Any wine lover who saw the 2004 film ‘Sideways’ will remember Miles’ outburst: “If anyone orders Merlot, I’m leaving”. But do they remember what he was drinking? It was almost entirely Pinot Noir. Pinot is to wine what Apple is to computers; it has a dedicated band of fans that are convinced that no other product can hold a candle to it. And, like Apple computers, it tends to be expensive. There is a good reason for this; it’s very particular about climate, soil, and vineyard management. Most wine growing areas of the world won’t even try to grow it. Of those that do, by far the largest is Burgundy, although it’s interesting to note that the USA is second and that US Pinot drinking has increased considerably, while Merlot sales have declined, since ‘Sideways’ was released! So, if you like your red wine elegant and complex rather than massively fruity and packed with tannin, the chances are that you like Pinot. My question now is this: is affordable Burgundy good enough to be worth paying for (and it’s hard to find anything worth drinking under £10), or is the New World a better bet? In the past I’ve been hugely disappointed by affordable Burgundy, but I thought I’d put it to the test again with just two bottles of Pinot Noir that have been recommended by experts: a Burgundy (Bourgogne Pinot Noir 2011 Cuvée Réserve from Maison Roche de Bellene, recommended in Decanter magazine September 2014); and a New Zealand Pinot Noir (Grasshopper Rock 2011 from Central Otago, which won Gold in the International Wine Challenge 2013). They both sell at about £12 through The Wine Society and Naked Wines respectively, though Grasshopper Rock is currently out of stock.
The Burgundy is good. Nice balance in the mouth, elegant fruit – nothing big but with a hint of that Pinot complexity that is impossible to describe. I can see that it’s part of the same family as the few great Burgundies I’ve tasted. It has what they call ‘typicity’. But if you are used to bigger wines you really have to recalibrate your expectations downwards to enjoy this.
The New Zealand wine, however, is very, very good – refined leathery flavours over lovely fruit of typical Pinot complexity.
So, do I stop looking for affordable Burgundy and change to New Zealand? It’s important to say that they aren’t alternatives. It’s not the same style of wine. Both are made with Pinot Noir, both have continental, rather than maritime climates but after that the similarities end. Firstly, Burgundian soil is heavy clay on limestone while Central Otago is loess or gravely soil on schist. It therefore drains better than Burgundy, which can be ruined by summer rain. Secondly, Burgundy struggles to be hot enough in the summer days and cool enough at night; Central Otago has summers of dazzling sunshine with nights that can turn frosty at any time of the year. And this seems to suit Pinot, which struggles in so many other parts of the world. As a result of these differences the New Zealand wine has not only power but also freshness. The Burgundy seems to be aiming not for freshness but for refinement.
My conclusion: if paying less than £20 I’ll be buying New Zealand Pinot, because I go for power and freshness. If paying more, much more, then Burgundy has the track record. But for how long?