Sipnot - Australian Pinot tasting in the UK
Words by Matthew Jukes
I always feel honoured to sit on the panels of the various wine conferences and tastings that happen with increasing regularity in the wine world today. Some, of course, are more exciting than others and none more so than the The Stonier International Pinot Noir Tasting. This unique, 12 wine ‘double blind’ (blind for the audience and for the panel, too) celebration of the world’s top interpretations of this legendary variety is a gripping event. What’s more, I was asked to attend the Melbourne version last year and also the inaugural London version earlier this year, tasting exactly the same wines. The chance to compare and contrast the two events was irresistible.
I have been to several Melbourne versions of this initiative and I have always been amazed at the passion and knowledge base of the people in the room. I say this because more than half of the attendees are non-wine trade professionals. Granted the journalists, buyers, winemakers and gurus hog the microphone-time, but the punters are the real lifeblood of this event and they pay handsomely for the privilege. The wines, selected by Mike Symons – Stonier’s winemaker and the only person who knows the order of them in the line-up – were of the highest order and I felt that they were also incredibly fair in that none were too pantomime-y and over the top and even the more lush styles seemed to have a genuine stamp of terroir. So the scene was set for a battle royal.
The Australian Sipnot
The National Gallery of Victoria, in Melbourne, was an imposing, almost Tim Burton-esque setting. The spot lit tables groaning with highly perfumed red wines looked like the ultimate dinner party, but no food was to be seen. Instead we deliberated and debated the merits of each and every wine, managing to harness input from the table captains on the floor and then somehow endeavour to come up with some useful conclusions. It was a very elegant event and I would imagine that it sits somewhere in the social calendar alongside the Melbourne Cup, various theatres’ first nights and more serious concerts. Us panellists retired to a restaurant afterwards and concluded that the style of Pinot worldwide was converging a little and that the Burgundies were perhaps not quite as far ahead of the pack as they were in years gone by. In short, it was one of the best SIPNOTs ever and this was down to the setting, the audience, but most importantly the exceptional wines – with the Aussie Pinots more than holding their own.
The UK Sipnot
The London event could not have been more different. No punters were invited this time ‘round and so the gathering was smaller and more intensely wine trade. The calibre of attendee could not have been higher, with a who’s who of buyers, sommeliers and journos there - such was the anticipation of this ground-breaking style of Pinot Noir tasting. We, in the UK, don’t get to do this sort of thing very often, contrary to popular belief. This was a tasting where not only do you find out about the wines (when they are finally unmasked), but you also get to delve deep into you own likes and dislikes regarding Pinot Noir – it is unmissable for this reason. The tasting took place at Australia House – a high ceilinged, bright, airy room and so the atmosphere was less ‘gala dinner’ and more ‘posh classroom-like’ and it was an afternoon timeslot.
There is one more thing to consider before I detail the differences in palate between the two events. The London date was during the intense 2009 en primeur Burgundy series of tastings during which the various wine commentators can taste around one thousand wines at thirty or more tastings. So we were all perhaps more Pinot-fluent than at any other time of the year and so I expected the North/South divide to be more heightened because of this.
What emerged was totally fascinating. The wines showed better in London – I expect that the extra six months helped a little, but it was the room which made the difference to my mind. The more brooding, cathedral-like Gallery, and the fact that it was an evening event, seemed to impose itself on some of the more timid, aromatic notes of the wines whereas the Australia House room was bright and open and a heavenly fragrance filled the air. The Melbourne audience seemed to actively want the Burgundies to triumph and so hedged their bets in this direction and the North American wines didn’t get too much flak, whereas the Brits rewarded NZ and Australia as much as the Burgundies and the running joke was that if you didn’t like a wine it ‘must be from Oregon’. It being blind, these comments were sometimes misplaced, but the humour was certainly not. The London event had a lot more time for the floor to make its thoughts heard, via a series of selfless table captains, which made the greater debate far more exciting. We, on the panel, had enough time to comment, but not enough to bore on and dominate proceedings, thank goodness, and it was the Q&A section (which really didn’t flow in Melbourne) which made it all worthwhile. The winning wine in both events was the 2007 Vosne-Romanée, 1er Cru Les Beaux Monts, Domaine J-J Confuron. Interestingly, this wine was middling in its weight, intensity and the rest of it, but texturally it was transcendent and aromatically it was extraordinary. Excessive oak and alcohol came under fire from both events and funnily enough it was the stalky greenness in the 2007 Beaune-Grèves, 1er Cru Vigne de l’Enfant Jésus, Bouchard Père et Fils which put it bottom of both tastings, too. Beyond that 2007 Evening Land Seven Springs from Oregon looked too plonky and solid and both events pinged it for that reason. The 2008 Stonier Windmill did extremely well at both as did the 2008 Bindi Block 5, 2008 Rippon and 2008 Felton Road’s, Calvert.
The expected snobbism at the UK event never came about and in fact Melbourne looked to be a little more Old World-leaning than we were (who’d have predicted that?). Both sets of tasters valued Pinot’s silkiness, tender texture and length over power and volume, so at least we were singing from the same song sheet in this regard. All in all we all owe Stonier a huge debt of gratitude for organising this extremely costly, world-class event. You, in Australia, should attend if you can later this year. I will see you there! I have also had it confirmed that the London Stonier Pinot tasting will become an annual event and that we might see some private punters there, too, next year. This is a unique initiative and one which I have been told many times from those that attended the London one, was the finest of its kind that we have ever seen. This is because it tells you more than you could ever hope to know about your own desires about this the most passionate of all red grapes.
Matthew Jukes is winner of the IWSC 'Wine Communicator of the Year Trophy' and also winner of the Australian Food Media Award for 'Best Food and Wine Writing' for Taste Food and Wine; author of thirteen best-selling wine books; weekly wine writer for the Daily Mail's Weekend Magazine (9m readers) and MoneyWeek. Palate behind 100 Best Australian Wines and 60 Best New Zealand Wines. For more details visit see matthewjukes.com