Larry McKenna

I have meet Larry on a couple of occasions and always found him to be gracious and willing to not only showcase his wines and winery but also to be helpful with advise and information. On the last occasion when I visited after Pinot Noir 2010, we enjoyed a fabulous line-up of Escapement wines at the winery.

Larry is an established iconic pinot noir winemaker in NZ and worldwide.  His reputation for winemaking and skillfuly crafting great pinot noir is legendary. He plays an important role in the establishment and maintenance of New Zealand as a world class Pinot Noir producing nation.  Larry promotes exchange and sharing of learning and knowledge so that there is a continuous improvements in wines in NZ and enhancement of the NZ reputation. Despite his formidable reputation, I have found Larry to be relaxed, friendly and modest. A real ambassador for NZ pinot noir even though he was born in Adelaide and learnt his craft at the Roseworthy Agricultural College.

Is pinot noir difficult to grow?

There is a well worn adage that pinot noir is difficult to grow. The truth is that grape vines are effectively weeds – they grow from cuttings stuck in the ground and pinot noir is a grape vine. However growing good quality pinot noir is a completely different story. It requires the right terroir and lots of care. Terroir is the natural environment in which the vines grow. It includes the aspect, climate, micro-climate, soils as well as the flora and fauna in the area and soils. All these factors can have an impact on the vine – positive or negative. The care of the vine and its environment by the vigneron also impacts quality especially the management of the canopy.  

Gippsland, Victoria, Australia

Australia is a large country with a wealth of wine growing areas. Many attempt to grow pinot noir – some have success and others are wasting effort attempting to grow pinot in unsuitable terroirs. As a new world wine country, Australia doesn’t have the Appellation rules that operate in the old world. This often means that wine regions are difficult to understand for the wine consumer. A typical example in Australia is the Gippsland region of Australia.

Gippsland can be confusing, disjointed and green just like most of their wines. It is a confusing mixture of beautiful green hills, brown coal and power generators and golden beaches. The tourist information is glossy but the reality is that they are not well set-up for visitors. The wines also are all over the place; no variety stands out, quality is variable and the vines often had a ‘green’ immature character.

I have asked many winemakers which varieties did best in the Region and had many different responses. Take this quote from the Wines of Gippsland Web Site is a group of grapegrowers and winemakers from the diverse Gippsland region. “Come & try our classic varietals: pinot noir, cabernet sauvignon, shiraz, chardonnay, riesling, sauvignon blanc and more!” A wine district is rarely suitable for growing more than 2 or 3 varieties at the most. Here is a region that tries to grow 6 and more!

Pinot noir from Gippsland tends to err on the greener side of cool climate viticulture. This is partly climatic and partly due to poor viticulture. My most frequent comments on the wines were “stalky”, “too firm and hollow”, “too green and herbaceous”. This suggests vineyard problems and over extractive winemaking. There are a few pinot noir new producers, however, that are producing well made and show a glimpse of what Gippsland is capable of producing. One such producer is Purple Hen who are located on Phillip Island. There is also one classic pinot noir producer located in south Gippsland who has been an icon of Australian pinot noir for many years – Bass Phillip.

This is in fact not one single region but a large wine ‘zone’ with no officially designated wine regions. Gippsland covers a large area extending from the NSW/Victorian border to just below Melbourne. There are, however, three geographic regions within it and these may evolve to being considered wine regions in their own right as the Industry and the wine matures over time. The three geographic regions within Gippsland are:-

South Gippsland – An area south of the Strzelecki Ranges down to the Bass Strait, it includes Phillip Island and Wilson’s Promontory. A cool climate maritime area, it is wetter and windier than other parts of Gippsland and has a strong coast influence. At the western edge of the region the vineyards on Phillip Island have more in common with the Mornington Peninsula wine region than with the rest of Gippsland.

West Gippsland – An area includes the Gourmet Trail area around Warragul and the Latrobe Valley together with the surrounding hills. Somewhat cooler than East Gippsland, it usually has a warm, dry autumn which allows for the ripening of most grape varieties.

East Gippsland – Beyond Rosedale, including the cities of Sale, Bairnsdale and Lakes Entrance. A more Mediterranean style climate is experienced with lower rainfalls than the rest of Gippsland.

While modern winemaking is relatively new, Gippsland does have a history. In the ninteenth century there were a number of vineyards, the Costellos and Louis Wuillemin in the Maffra-Bairnsdale area. Like other parts of Australia, wine growing had ceased by the start of the First World War and it wasn’t until the 1970’s that winegrowing was reborn in Gippsland. Development has been slow and is dominated by small, family owned vineyards and wineries. The pioneer and iconic winemaker of Gippsland is Phillip Jones. Philip left the Telecommunications industry to pursue his passion for Burgundian wines. He went out on a limb to establish Bass Phillip in Gippsland based on his research into the soils and climate conditions and, I suspect, a gut feeling that the region could produce great Pinot Noir.  Unfortunately, to date, his vision and quality of his own wines have not been achieved by other winemakers in Gippsland. I hope to review some of Phillip’s wines in future posts.

