This is one of the big ones. Our ‘Top 10 Tastings’ have been building in popularity and size since we started with Pinot Gris, travelling through the New Zealand landscape of Chardonnay and Syrah as we made our way to this weekend’s destination – Pinot Noir.
I noted a recently published tasting that had 8 of the 10 top Pinot Noirs from Marlborough – certainly a region that emerged as a real player over the last few years. They’ve always had some great sites – and that I think is key there – but now other, newer wines are breaking through, and on my recent visit I tried the best Pinot Noir I’ve had from Marlborough at all, so far.
Traditional powerhouse, Waiarapa – with Martinborough as arguably the jewel in it’s crown – still creates what many afficianados would consider ‘the best’ of New Zealand’s Pinots. Certainly distinctive, with savoury power and tannin over acidity as key components, but now being met by our other areas as they challenge for recognition. Good to see some new blood coming through – we had more wines that were ‘new’ to people from this region than any other.
Pinot of course does come from Hawke’s Bay. True, it’s not what most people would consider the definitive wine of that region – but we had a couple entered in the Top 10 Tasting, and, again, site would be a key component.
My trip in May to North Canterbury re-inforced what is well known about this region – they make great Pinot Noir there. The Top 10 Tasting was well represented as people had put bottles in my hand from my visits. Other than the limestone influences, the wines from here don’t necessarily shout of any specific ‘style’ that I can put my finger on, but the standard of Pinot is arguably as high across the board as anywhere else in NZ.
Of course we can’t do a tasting of Pinot Noir and not delve into Central Otago. Increasingly recognised, rightly, as specific sub-regions rather than a homogenous whole (a path that Marlborough is also undoubtedly heading down).
Fans will have their favourites – Bendigo, Gibbston Valley, Bannockburn and so on – and some producers now create wines from many of those sites. And perhaps more than anywhere (except Waitaki), vintage conditions are at play here. In a great year, Central is right up there with the best Pinots in the world.
We had sufficient entries this time to split the tasting in two – by vintage, with one team just looking at the 2019 entries. Judges were a mixture of experienced sommeliers, judges, ‘Options’ champions, and writers. We are perhaps the only panel that doesn’t lean heavily on winemakers in the tasting panel, giving us a more consumer-focussed edge. Every few flights we’d take a breather and as “re-set wines” we had some fine New Zealand Chardonnay, a 2020 Pinot rosé, and a French wine – Clos de Vougeot Grand Cru from Domaine Francois Lamarche.
So… on to the wines.
1st place Terra Sancta Jackson’s Block 2018
Fresh, aromatic and floral with violets, pepper and red fruits on the nose with a bacon-chorizo smokiness. Truffle, earthiness and spice in balance with the beautiful fruit, in particular a deep, dark cherry. Well-rounded – this is no fruit bomb though – “Elegant and balanced” was one comment. Silky tannins, with power and finesse. A lovely, long finish. A clear winner, with solid Gold marks across all tasters.
Winemaker, Austin Black had this to say about his winning wine…
“For me, the Jackson’s is our typical ‘Bannockburn’ Pinot. Shows that Bannie style that the area is known for. Plums and cherries, with a lovely lift of rosemary and flowering thyme, and slinky elegant tannin.
2018 was a vintage like none prior – the crazy warm and dry year. After a dry winter and spring, the hottest summer on record saw growing hours at 160% of average. The combination of heat and lack of rainfall resulted in both tiny berries and accelerated fruit development, so we picked really early to preserve acidity. As per normal, no acid adjustments, no yeast food, no DAP etc etc. I think the early picking has made for a really vibrant, energetic wine. And it has built more structure and depth in bottle.Whilst this is generally a lighter vintage, Jackson’s Block shows surprising structure and complexity, along with the brightness and vivacity typical of our 2018 vintage”.
2nd place Decibel Martinborough 2019
Initially brooding, bloody and dark, with a tight newness to it. Serious but already approachable. Lovely fruit – a distinctive orange rind to go alongside the ripe plum and cherry. Tannins are balanced and smooth. Harmonic. A complete package. “Stunning and complex” is a resounding vote of confidence from one judge.
3rd place Valli Waitaki 2019
Violets, campari and blueberry muffin on the nose. A special mention to the abundant fruit here – concentrated, juicy and with supple, svelte tannins. Racy with acidity and there’s an earthy, savoury edge to the palate with soy and mocha. Persistant with satisfying depth and finesse. Long, subtler finish. An outstanding expression of Pinot.
4th place Helio Martinborough 2020
The top 2020 wine of the tasting, and a newcomer to Martinborough Pinot. Into the top five with a bullet. Lighter colour – opening with an elegant, floral, expressive nose. Bright acidity giving immense flow through to the intense, fleshy, blue-fruited, ripe palate. Nuances of eucalypt, resinous, sappiness. Exhuberant and agile, but generous and with a robust, rich finish.
5th place Blank Canvas ‘Escaroth’ 2018
A crazy-good wine from the Taylors Pass area of Marlborough. Lighter colour disguises a Pinot bountiful in flavour and perfume. A little funk initially on the nose, then into a rounded mid-section with real drive and ‘pop’. Great structure. Serious as well as fun. A lot going on – plush red berry fruit, loads of spice, ripe tannins. “Full of personality” said the Boss.
6th place Nautilus ‘Clay Hills’ 2017
Stunning, deep colour, and with a floral rose and then peppery spice to the nose. Plum, cranberry and darker berries, with spice and herbal elements on the palate. Bold, with a swagger and precision. Oak is absolutely on point – framing a solid depth and core.
7th place Schubert ‘Marion’s Vineyard’ 2019
A complex nose and the palate follows suit. Fruit is succulent – damson and red liquorice; the oak use quite masterful, and the tannins are silken – everything in smooth, rich harmony. New world meets old. “Seamless” was agreed upon by our panel.
8th place Mahi 2019
Lighter in colour and medium-weighted in body. Juicy, with redcurrant, raspberry, elderberry, rosehip and smoky oak. More open in style; less tension and structure – playing with the full width of the palate. Savoury, umami and a wet-stone minerality. Great complexity to the finish.
9th place Valli Bendigo 2019
Dark, dense and ripe. Crushed thyme, bayleaf over rich, sweet-fruited cherry, pomegranate and bramble. Grippy (in a good way) and balanced tannins. Tight, complex and with great, glossy length. Polished, rich example with fine, lengthy finish. A wine “to scare the pants off a Burgundy” drew smiles around the table.
10th place equal Misha’s ‘The High Note’ 2018
Musky and opulent with dark plum, rose petal and lilac on the nose. A rich, bold style that “ticks all the boxes” for one taster. Cherry cola, blueberry and heaps of cardamom, cloves and provencal herbs. Toasty oak and fine, taut tannins.
10th place equal Craggy Range Te Muna Road 2019
Mid-weight and shows great finesse. Gorgeous, clean and succulent fruit. Complex and finely balanced. Savoury with black olive and a loamy, forest floor character. Quickly develops in the glass. One of our judge’s favourites – “Could be Burgundy – fabulous!”