Pinot punch-up: New Zealand v Oregon

Who will come out on top in a comparative tasting between Oregon and New Zealand? Peter Ranscombe grabs his whistle to act as referee.

ONE grape unites most if not all wine lovers – pinot noir.

Its spiritual homeland is Burgundy in France, yet winemakers around the world use the variety to test their mettle, from the Sta Rita Hills in California and the Casablanca Valley in Chile through to Mornington Peninsula in Australia and Hemel-en-Aarde in South Africa.

Yet two locations perhaps more than any other could lay claim to be chomping at the Bourgogne’s heels – Oregon and New Zealand.

Trade bodies representing the two whipper snappers came together in New York last year to host a joint tasting.

They’d aimed to repeat the feat in London this spring, but the coronavirus lockdowns put pay to those plans.

Instead, they mounted a virtual tasting this evening, with Ronan Sayburn, master sommelier and head of wine at private members’ club 67 Pall Mall in London, picking three wines from New Zealand and Bree Stock, a master of wine and consultant to the Oregon Wine Board, rallying a trio from the United States for the encounter.

“If you’re into wine and don’t like riesling and pinot noir then there’s something wrong with you,” quipped Sayburn as he introduced the “Wines from the Edge” tasting.

New Zealand and Oregon share similar latitudes at 45º either side of the equator, and both sit on the volcanic “ring of fire” that encircles the Pacific Ocean.

Their winemakers also share a reputation for promoting sustainability and for their laid-back outlook.

“We’d be competitors if we weren’t such good friends,” was how the opening slide from the tasting’s presentation summed it up.

While it may all have been polite handshakes and warm camaraderie at the side of the ring, the gloves were most certainly off when the bell rang and the wines were poured – so who came out on top?

Round one – fight!

New Zealand’s opening salvo came in the form of the 2016 Te Whare Ra Pinot Noir (£22.98, Les Caves de Pyrene) from the Marlborough region, which was criticised for planting too many vines on its flat valley floors in the past but is now exploring sites further up its hillsides.

It falls squarely into my “What would you get in Burgundy for this price?” category – and the answer comes out very favourably in the TWR’s direction.

Ripe raspberry and light wood smoke on the nose leading into spun sugar and raspberry jam alongside the concentrated red fruit on the palate, with fresh acidity and drying tannins.

A hard act to follow, but Oregon was up to the job with its 2016 Eyrie Original Vines Dundee Hills Pinot Noir (2015: £55, Four Walls Wine Company), which had a much darker and more feral nose, with wet fur, damp earth and cedar mixed in with its blackcurrant notes.

Mouthwatering fresh acidity was balanced on the palate by spicy cloves, cinnamon and star anise, plus concentrated red cherry and red plum flavours.

All to play for…

Spoils were equal after the first round, but clearly neither side was prepared to pull any punches with their next contenders.

What was most striking about the 2016 Craggy Range Aroha Pinot Noir (equivalent to £55.83, The Fine Wine Company) was its rounded, mouth-filling texture, accompanied by fresh acidity, and warmth on the finish from its 14% alcohol by volume (ABV).

Its sweeter spun sugar and cinnamon notes on the nose were replaced by much fresher red cherry and ripe raspberry on the palate.

Going head-to-head with the Craggy Range was the 2016 Sequitur The Union Pinot Noir (£60, A&B Vintners), which combined some of the darker features from the Eyrie with sweeter notes on the nose.

Lots of complexity here, with spun sugar, dark chocolate, raspberry jam and slightly darker blackcurrant jam too, plus a kick of acidity, all wrapped in slightly chalky tannins that would probably respond well to a bit of food.

Into the end zone…

Still even-stevens going into the final bout, and New Zealand brought out the big guns from its South Island with a wine made in the famous Central Otago region: the 2017 Valli Vineyards Bannockburn Pinot Noir (£42.50, The Vinorium).

There’s a real savoury, roast-meat quality to the nose, sprinkled with spicy cloves and black pepper, before the high acidity comes charging through on the palate, with raspberry jam and spun sugar bobbing along on top.

For me, it maybe needs a while longer for the fruit, acidity and tannins to knit together, but the concentration of the flavour shows its promise.

Going into the final seconds of the match, Oregon pulled a rabbit out the bag with its final wine too – the 2016 Evening Land Seven Springs Pinot Noir (£39, The Good Wine Shop), made by Californian winemakers Rajat Parr and Sashi Moorman.

Violets on the nose, then spun sugar, brown sugar and raspberry jam on the palate, with tingling acidity and warmth on the blackcurrant finish – almost syrah like.

And the winner is… let’s just chalk it up as a score-draw, shall we? And instead, let’s look forward to the real-life rematch in London next year (social distancing permitting, ‘natch).

Read more of Peter Ranscombe’s wine, beer and spirits reviews on his blog, The Grape & The Grain.