Greystone 2010 Pinot Noir

I normally prefer to taste wine at home, ideally with a meal matched to the wine but last night an opportunity to try a range of pinots in a line-up was too good to miss.  During my grazing through 50+ wines one stood out from the crowd. It was the 2010 Greystone from Waipara Valley in the south island of NZ.

The 2010 Greystone shines in the glass like a polished gem. You can’t pass it by. It is an intense, dark garnet in colour and with perfect crystal like clarity. The nose is lifted combining dark fruits including plum and black cherry, with a hints of spice and smoke. The palate is rich in dark cherry, berry fruits and a touch of spice. I suspect that this wine would sing in a decent glass (as opposed to the standard tasting glass that I was using)  and has the structure to age and develop for up to at least 5 years. It finished well with good length, ripe fruit tannins and a nice balanced oak treatment. I would score this wine 94 points and throughly recommend trying it for yourself. It would make a perfect partner for duck magret.

To filter or not too filter?

 

I was once told by a very well known and respected wine judge and consultant that unfiltered wines were rubbish and were faulty! This is a very blinkered attitude and it is certainly not my opinion. However, unfiltered wines do start life with a disadvantage: they look messy in the glass, especially when compared with the beauty of a polished ruby coloured pinot glistening in the glass. So why produce ‘unfiltered’ wines at all? There are flavour & aroma reasons put forward and some marketing opportunities taken. Unfiltered wines are thought to retain more aroma and flavour as well as complexity as filtering may remove some components and is seen as extra handling. There is no clear support for this in the scientific literature and a number of controlled studies with sensory evaluations have been conducted to attempt to test this assertion. Another potential issue with not filtering is that the wine may still contain bacteria which could grow and spoil the wine stored in the bottle particularly if cellared for longer term ageing. Nevertheless, there are still a number of proponents, typically winemakers who strive to ensure that their wines are as natural as possible. This is where marketing comes into play – natural wines have a specific and growing appeal. My personal opinion is ‘viva la difference’. I have an open mind and appreciate that ‘unfiltered wines’ have their place. In 2002, I made an unfiltered pinot that was a great hit with a number of customers. It was a novelty and one excited customer told me he had found a leaf in his glass! This was the first and last unfiltered wine I made.


A post on toast!

Toasting is a important stage in the barrel making process with different grades of treatments applied. Staves bent over a wood fire undergo a process of charing which imparts a unique aromatic finish to the barrel. This is shown in the above picture that I took of a barrel being toasted in the cooperage of Francois Freres. The barrel maker (cooper) closely monitors temperatures and fire intensities so that the desired level of toast characteristics is achieved. Barrels toast is specified in several levels such:

LIGHT TOAST (LT) – Allows fruit aromas to be upfront and not dominated by oak
MEDIUM TOAST (MT) – Fruit is still dominant but develops more aromatic complexity. Most commonly used in pinot noir wine making.
MEDIUM TOAST+ (MT+) – Balanced fruit and oak favours but provides an distinct smokiness from the oak to show through.
HEAVY TOAST (HT) – Most powerful toast flavours displayed and spice is enhanced, used where the wine’s power and fruit will compliment.
Each manufacturer may designate different levels (ie there is no standardisation) or even the length of intensity of toasting. The selection of toasting levels is yet another factor to be taken into account when selecting barrels for making pinot noir.

Which forest produces the best oak?

How can the forest that the oak is sourced from influence wine quality? Oak maturation is an important part of pinot noir wine making. It is a traditional technique that allows important chemical processes to occur resulting in flavour and aroma development as well as texture or body in the wine. Wine makers choose the type of oak barrels to use and part of the selection process may involve deciding on barrels made from oak sourced from different forests! So how do wine makers decide which forests are best? The short answer is experience and trial and error. Oak used in wine barrels comes from many different forests in USA, France, Russia and a number of eastern European countries but for serious pinot noir producers the forests of France represent the only ones to use.

In France, the main forests are the north-eastern forest of Vosges and the central forests of Allier, Never and Troncais. While oak from all these forests are used in fine wine production, Allier and Tronçais are the ones most commonly used for producing pinot noir. Tronçais forest oak trees grows to great height and the growing conditions produce an extremely tight grain. The use of tight grained oak barrels results in subtle oak flavors and mean that Tronçais oak barrels are well suited for extended barrel ageing. The tighter the grain the slower the oak releases its tannins or flavours but also it breaths slower or always oxygen to enter the wine. These factor effect the quality and characteristics of the wine.

