Looking for Greatness in Pinot Noir Around the World

When we say a wine is great, what do we mean? How is greatness defined in a wine. That’s far too hard a question to answer, even when attempted by luminaries of the wine world. So instead of defining greatness in wine, four panelists at the recent New Zealand Pinot Noir festival did their best to explore the idea in the context of Pinot Noir.

Winemaker Marcel Geisen, writer Mike Bennie, Master of Wine Kenichi Ohashi, and critic Jancis Robinson took to the stage in Wellington to conduct a blind tasting of Pinot Noirs from anywhere except New Zealand and to spend a little time ruminating on the “g” word.

Frankly, it was hard enough to simply get one’s head around the wines, let alone try to define something so purely philosophical as greatness. Blind tasting is damn humbling. Even when you know the grape you’re tasting.

I did my best to guess as I was tasting, as well as to capture some of the remarks from the folks up on stage. Here then are the wines we tasted, along with excerpted (and perhaps badly paraphrased*) comments from some wine luminaries.

I have followed the speaker’s quotes with the wines they selected for the tasting.

“Greatness is there when a wine gives you pleasure. What are the building blocks? How the wine is formed, how it ages, where does the flavor focus my palate. Great wines engage you on many levels. Great wines are benchmarks, distinct in old world history and tradition. In some times cultivated on the same parcel of land for many years. As much as we have tried to use science, it has resulted in shortcuts and too many commercial opportunities. Great wines require good site selection, hands on viticulture, and low intervention winemaking. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel.

Len Evans once said that for every average bottle you drink you can take a great bottle and smash it — as you just wasted an opportunity. There’s a lot of wisdom in those words. True quality wine has an ability to transform a situation. Moments shared with partners, colleagues, friends families. Seldom do you have wine like that on your own. Great quality wine has a great quality to crete memories that we carry with us. Real wines have real people behind them driven by a quest. Think of the holy grail. These people are respecting the land, they have dirt under their fingernails. They are pushing the boundaries, dealing with nature as a business partner. They are pursuing a dream not necessarily for money but for other gains. True quality does not happen by accident. It needs to be planned and executed with unwavering spirit.

Greatness will come with time if the principles of quality are adhered to and the site can speak. True craftsmanship means producing detail at every level. Great wine is ultimately the symbiotic relationship between land and winegrower with harmony, humility, patience.”

2005 Au Bon Climat “Sanford and Benedict” Pinot Noir, Santa Rita Hills, Santa Barbara, California
Medium garnet in th glass with a hint of cloudy haze, this wine smells of red apple skin and raspberry and redcurrant. In the mouth, velvety tannins wrap around and penetrate a core of redcurrant and raspberry with herbs and a hint of citrus peel. Very good acidity, moderately long finish. 13.5% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $75. click to buy.
My best guess was 2008 or 2009 from the New World somewhere.

2014 Domaine de la Cote “Bloom’s Field” Pinot Noir, Santa Rita Hills, Santa Barbara, California
Brilliant light garnet in color, this wine smells of redcurrant and raspberry leaf. In the mouth, crystalline flavors of redcurrant and raspberry have a stony brightness to them with a very floral note on the finish. Fantastic acidity. Faintest of tannins. 12.5% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $65. click to buy. My best guess was 2013-2015 Burgundy from up in the hills, such as Saint Romain, or some village level wine.

“The brief I’ve been given for this speech is broad: tease out notions of quality and greatness. This grand metaphysical concept investigated through a clutch of wines is no easy task. when I sat down to think about quality, it opened up raging highways of thought. To examine quality, I think we have to look for classic interpretations of quality. Balance. Length. Depth. Complexity. Finish. Typicity. This is part of the classic interpretive base. The dummies guide. It’s the paradigm of judgement of wine. Judging involves different factors — and it is ultimately a sterile interpretation of wine. In this role, influencers hold might and right in discussing quality and assigning value to quality. Even in self reflection, I find myself and my peers, instead of assigning context to wine, we describe scores and values in terms of tangible numbers.

If we’re not judging wine, we express things through faults. What is wrong comes before what is right. Wine criticism is the raising of flags at faults. This reveals some competitive spirit that often trumps real understanding. Without the language of faults we might not have the same sense of quality, but if we lift it, behind we might find ourselves on a different track, a different path.

