WINE SCHOOL 3 - 9 December 2018

REGION: New Zealand > Central Otago

At a latitude of 45º south (i.e. midway between the Equator and the South Pole), Central Otago is the world's most southerly wine region. Wine has been made here since the 19th century but it's only relatively recently that the region has made any impact on the global wine scene, thanks largely to increasingly accomplished Pinot Noir production.

Key red grapes: Pinot Noir
Key white grapes: Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Riesling

GRAPE: Pinot Noir

Pinot Noir inspires a fervour that is probably unsurpassed in the world of wine. Pinot Noir from the Côte de Nuits in Burgundy is thought by its many devotees to be the pinnacle of wine excellence. For those bitten by the Burgundy bug their adoration can develop into an obsession to eclipse all others.

Many others (including, for a long time, me) just don't 'get' Pinot Noir. On a practical level, the pricing of what is recognised as good/excellent Burgundy means that it is rarely, if ever, encountered by the majority of people who buy wine to drink. But I think that what really makes Pinot such a divisive grape isn't the price, nor the flavours, but the textural qualities of its wines. Some people expect or seek a certain level of tannins in their red wines; if not a punch then certainly a firm squeeze of the tongue. Pinot Noir doesn't do this. Silky is the adjective you see again and again in tasting notes. It's all about the caress.

Growers of Pinot Noir are probably even more obsessive than its imbibers. It is a notoriously temperamental vine to grow and is highly susceptible to disease, rot and adverse weather conditions. It is a high-stakes grape which seems to attract certain personality types: people who are meticulous and driven, who love a challenge and are just gung-ho enough to be comfortable with failure.

Thankfully good Pinot Noir is increasingly affordable to more than just the elite few thanks to many such personalities now working vineyards in New Zealand, Oregon, California, Chile and elsewhere. The Pinot Noirs that led me to embrace the grape have been from Austria and Tasmania. Whilst not delivering the nasal-intellectual complexity of mature Claret, Rioja or Barolo, these wines had something else - a vibrancy and vigour, an energy or liveliness that grabs the attention and compels the senses. I've also come to realise that Pinot's silkiness makes it the perfect red wine to drink with leaner meats - with turkey, wild rabbit or venison even fairly basic Pinot is a close to perfect drink.

Pinot Noir is an excellent grape for wine students or serious enthusiasts wanting to educate their palates. Its distinctiveness makes it one of the easiest red grapes to identify, even to novices with little tasting experience. Furthermore the grape seems to capture the essence of terroir in a way that other grapes don't. In blind tastings I have correctly identified the country of origin of Pinot with a much higher hit rate than any other grape. Those who drink a lot of Burgundy are often similarly adept at distinguishing between Pinot from different parcels of land just a mile or so apart.

And on top of all this, Pinot Noir is one of the three grapes (along with Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier) used to make Champagne. So raise a glass - fizzy or still - to a versatile, unique and magical grape with a highly distinguished past and a very exciting future.

Synonyms: Clevner (Switzerland), Pinot Nero (Italy), Spätburgunder (Austria, Germany)


Next week in WINE SCHOOL: Mosel (Germany) & Riesling

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