The Prop writes for the Spectator
Little mention has been made in these pages of the spectacular PINOT NOIR 2013, held in Wellington earlier this year. A four day bacchanal in favour of Pinot Noir. Let us now correct this.
We have to report this was a ripper all round, a massive four day event that attractedsome six or seven hundred delegates, quite apart from the public events to which admission was nigh impossible; Pinot fans and Pinot Producers, as well as that Tim Atkin - inspired collective: "a Sponge of Wine Writers," critics and so on. A time when some of the nicest people on earth -- fellow NZ Pinot producers come together as one. Well... pretty much: sotto voce bitching at an absolute minimum this year.
Apart from some very serious Pinot business being done, the whole thing was very much in paartay mode. We thought the catering by Ruth Pretty was nothing short of miraculous.
We had some terrific guests from abroad – erudite, amusing, informative and thoroughly good company, including Curtis Marsh, Matt Kramer, Tim Atkin, Oz Clarke, Huon Hooke, Lisa Perotti-Brown, Mike Bennie, Ned Goodwin, Raj Parr, Emmanuel Bourguignon, Jasper Morris, Indra Kumar, Phillip Rich, Marion Demossier, Rebecca Gibb, Cameron Douglas...: in short, trouble.
The Prop made one of the two keynote opening speeches on Day One, along with the immaculate Matt Kramer. This is pretty much lost to the sands of time, as a lot was off the cuff, and it was unrecorded. No great loss.
Management were very pleased indeed when, on the last day for the Grand NZ tasting, our The First Paddock 2010 Pinot was picked as one of two to represent Central Otago. A singular honour – shared with Rippon’s Tinker’s Field 2010.
Then on the last night, we threw a small after party, very late and pretty wild, featuring N Z’s coolest band – The Eggs. Another ripper. This was in no small part because of our friends present, new and old – we are very pleased that the Pinot World contains so many good... eggs: the more we get to know more Pinot producers, the more we like ‘em.
So here’s to all our friends at (among many) Mt Edward, Rippon, Felton Rd, Valli, Jules Taylor, Grasshopper Rock, Bell Hill, Pyramid Valley, Mountford, Seresin, Sleeping Dogs, Schubert, Escarpment, Palliser, Ballochdale, Negociants, Antipodes Water, Te Whare Ra, Burn Cottage, Maude, Mt Difficulty, Mud House, Terravin, Terra Sancta, The Board of 2013, Wooing Tree, Villa Maria, Quartz Reef, Prophet’s Rock, Peregrine, The Garage Project, Negociants, etc. The thing about producing Pinot is that one tends to feel empathy, even compassion, for one’s colleagues, rather than some kind of competitiveness. We become friends. Nigel Greening calls it a Conspiracy of Pinot Producers. We like that.
And here is an article I wrote for that august British journal, The Spectator, on this very subject, which takes the speech as a starting point. (It’s slightly longer than the version that went to print.)
My Adventures in Pinot Noir
When it comes to wine making, a word I deplore because of its overuse is "passion." As in "a passion for pinot." In my view, passion is a term that should be reserved for the sort of heightened emotional state that can result in the discarding of trousers. You may lose your shirt producing pinot noir, but you are unlikely to lose your trousers.
I am in slow recovery after an exhilarating week of deliberate excess centered around a curious bacchanal that happily occurs only very occasionally in Wellington, New Zealand. Pinot 2013 is a triennial event that attracts Pinot Noir fans, critics, tragics, drunks, writers, sommeliers, wits, idiots savant and bon vivants from around the world. As well as humble Pinot producers like myself. Apart from the occasional abuse of the word ‘passion’, the show was as they say here, a ball-tearer. The question arose – what other grape induces such fanatacism? To the best of my knowledge, there has never been a four day symposium on, say, Merlot.
