Have you ever wondered why French wines taste so… French? And why New Zealand wine tastes so… well, fruity. These are fascinating questions to some of us, bearing on culture as much as place or ‘terroir’. But being a Pinot country in the new world, one of the most interesting (and sometimes painful) uncertainties is whether New Zealand Pinot will ever taste as poised, nuanced and ‘sophisticated’ as a fine red Burgundy.
Some say New Zealanders are more sweet-toothed than the French. Or maybe we just like more ‘obvious’ flavours. We often enjoy wine without food, so softness and generosity are necessary virtues. Perhaps too our maritime climate and clear sunlight mean that bright fruit and big aromatics are an unavoidable ‘terroir’ characteristic – not only worthy of consideration, therefore, but perhaps celebration.
Still, New Zealand’s more Europhile winemakers may feel a certain envy when they taste the effortlessly restrained yet complex reds of Burgundy. And they certainly may envy the prices that can be commanded when a famous Burgundy vineyard is stated on the label.
Whether Kiwi fruitiness is ‘built-in’ or not remains questionable, if only because it is tantalisingly hard to prove or test. How could we make two wines from the same soils and under exactly the same vintage conditions…from different sides of the earth? But now a new experiment in wine promises to answer some of the questions. And the preliminary results – exciting and challenging in different ways – suggest such differences are less about terroir or fruit than simply winemaking. It seems that a few slight variations of decision and process – informed by more ancient and traditional methods – can accumulate to make Kiwi fruit taste really rather French.
François Millet is a renowned winemaker from Burgundy who knows about making wines for which people pay a fortune. One of the wines he makes is the Musigny Grand Cru from Comtes de Vogüé (pronounced ‘vo-gway’). This is a label so special we can’t even get hold of it in New Zealand, and if we could then a bottle would be much more than the $400 to $1000 it costs overseas.
Luckily, what we can get hold of is the winemaker himself. Because far from remaining in his privileged cloister at the pinnacle of Pinot, Millet is willing to search out new terroir and share his experience – even with us Kiwis. A strikingly humble and softly spoken oracle of winemaking, Millet‘s visits to New Zealand and Australia may yet prove important to our maturing Pinot cultures.
Millet was here on the invitation of Paul Pujol, winemaker for Central Otago artisans Prophet’s Rock. Pujol is himself half-French and likewise something of a modest guru. After learning his craft from French masters of his main grapes – Riesling, Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir – he spent recent years returning to visit Burgundy producers such as Millet. So Pujol’s and Millet’s methods already had much in common: an ethos of dedication to the variety and site, with only the most gentle and measured intervention by the winemaker.
Such a friendship naturally led to collaboration and in 2015 Millet came to Central Otago to make his first wine here – sourced from one of Prophet’s Rock’s best plots. Entering the market alongside their top cuvee ‘Retrospect’ ($123), Millet’s ‘Cuvee Aux Antipodes’ is a beautiful answer to any lingering doubts about New Zealand-grown Pinot. It behaves quite differently to almost every other Kiwi Pinot on the nose and palate, feeling and tasting much more like a Burgundy than any local wine formerly bearing that comparison.
It is not heavily coloured in the glass, just a slightly translucent ruby. Wonderfully delicate and precise aromatics have no overbearing characters – clean, introverted notes of minerals and florals seem merely touched by red fruit and subtle earthy licorice (this latter note was called a ‘tea-leaf’ by another taster, probably green tea rather than black).
Already on the nose the Antipodes betrays a sort of ‘inside-out’ style for Kiwi Pinot. Popular local examples can display mineral, herbal and spice nuances but these are often described as forming a ‘core’ – i.e. hidden inside a bold cloak of rich, ripe, aromatic fruit. In the Antipodes it was the other way around. The foremost impression was the clean and refreshing smell of a wet landscape with a mere spicing of exotic earth. Somewhere in the background of these limpid, open and unassuming aromas is a whiff of red fruit, fresh-cut and delicately bright.
