Yesterday I was lucky enough to have a one-on-one tasting with three winemakers from Mornington Peninsula.
Though stricken with jet-lag, they dutifully schlepped out to the Imbibe offices to pour me some of their Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs – and highly stimulating it was, too. The wines showed huge variations in style from producer to producer, and vintage to vintage. Cookie-cutter wines, they weren’t.
In the course of our conversation, they mentioned that the average vineyard size on the Peninsula is only five acres.
That’s small for the New World, and I asked them, since such diffuse land ownership was a lot like Burgundy whether there was a growing movement within the region for any kind of appellation system to try and bring order to the scattered vines.
Their smiles became a little tighter, their body language a little more defensive. They answered politely, but you could see the disappointment in their eyes. A resignation that, once again, it had all come back to Burgundy.
After all, they’d just spent half an hour animatedly talking to me about how a deeper understanding of the soil, better clones and increased vine-age were leading their wines to a level of depth and complexity that they could only have dreamed of 20 years ago, and here was I dragging it back to the B word again.
The same had happened the previous night. A large tasting for Masters of Wine had led to an in-depth discussion about how these wines compared to those from the Côtes.
It must be soul destroying: like constantly being compared to a talented sibling, or, perhaps more accurately, a famous long-dead relative, whose reputation has overshadowed the family for centuries.
Every Pinot tasting, it seems, inevitably leads back to Burgundy.
‘We talk to people over here and, of course, Burgundy gets mentioned. And we do borrow some philosophies from them – probably more than from UC Davis,’ said Kate McIntyre MW of Moorooduc Estate. ‘But we want our wines to taste like where they come from, not like from somewhere else.’
I hear the same sort of comment, with minor variations, and varying amounts of defiance/irritation, from producers from Oregon to Otago and Santa Barbara to Stellenbosch.
Sure, New World producers’ Pinots might have changed a little stylistically over the years as growers learn how to manage the fruit and wineries learn the nuances of vinifying it. But essentially they just want their wines to be taken for what they are, not compared instantly to a region thousands of miles away.
To put this in context, try a similar exercise in your own environment.
Imagine you were a seafood restaurant, and customers said they liked the prawns very much, but thought the steak was better at El Meato Rancheria down the road and you ended up having a lengthy discussion about beef cuts.
It would be galling, non?
A bit like if people said to me ‘I really enjoyed that last article you wrote – it was a lot more Decantery than your usual.’
My hackles would rise at the idea that what my peers were doing was the only valid benchmark for my profession, and that anything different from that was instantly lesser.
Burgundy casts a vast shadow for a reason, it’s true.
But it’s also true that, from a restaurant viewpoint, its use is increasingly limited. When was the last time you managed to get a really good (as opposed to passable) red or white from the region on a list for under £50?
For Chardonnays, somms seem increasingly happy to look elsewhere – and the new style of more elegant examples from Australia, in particular, but also South Africa, are a great example of high quality, but well-priced wines that can appeal to both Old and New World drinkers.
Yet for the Pinots, we seem less willing to cut the growers such stylistic slack – and that’s clearly wrong.
So next time you’re having a tasting or a conversation with a New World Pinot producer, set yourself a challenge. Try not to use the words ‘Burgundy’ or ‘Burgundian’ in tasting notes or conversation AT ALL.
It’s hard. Really hard. Which just goes to show you how preconditioned we are to judge everything against a Burgundy yardstick.
But we need to do it if we’re ever to move the narrative on, and give these wines the credit they deserve.