JOHN SAKER joins a contingent of Central Otago pinot noir producers on a pilgrimage to the wine’s French homeland.
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John Saker reports from a pinot pilgrimage to Burgundy TAKE THE PINOT NOIR GRAPE out of Burgundy and inevitably, you take Burgundy out of the grape. What, then, if you take the wine you make with your “away” grapes back to Burgundy? If you’re Central Otago, Burgundy will take it very seriously indeed. A group of 10 Central Otago pinot noir producers recently visited pinot’s French homeland to mark the 10th anniversary of the start of the formal vigneron exchange between the two regions. A centrepiece of the visit was a presentation of their south seas-grown pinot noir. This was a remarkable event for a number of reasons. Let’s begin with the venue itself. “I have lived and worked in wine here all my life,” said French wine journalist Guillaume Baroin. “But this is only the second time I have been at a tasting in this room.” The room was the Salle du Roi (King’s Room) on the upper floor of the Hospices de Beaune, the 15th-century former hospital in the centre of the famous wine town. It is an elegant space, one saturated in wine history. A portrait of the Sun King (Louis XIV, an ardent consumer of red Burgundy) hangs on one wall; Philip the Bold, the Duke of Burgundy who made the firstever documented mention of pinot noir, when in 1385 he insisted more of it be planted on Burgundy’s limestone-rich slopes, on another. The Hospices itself is more than a historic treasure; it is Burgundy’s spiritual and cultural heart. Also significant was the cast that gathered to taste the wines. “It seemed like the All Blacks of the Côte de Nuits were there,” exclaimed one Central Otago winemaker. This galaxy included representatives of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, Domaine Comte Georges de Vogüé, Domaine Armand Rousseau, Domaine Dujac, Domaine Jean-Jacques Confuron… the roster was impressive. Then there was the nature of the tasting itself. New Zealand producers have held tastings in Europe before, their main purpose being to sell wine. This event was a different creature altogether in that it was winemaker to winemaker, a meeting of wine cultures that share a grape but grow it in terroirs that are literally poles apart. Terroir, that almost indefinable French wine term that may have originated in Burgundy and that exalts the power of place as wine’s chief provider of meaning, was the visit’s recurring theme. Exposure to wines grown on a terroir on the other side of the world piqued the interest of the Burgundians, and their curiosity was like an electric current running through the room. An excited buzz prevailed during the two-hour session as they tasted and talked with their Antipodean counterparts. They were not there to judge or compare the wines to their own, but rather to understand the terroir that created them. “I’ve never been at a tasting like it… they were so engaged and interested,” said Gibbston Valley winemaker Christopher Keys afterward. “It was awesome,” added Paul Pujol of Prophet’s Rock. “They were so humble and open. The cream of Burgundy was there, but it’s never ‘what’s this little pinot you have?’. They wanted to know about our vineyards and winemaking. What was striking was the genuine interest.” That enthusiasm went both ways. “In comparison to many other countries, there is more sensitivity to terroir in these wines,” said Paul Boeuf, a young winemaker from Domaine Drouhin. A Burgundian who has observed the rise of New Zealand pinot noir with interest is Jean-Michel Jacob. He came to New Zealand to work on a sheep station in Northland over 30 years ago, before returning to the family estate to make wine. “I always say to Kiwis, ‘don’t try and do what we do’. At first, too many were trying to copy Burgundy and that’s the wrong attitude. I would always tell them to think about their own place and do the best with where they are. They are now doing that and the quality has risen. And ironically, that approach has made their wines more like ours.” While the tasting was emblematic of the mutual respect (and confidence on the part of the Central Otago producers) that illuminates this old world-new world wine relationship, events around it were similarly intense and interactive. Earlier, the New Zealanders spent a day at Chambolle-Musigny. There they were hosted at a trio of estates on many people’s Burgundy dream team – Domaine Comte Georges de Vogüé, Domaine Ghislaine Barthod and Domaine Jacques-Frédéric Mugnier. At each place they were led through a cellar tasting by the head of the estate or the chief winemaker. These were absorbing cultural experiences, made possible by the working ties and friendship that have grown between Pujol and François Millet of de Vogüé. At all three estates, the closeness of the vigneron-vineyard relationship was apparent, and in particular the deference the winemakers showed towards their headstrong sites. “The wine will be what it wants to be… the style will come from the vineyard,” Frédéric Mugnier told the group. Insights into Central Otago’s distinctive terroir pathway were relayed to the Burgundians by Nick Mills of Rippon Vineyard. At another rich episode, a lunch hosted by Aubert de Villaine at the revered Domaine de la Romanée-Conti (DRC), Mills took them on a brief tour of tūrangawaewae: “It’s an idea that terroir might not just be affecting vines in specific plots, but also culture and how that can inform us.” The lunch at DRC radiated bilateral warmth and affection. De Villaine greeted the New Zealanders as “family”. The Kiwis gave voice to Pokarekare Ana. The Burgundians responded with their own singular action chant Ban Bourguignon. Where has this come from – this flourishing of a relationship that inhabits a unique space in the wine world? (De Villaine himself describes Burgundy’s links with Oregon, America’s premier pinot noir region, as “driven by common interest, but with Central Otago it is driven by the heart”.) It’s about people. People like Nick Mills, his mother Lois and Lucie Lawrence (winemaker at Aurum Wines) who have spent time in Burgundy, love it and have connections there. That helped kick things off 10 years ago and keeps wheels turning. But the relationship has long since burst the banks of personal friendships. It’s now about something bigger, about two groups for whom making pinot noir is a cultural project, like learning a language, with each of them recognising that same spirit in the other. The last words go to Aubert de Villaine: “This relationship was started by a few people and it began to sparkle… really sparkle, and that is something that has never stopped. The people who came to this part of Burgundy from Central Otago became fascinated by the idea of terroir. Making a wine with one variety and trying to translate a sense of place was something that appealed to them. For me, who has been making wine in Burgundy for a number of years, to see that some people so far away – on the other side of the world – carry the same philosophy is very touching. That is something I love.”