In matters of taste, it is easy to become parochial. Eat your mother’s macaroni cheese for a few decades and you think it’s the best in the world. Drink only South African wines, and you also “calibrate” your palate to their style.
Wines from different parts of the world certainly have styles of their own. These stylistic fingerprints are formed through multiple influences, climate and soil being two of the most powerful. The human factor is also strong, however. The Burgundian wine maker may have a very different approach to his counterpart in Paarl.
Another influence that dominates is age of vine. For a host of reasons, our vineyards tend to be very youthful and tend to be re-planted every couple of decades. Vines that are 30 years old are still considered young in some parts of France, like Burgundy.
Gordon Newton Johnson recently held a tasting of Pinot Noir to explore the soul of this grape, as expressed through the lens of a few different Pinot-producing countries. He asked: “Is the New World only about pure fruit expression?” The best Pinot, the experts agree, is identified by textures and flavours that go far beyond the basic fruit flavours that are associated with the grape: strawberry, cherry, some earthiness. The Pinots of the New World (SA, New Zealand, Australia, etc), when compared to Burgundies, are often identified as having fantastic fruit expression, but little of the mystical depth and texture of the French examples.
The line up was stellar, with leading wines from each country, including: Tuck’s Ridge (Aus), Ata Rangi (NZ), Domaine Drouhin (USA), Bouchard Finlayson, Newton Johnson and Hamilton Russell from SA. In the French corner were some notable first growths: Domaines Dujac, Comte Georges de Vogüé, and Henri Gouges. Vintages varied slightly, but since the exercise was more about stylistics, this was less important.
And it turned out to be true, certainly in the case of the New Zealand wines, that fruit expression was wonderful. These wines are piercing in their intensity, the fruit almost strident in its clarion call. The wines from America tended to be very chunky and well-wooded in style, with the South African wines somewhere between these two: rich in personality, with good fruit and well-made, though tending to be a little too enthusiastically oaked. And the fruit on these wines was certainly of the cherry and berry type.
For texture and a perfume that demanded much more time to explore, the Burgundies were in another league. They had something we cannot buy (though we clearly are spending on French coopers) – vine age. In the words of Remington Norman, noted French wine specialist: “Burgundy has specialised in vineyard selection for centuries and you cannot forget the age of the vines they are working with. Here, we need to refine our selection of site, and make sure our vines age.” True for Pinot, true for all wines.