We forgive the grand marques their faults for being totems.

It comes to pass that some of my learning comes from staring into glasses but not souls of winemakers. We look at sites, at a single glass, not the culture or the life that put that wine in the glass.

Some canons need reassessing. There are some predetermined quality marketers. Nostalgia. Reputation. Expectation. Balance.

But I want my wine unbalanced, on the knife edge of thrill.

What are the tenets of quality I want to uphold? I thought about emotional impact: it’s at its most powerful when it creates a memory. Drinkability: we all know what great wine is, we want to drink the hell out of it. Winemaker intent is more important than subjective assessment. What is the place that culture rests in? What is the broader palette (palate?) in which the winemaker works?

Great wine hangs between usefulness and beauty. When it comes to beauty, our minds have been trained to glamour. But beauty is that, in the presence of which, we feel more alive. Quality isn’t aping burgundy or kowtowing to a standard. It comes in its own unique way. Expressions are just that.”

2013 Mythopia “Illusion” Pinot Noir, Arbaz, Switzerland
Medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of meaty bacon fat and redcurrant and cherry. In the mouth redcurrant and raspberry mix with a savory dashi note and an herbal splash. Funky, animal, and likely vinified without added sulfur. But, despite its rough edges, interesting. 12% alcohol. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $76. click to buy.
My best guess was German Pinot or possibly Australian, from the 2013 vintage.

2014 Mount Pleasant “Mother Vine” Pinot Noir, Hunter Valley, New South Wales, Australia
Medium bright garnet in the glass, this wine smells of wet stone. Wonderfully restrained aromas of raspberry and redcurrant and wet chalkboard give way to flavors of red currant and pulverized stone and wet pavement. Fine grained tannins and excellent acidity. 13% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Not for sale in the USA. My best guess: 2015 Burgundy from the Cote de Beaune.


Hello, my name is Kenichi Ohashi. I gradUated from MW in 2015. I have yet to gain as much experience as the other experts here today. Regardless, this is a great opportunity to tell you my concept of quality.

Pinot Noir is one of my favorite varieties. I hope you enjoy my talk. Until relatively recently, working in Japan has involved working and interacting with other Japanese people. This has resulted in a subjective national sense of quality. The Pinot quality I’m going to explain might strike you as different. I’m not a viticulturalist or winemaker. You may feel my perspective is a trader’s perspective. I’m a merchant after all. English is also not my native language. I have had my presentation professionally translated so you may better understand me.

I want to show you what Pinot Noir looks like through a Japanese mindset. Here is a photo [Shows a photo of Ginkakuji – the golden pavilion in Kyoto – perfectly reflected in a still pond] What do you see? A temple, a shrine, a golden pavilion? This temple was established in 1397. It is a Unesco World Heritage Site. The stunning sight of this temple is majestic beyond belief. But if you lower your gaze just a little you will see the reflection of this temple in the surface of the pond before it. For this image, it captures the key element of Pinot. The still transparent pond water reflects the image above.

If I was to summarize what I look for in high quality Pinot I would say great Pinot Noir is transparent with the best qualities of premium water. You may be surprised with my comparison to water. What I mean is that it is pure, lustrous, and smooth, with a completely pure aroma and taste. Let’s talk about transparency.

This is the cornerstone. In this context. Transparent is more complex than the traditional English meaning of the word. For me it means wine has three things. An unadulterated pure aroma and palate. A finish suited to the wine with a focus on harmonious aroma and palate. And silence and understatement.

Understatement may be tricky I’ll come back to that.

Pure aroma and palate means a wine that doesn’t have an out-of-balance sensation. There are no pressing characteristics. Oak derived tannins or sulfides can make scars in the aroma. The finish must be in balance. The finish of a wine from overripe grapes or ones that have been over extracted, or tannins that dry the mouth, doesn’t achieve a finish with pure aroma. Optimizing fruit spectrum on aroma and extraction in the palate is important.

So what do I mean by silence. In a sense it is a form of modesty, subtlety, understatement. It is harmony, simplicity, a sense of peace. This silence is all important. It is a white canvas on which the terroir of the grape can be reflected. Too much enhancement prevents the terroir from leaving its mark on the canvas of the wine.

