Friday, May 15, 2009

Worshipping at Pinot Noir's altar

Photos: Grant Stanley (top) and Clive Paton

A former professor of mine who was a Basilian priest once joked that if he were to start over, he would go to California and found a new religion.

That was decades before anyone in California was making serious Pinot Noir. Today, winemakers there and elsewhere have turned Pinot Noir into something approaching the sort of religion that might have appealed to my prof - and certainly to this student.

This week four of the finest adherents to that faith gathered in Vancouver for an impressive comparative tasting of Pinot Noir organized by Grant Stanley, the winemaker at Quails’ Gate Estate Winery in the Okanagan.

Quails’ Gate is Canada’s largest producer of estate-grown Pinot Noir, and one of the oldest. The Stewart family, which began planting the variety in 1975, claim they were the first in Canada to plant a successful commercial block. Today, Quails’ Gate dedicates 40 acres of vineyard to nine clones of Pinot Noir. About one-fifth of the winery’s production is Pinot Noir.

Grant, who joined Quails’ Gate since 2003, once said that he spends 80 percent of his time thinking about Pinot Noir. Certainly, my professor did not spend that much time in prayer! The religion of Pinot Noir is much more demanding, apparently.

“We hired Grant based on his interest in Pinot Noir,” Quails’ Gate president Tony Stewart says. “If Grant had it his way, we would probably make only Pinot Noir. Not to say that he does not like making the other wines. He does, but his goal is to make the Pinot Noir as best as he can. The other wines make it possible for us to invest in the Pinot Noir program.”

Grant, who was born in Vancouver to parents from New Zealand, began his winemaking career in New Zealand. Prior to returning to Canada, he made six vintages with Ata Rangi, a winery in New Zealand’s Martinborough district. Ata Rangi’s Pinot Noirs are among New Zealand’s best.

Ata Rangi proprietor Clive Paton, Grant’s former employer, was one of those presenting their wines at the Vancouver tasting. The others were Oregon vintner Ken Wright, owner of Ken Wright Cellars, California vintner Kathy Joseph, owner of Fiddlehead Cellars, and, of course, Grant of Quails' Gate.

Each winemaker was represented by Pinot Noirs which, if available, would sell for $45 and up. The tasting also included two Burgundies of a comparable price.

The tasting was organized primarily so that four dedicated producers could come together to enjoy and share their superb wines. No doubt, a sub-theme for the Canadians in the tasting audience was how would the Quails’ Gate Pinot Noirs show against leading examples from elsewhere.

The answer: very well indeed. The wines were tasted blind. When I learned what the wines were, I was pleasantly surprised to see that my first and second picks were both Quails’ Gate wines. On the other hand, there was not much more than a point or two difference in quality among these wines, all of them 90 plus pointers. Except for the Burgundies, which were not yet showing their potential.

The fact is that young Burgundies may lack the power and the immediate drinking appeal of New World Pinot Noirs. All Pinot Noirs improve with a little age but none as much as Burgundy.

The bad news is that there are no wines from Ata Rangi, Ken Wright or Fiddlehead in either the Liquor Distribution Branch or Everything Wine. However, they are names to keep in mind when you travel to those regions or to other places in the world where these labels might be sold.

Look for the Ata Rangi 2006 Martinborough Pinot Noir or the companion single vineyard wine, the Ata Rangi 2006 McCrone Pinot Noir.

Don McCrone is an Oregon grower who now also has a small New Zealand vineyard. Ken Wright Cellars showed the tasting two Pinot Noirs from the McCrone vineyard, including a very fine one from 2006.

Fiddlehead is a boutique winery near Santa Barbara that makes Pinot Noir from its vineyard there as well as from a vineyard in Oregon. Both are wines made with an incredible devotion to the variety.

In fact, all show that. Ata Rangi’s Clive Paton actually said: “We make our Pinot Noir from a passionate heart.”

The Quails’ Gate Stewart Family Reserve Pinot Noirs are available, both at $45 a bottle. The current release is from the 2007 vintage while the 2006 vintage may still be in wine stores and certainly in restaurants.

I have scored the 2007 Quails’ Gate at 91 points, both this week and in a previous review. Then, I described the wine this way: “It is a seductive wine, beginning with a rush of berry aromas in the glass. The velvet texture adds to the wine’s seduction. This is a very elegant wine.” My recent notes echo that.

This week, I scored the Quails’ Gate’s 2006 a point higher. I believe that merely reflects how the wine benefitted from an extra year in the bottle.

These are beautiful wines that are getting better vintage by vintage, both through improved farming (Ken Wright says “farming is everything”) and more sophisticated winemaking.

“None of us is making wine the same way we were five years ago,” Grant says.


At July 17, 2009 at 2:49 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm an American expat in Martinborough, NZ and I'm a big fan of the Pinot Noir here. I've got access to a neighbor's private stash from a private vineyard, and it's amazing.


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