana Pinotage 2006 (Spicy nose, full bodied with black pepper and cherries and medium long finish), followed by Okahu Northland Pinotage 2006 (Deep colour, mulberry flavours over tannins with a spicy mid-palate) equal with Soljans Gisborne Pinotage 2007 (Attractive warm spicy nose which follows through on the palate, bramble berries, balanced tannins and fruit acids)

Neil now brought back the ten top scoring wines from the three of us to re-taste and decide a winner.

The ten were

From Flight one:
Lincoln Gisborne Pinotage 2004 ($18)
Hihi Gisborne Pinotage 2004 ($19)
Marsden Estate Bay of Islands Pinotage 2004 ($24)
Beyers Truter Stellenbosch Pinotage 2005 (Sth Africa £7.99 =$24NZD)

From Flight two:
Muddy Water Waipara Pinotage 2006 ($32)
Okahu Northland Pinotage 2006 ($28)
Te Awa Hawkes Bay Pinotage 2006 ($30)
Kerr Farm P06 Kumeu Pinotage 2006 ($20)
Ascension 'The Parable' Matakana Pinotage 2006 ($25)
Soljans Gisborne Pinotage 2007 ($18)

Sue, Neil and I re-tasted the wines and again scored them. Whilst the Beyers Truter South African wine had been my top scoring wine from the first flight, in the final showdown my highest scores went to Ascension 'The Parable' Matakana Pinotage 2006, with Soljans Gisborne Pinotage 2007 and Muddy Water 2006 a close, and equal, second.

I am fascinated by the co-incidence that I had visited Ascension and enjoyed their 2006 the previous day, and had a (rather dismal) lunch at Soljans earlier the same day.

Time was getting late. Sue proposed a final taste-off, but the only thing by now that I really wanted my lips to touch was a pillow back at my hotel. Muddy Water 2006 was the only wine that all three of us had included in our top three in the taste-off; it was Sue’s top wine and my second choice and so by mutual agreement we nominated Muddy Water 2006 as the winner.

My overall view of the tasting was that there were a lot of very good wines, but also that that the reason that many did not get called back was because of high acidity. I like some acidity in wines - it makes them food friendly - but it has to be appropriate and balanced. Too many were not balanced. But it is not just Pinotage; in the following weeks in New Zealand I leveled the same criticism of excess acidity at too many Pinot Noirs.

I also wondered whether Muddy Water’s success in the blind tasting was aided by its high alcohol level – the label says 15%. I know that high alcohol wines tend to show well in tastings where each wine has less than a minute to make a statement. But it did not make my top three in the first time round, so maybe it opened up with time. I was lucky enough to taste the same wine later in my trip. It was a lone Pinotage amongst a sea of Pinot Noirs and – wow – it tasted just magnificent. But that’s another post.

Congratulations to Muddy Water.

Thanks again to Sue & Neil Courtney. Read Sue’s report of my visit here

1 comment:

  1. Sue Courtney19:08

    Hey Peter,
    Good to see your report posted at last. Sorry I wore you out :-)
    I had hoped to start the tasting much earlier in the day, but the timing went all awry as one thing led to another.
    I was able to taste the wines over the next few days and some of them opened up magnificently, most notably, perhaps, the Babich Winemakers Reserve Hawkes Bay Pinotage 2005.
    Comments on the later tasting, where warranted, are included on the Pinotage reviews page on my website at www.wineoftheweek.com/tastings/pinotage.html.
    I sent the results of the tasting to all the wine providers and disappointingly only two producers responded. Not even Muddy Water who received the top rating.
    I'll email the providers the link of your blog entry too.
    As for the marketing comment, I find it strange that the producers who make Pinotage do not market it ..... because there are some delicious Pinotage wines here, as you found out. They could be marketing it as a 'point of difference' to local wine drinkers as it is doesn't rate as a blip among the export varietals for this country.
    Still, perhaps it will make a comeback in the years to come, as it seems the grape is viticulturally suited to several parts of New Zealand. Add good, clean modern winemaking, and the result is good, tasty wine.
    Cheers, Sue