The taste is instantly silky and mouth-filling, but very gentle. The characters on the nose become more palpable on the palate, but no less delicate, leading down a charming and “long road” (as described by co-taster, Josh from Orphan’s Kitchen) to a vastly open and nuanced finish where perfectly integrated red fruit, spiced earth, mineral acidity and chalky tannins feel cut from one endless roll of fine cloth.
To describe this as a ‘finish’ is really a misnomer, as the after-palate begins it’s own journey along non-linear, encircling pathways of nuance. A reflection and rumination of the first aromas, this lingering of open and subtle effects on the end palate continues long after one’s conversation has started again – fruit and wet mineral impressions in phases, then unfolding warmed earth and licorice, then wet minerals again.
Much could be said about this wine, but broadly its charm was like that of a very good, young red Burgundy. With 13.5% alcohol and an almost silky feel it is, to be fair, a degree less austere than old world examples. But it retains a perfect focus, precision and balance, with an impression of ethereal lightness that belies its fine, age-worthy structure.
But if New Zealand’s ‘terroir characteristic’ is super-fruitiness, then how did Millet achieve these super-elegant results?
Oddly the question doesn’t make sense to Millet…because he is a true Burgundian. As such – this may seem contradictory – he simply can’t generalise about fruit characteristics from different countries. Fruit on different sides of a road, no problem. Or fruit from two neighbouring vineyards – whether in Central Otago of the Burgundy’s Cote d’Or. But such ‘gross’ distinctions as between countries or continents seem almost anathema to his world view. Whether it is ancient soils in Europe or far-flung maritime islands in the South Pacific, all Millet can see with his winemaker’s eye are specific sites – Pinot on this slope, Pinot on that ridge, Pinot on this row or that bedrock…
Such a profoundly simple and faithful notion of terroir carries the power to change our preconceptions. It seems to affirm that great Pinot can be made outside France (a possibility his wine perhaps demonstrates). But it also offers to dismantle the assumed national identity which our new world, anxious, ‘little sibling’ culture has created. There’s no such thing as ‘New Zealand’ wine, it turns out – fruity or otherwise. Micro-variations between one site and another are the very stuff of Burgundy. So why would our micro-variations be any less interesting?
It is said that Millet achieves elegance and terroir focus by being very ‘hands-off’ in the winery. And while the juice ferments on skins he does, indeed, much less pumping or punching down – extracting less colour and fruit character than many locals. But his process is much more particular, more deliberative than merely ‘not doing’ something.
For one thing he specially imported a brass hand pump to rack between barrels – allowing him to taste as he goes and decide the exact proportion of gross lees to retain in the finished wine.
But more important is his unique philosophy and rationalisation of his process. To put it simply (as he does) Millet conceives of the fruit not as a product – not even a product of a certain place. Rather, to him, the fruit must be thought of rather like a person. Through a process at least as intuitive and emotional as it is practical, Millet enters a kind of two-way conversation or relationship with each selection of fruit, attempting to discover what kind of ‘person’ each might be. Some vineyards or plots have naturally very ‘reticent’ or ‘quiet’ fruit, so the winemaker must not overwhelm such a selection with interaction (e.g. pumping over for extraction). Other fruit might be ‘vigorous’ or ‘expressive’ so Millet will respond, hesitantly, with more action and movement to help the wine come into itself, embody itself.
For him this is called finding ‘the line’ – a place of respectful balance, felt and tasted, between winemaker and fruit. The irreversible and cardinal error, of course, is winemaking that goes over the line. Imposing too much structure and extraction on a wine is like talking too much to a very shy person – the wine will clench up, get clunky or direct (descriptors which might be used for some Kiwi Pinots, perhaps). By the same token, enough must be done to meet the line as closely as possible.
If pushed, Millet would prefer to be shy of the line – to make a wine that is, if anything, too elegant. With a degree of satisfaction he says he remained on ‘his side’ of the line in the Antipodes. But in later vintages, when he knows the fruit better, perhaps he will find the line even more exactly.
Such ideas and wines have much to offer. But one side-effect is that they define a local Burgundy style in a slightly new, perhaps more authentic way. Because hitherto the term ‘Burgundy’ had two main meanings.