Rashly, I agreed to make one of two keynote speeches at the opening. I followed the erudite Matt Kramer, whose wine writing is only exceeded by his eloquence at the lectern. Since I knew Matt would be clever (and he was) I opted for the dumb counterbalance. Not hard. My wife had already somewhat unkindly pointed out that I would be speaking about wine to an audience of some six hundred, 99% of whom would know more about wine than me. I said I thought that was a bit harsh; I’d say it would be more like 97%. Nevertheless, there I was.
Matt rather quickly ruffled a few feathers in a hall full of distinguished New Zealand Pinot makers by suggesting that good and all as we now are, we may never quite attain the excellence of Burgundy because of a somewhat mystical, mathematical, property there - in Burgundy "two plus two equals five." I asked, in reply, if that was so, why do I so often get sold a three? True, I have drunk one or two fives from Burgundy, but they had cost (someone else) the price of a modest car.
Burgundy, Burgundy, Burgundy. While we were there to celebrate New Zealand Pinot, Burgundy was never very far from our thoughts. I suggested in my speech however, that we might be seen as the Bastards of Pinot. We didn’t self invent, we come from a tradition in Europe that is possibly thousands of years old. Our pinot clones are from Burgundy, our viticulture, our winemaking – these things we inherit from a very rich, very profound and very old culture.
Nevertheless we are the Bastards of Pinot – unwanted, unacknowledged, illegitimate – we live and thrive elsewhere outside the Old House, the House of Burgundy. And like the best bastards anywhere (bear in mind that in these southern climes , "bastard" is often a term of affection), we don’t care! We take what we need, what we value from that old culture while we are free to discard the obsolete or useless. We are free to innovate. It’s good to be Bastards! It’s even better to be Good Bastards! This is the kind of rhetorical flourish that goes down well with Antipodean audiences, and a satisfactory cheer was the response.
Bastard or not, my own long standing and torrid affair with Pinot began with Burgundy. In 1979, my friend and mentor James Mason ordered a bottle of something incredible at Charlie Chaplin’s favourite restaurant near Lausanne. Up until then most wine I had drunk came from a cardboard box sporting a rather handsome tap . But this was something else altogether. "Burgundy", James said, "And don’t forget it." I never have; I was hooked. When I began to live in London after that, my local wine shop on the Edgeware Rd was pleased to indulge me in my newfound addiction.
Fourteen years later I planted my own Pinot Noir vines at the other end of the world, in Central Otago. This may have looked like an exercise in economy since in the interim good Burgundy had become by any measure exorbitant. It was not. Owning a vineyard is the best fun you can have, but as an investment hilariously rash. And if you wonder why a good bottle of pinot is a tad pricier than some, consider this – it is the most labour intensive wine imaginable. These days anything can be made on the cheap, but not good pinot. It defines artisinal wine ; it must be crafted by hand, bunch by tiny bunch.
When I return to my vineyards from abroad, from some film set God knows where, I understand with utter clarity how wrong "passion" is to describe how I feel. There is far too much contentment involved. My life there resonates to the seasons, to compost and cows, orchards and saffron. We talk slowly of bud burst and tractors. My pigs greet me as one of their own. I measure last weeks rainfall. My shirt is still intact, just. I am a happy peasant ..
And then last night, unbidden, a rather wealthy friend opened two bottles of DRC Richebourg 1999, an indisputably great Burgundy. I was gobsmacked. The wine was remarkable naturally. At fifty quid a sip, it should be. This morning, slightly worse for wear, I thought in the egregious spirit of modern wine criticism I might actually score it. So here goes: wine – 8/10, value for money – 1/10, investment potential – how on earth would I know? I am merely the sort of blessed and happy fool who actually grows Pinot.
But later, in a moment of compassion, I felt rather sorry for the great producers of Burgundy, those legitimates in the Old House. It must be maddening to see your lovely wine become some kind of bizarre commodity, like copper futures. My shirt is still intact, just, and that is all I ask. I go to bed, a bastard certainly, but content in the knowledge that someone had a good time tonight, at a fair price, with my Pinot. Whatever my friend Matt says, two and two actually do make 4.
As a footnote, The Prop will continue to write occasional pieces for The Spectator Life (a supplement that appears every quarter).
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