Many oak barrel manufacturers are now producing ‘generic’ pinot noir barrels from oak sourced from multiple forests or market their barrels with grain options such as Medium Open, Medium, Medium Tight, Tight or Very Tight. This is masking where the oak is sourced from and is designed to simplify the ordering process for the wine maker.

There are other facts important in selecting barrels such as the manufacturer, manufacturing process and toasting.  These will be discussed in future posts.

 

NZ PINOT NOIR 2010

I attended NZ Pinot Noir 2010 conference with my beautiful friend and fellow pinot lover Pat Landee of Patty’s Pinot Closet fame (www.pinotnoirs.com). This is a great event  held every 3 years and is an outstanding opportunity to learn about growing and making pinot noir but also to meet 100’s of wine makers and wine industry professionals. The next event will be held 28-31 January, 2013 and information can be found at http://www.pinotnz.co.nz/.

Overall wines shown at NZ Pinot Noir 2010 were of very consistent quality with every possible variation in style of pinot noir. Regionality was not always obvious during the tastings. Winemaking demonstrated a great dedication to the variety, passion and technical knowhow. Sustainability in NZ vineyards and Wineries is a commitment and not just a marketing ploy.

107 exhibitors at NZ Pinot Noir 2010 – there is no shortage of Pinot Noir in NZ from all over the country!

NZ vines are now getting some decent age and it is starting to show in terms of quality and complexity. Last time I attended the Pinot Noir conference was in 2004 where one of the wines in the tasting line-up was made from 2 year old vines! Now wines were more likely made from vines with an average age of more than 10 years.

Wide variation in pricing of NZ pinot noir is based on reputation of the producer but my impression is that the competition is pulling prices down a little. Oz Clark made a stinging speech warning NZ not to kill off their reputation by continuing the downward price spiral that they have with their Sauvignon Blanc. He also warned NZ not to go the way of Australia that has destroyed its international reputation for premium reds.

I tended to think of Martinborough and Central Otago when thinking of NZ pinot but this is a mistake. Great wines are coming from many all other wine growing areas as well including Wairarapa, Marlborough, Canterbury, Waipara and Nelson.

A comparative blind tasting of 10 older NZ pinot noirs from 2003 showed me that these wines have not improved with age, losing freshness and the finesse and aromas they explode with as 2-4 year old wines. This may be a function of vine age and only time will tell whether future vintages will age better. Not that the wines weren’t still worth drinking and it may be a question of personal taste. This bracket caused a lot of heated discussion with some people loving the aged wines but perhaps they were in the minority! Note that this bracket included some iconic NZ pinots including Ata Rangi, Felton Road Block 5 and Pegasus Bay Prima Donna. The later scoring the best of the bracket from me


Logan 2007 Pinot Noir

Several years ago I was given a bottle of pinot from the Orange region of NSW, Australia. The friendly retailer suggested I give it a try and suggested it was really good. I was somewhat sceptical and it sat in my cellar for a couple of years before I decided to give it a go.

Quelle surprise! Lifted expressive nose of red fruits with hints of perfume. The palate is wonderful opening with raspberry and cherry but finishing with mushrooms and meaty notes. Complex and intriguing with loads of interest and nuisances. Fine tannins and a good length finish a very nice pinot noir and quite a eye opener for me as this my first pinot noir from this region!

Yarra Valley (Victoria, Australia)

The Yarra Valley is a wonderfully diverse wine region, close to Melbourne and the home of some of Australia’s great Cabernet wines.  It also produces some note-worthy pinots although they can be hard to discover.

The Yarra Valley is easily accessible starting where Melbourne’s eastern suburbs finish and is on route to the Victorian snow fields.  One hours drive from the centre of Melbourne and you are on the edge of the green and gold vineyards which adorn the rolling hills of the Yarra Valley and your wine adventure begins.

This is a diverse region which can be as confusing in its diversity as it is rewarding.  A wide range of varieties are grown and styles produced – some supreme examples of new world winemaking with regional definition and distinction.  There are two sub-regions – the “Valley” floor which is warm and the surrounding “Hills” which are cooler with more challenging viticulture.  It is tempting to characterise the wines from these sub-regions as the warmer valley being the home of the great Cabernets and the cooler Hills as the origin of the best pinot and chardonnay.  Generally this characterisation works but you will find that there are some glaring exceptions.

Nearly all the popular red wine varieties are grown somewhere in the Yarra Valley.  Interestingly Pinot Noir is the most planted variety in the Yarra Valley with most producers having at least one offering.  As a variety, Pinot Noir is very sensitive to the site where it is grown and with such a large number of producers spread across the Yarra Valley, as might be expected the results are quite variable.  If you are chasing good pinot seek out some of the smaller producers who have a passion for the variety such as Gembroook, Wedgetail and Diamond Valley.  One truely great example of Yarra Valley pinot noir that I have experienced is the Mount Mary. The 1990 vintage made by Dr John Middleton was particularly memorable.