Firstly it could suggest a light, pure and ethereal red – one that is similar, on face value, to the Antipodes. However proper local examples are vastly in the minority. Many producers might claim delicacy and minerality but only two examples come to mind as having drawn close to this kind of ‘velvet glove’ lightness – i.e. certain examples from Rippon and the equally Francophile Kusuda (there may be other exceptions). Of course Prophet’s Rock themselves make superbly elegant and lightly extracted Pinots that are also benchmarks of Burgundy-like refinement. But compared to the Antipodes all these most subtle and laudable of local Pinots seem to have a touch (just a touch) more direct flavour and perhaps a slightly (very slightly) more assertive sense of presence and structure.
Their subtle differences from the Antipodes are at least textural. But as most Kiwi producers go in a more elegant direction, the above local rarities are the movement’s cutting edge – achieving a purity and minerality that eschews bold, sweet fruit. And for much the same reason they also avoid richer savoury flavours.
However ‘savoury’ is the other, far more common way that we have likened our Pinot to Burgundy. Icons such as Escarpment and Martinborough Vineyards offer important styles in which savoury game and earth mingle with spicy florals amongst ripe, expressive fruit. Though fuller-bodied than most Burgundy, such wines are deservedly celebrated as more ‘serious’ and complex than our fruit-driven standards. Recently emerging legends such as Clos Marguerite or The Boneline are establishing a savoury style that is perhaps more feminine and mineral. But even these authentic, deeply satisfying local expressions do not behave in the mouth or glass in quite the same way as some Burgundy itself does. Neither should they, as New Zealand wine creates its own values and styles. But the very pure Antipodes may tweak the paradigm somewhat.
Well-aged Burgundy can taste savoury, yes, but the reality is many fine Burgundies have little or no obvious savoury character (in youth at least). On the contrary, cleaner and more elegant examples may remain quite pretty and precise even with decades in bottle.
Indeed this point was demonstrated by Jadot’s exceptional Cru Beaujolais from Moulin-a-Vent which Caros offered, alongside the Antipodes launch, in vintages going back twenty years (check out the coming blog on Jadot). Much admired by Millet on the night, these traditional (and notably inexpensive) Gamay wines from ‘greater’ Burgundy had developed very slight rusty earth mineral characters and underbrush nuances with age, with fruit that was slightly retreating and refined. But to call them ‘savoury’ isn’t quite right, as they felt almost as precise and focused as they would have in their youth. In fact this ‘ageless’ quality is arguably the essence of such wines’ famous charm and value.
So the Antipodes may be helping to redefine, or affirm, what Burgundy means to us. Suddenly it means more by virtue of less. It means purity. It means focus. It means minerality rather than savouriness.
And it can even mean simplicity rather than complexity. Because as our tasting notes suggest, the Antipodes displays the same simple characters returning and repeating in every aspect of the wine, like a mantra of minerality, spicy earth and delicate red fruit. Perhaps this is all a wine needs – a few elements in focus, each of immense charm and refreshment, which arise and return in a long, balanced and open way. Because one thing we sometimes forget about Burgundy – known for it’s great complexity – is that a parallel charm is magical simplicity: its direct and tart flavours of wild, uncultivated berries and the bare, ancient rocks among which they grow.
Millet’s fascinating philosophy of ‘relational’ winemaking is familiar in some respects – another way of saying what many winemakers might. But the vigilant observation, hesitancy and preference for less over more seems to create, in Millet’s process and wine, a palpably different set of effects. And the logic of his thinking and verbal phrasing can have an inspiring and slightly transformational effect on the listener. Perhaps it is Millet’s deceptive simplicity and clarity of conception. Perhaps it is the immense personal humility and calm with which he expresses it. Or perhaps it is down to the way his wines communicate in the glass: with charming grace and beauty, alluring precision and depth.
Lucky for us François Millet is returning every year, so Prophet’s Rock’s new Cuvee aux Antipodes is set to become a fixture in the Kiwi firmament. In the meantime we must come to terms with this new but very ancient take on Pinot style, must try to decide what we think of it.
Is this really is a Burgundy wine made in New Zealand? Or not. Really, there’s only one way for you to find out…