My definition of transparent is a pure aroma and palate, a finish suited to the focus of the aroma and palate, silence and understatement.

Now let’s talk about best qualities of premium water.

They embody silence and understatement. They are suitable and clean, the flavors and aroma are almost imperceptible. When I link Pinot to water, I don’t suggest a texture sensation like water. The softest waters in the world contain few minerals. But where the water is of utmost purity, low levels of mineral enhance the smoothness and sense of concentration. Minerality in wine is still being debated. But in a positive sense there can be chalkiness. In my mind I see minerality as having both aromatic and textural quality. A subtle flinty earthiness and a vitality on the palate. Because Pinot has thin skins, and limited phenolic content. It tends to express minerality more than other varieties. Minerality can heighten the transparent qualities. Winemakers need to search for subtlety in winemaking if minerality is to shine. In Pinot Noir minerality can elevate the wine from good to exceptional. I will try to explain why from a Japanese point a view, but I have been told by non-Japanese friends that this is a subjective concept.

Imagine you are sitting somewhere in complete silence listening. But then imagine the same thing with the faint sound of the ticking of a clock. The Japanese concept of silence is the second one, not the first. The tick tock draws attention to the silence more keenly. I don’t want to pretend this is common to all Japanese people but the minerality is the thing that emphasizes the transparency and silence of the palate as a whole.

Back to the golden temple. [Shows a photo of the same temple with the reflections in the water hazy as the surface is disturbed by a breeze] Where do we find the minerality in these photos? The ripples on the water in a faint breeze. The ripples draw attention to the fact that the image on the surface isn’t the real thing, only a reflection. But if a breeze is too strong, and the ripples too large, the scene is not reflected properly.

This is what I look for in a quality Pinot Noir. The essential elements of Pinot Noir are transparent with the best qualities of premium water. Pure from beginning to end. A palate with good concentration of flavor, mineral that highlights their silence and transparency, and finish suited to the focus of the palate.”

2014 Timo Mayer “Doktor” Pinot Noir, Yarra Valley, Victoria, Australia
Light garnet, this wine smells of herbs, forest floor, and a hint of smoky meat. In the mouth, crystalline notes of redcurrant mix with forest floor and a hint of umami. Nice stony finish, fine grained tannins. 100% whole cluster. 13% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $90. click to buy.
My guess: Volnay 2012.

2014 Meyer-Näkel “G” Spatburgunder Qba Trocken, Ahr, Germany
Light garnet in color, this wine smells really, incredibly floral with notes of red fruit underneath. In the mouth, that floral quality continues with amazing raspberry and floral perfume welded to crushed stone minerality. Muscular fine-grained tannins, excellent acidity. A surprising, very unique wine. 13.5% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $30. click to buy.
My guess was Burgundy for sure. Nuits-St-George. 2015?

“My talk will be more mainstream. I think we’re all agreed here on the panel, we’re apprehensive at following yesterday’s opening sessions. Now I’m assuming I’ve been invited here for historical and geographical notions. Historical because I’ve been writing for such a long time, 41 years. And geographical because in my role I have to look at the whole world of wine. Inevitably I have a European bent because I’m in London. If this were taking place in the last century, I think we would have mentioned the “B word” far more times than has been mentioned so far. It’s quite surprising we haven’t looked at Burgundies yet. Many of us have seminal wines and mine was when I was a student. It was a bottle of Chambolle Musigny Les Amourouses 1969.

There has been a sea change as you know in the world of Pinot Noir. Many of you have played a part in this. For the last 15 years, possibly more, many were brought up to think that Pinot outside of Burgundy wasn’t any good. That is palpably not true. There are now good Pinots from Chile, Languedoc, Spain and Portugal — surprising because they are thought to be too hot. Thanks to Ken, I have tasted one from the far north of Japan in Hokkaido. Argentina, Brazil, Czech Republic, England, Austria, South Africa, Alsace. There’s very good Pinot Noir in Germany, Austria, California and Oregon. There are some good Pinots from Canada. And of course, not forgetting, New Zealand.

In fact I thought you might be interested to look at our DB of tasting notes on JR.Com and see how many Pinot Noirs in there we’ve scored more than 18 out of 20 that aren’t from Burgundy. 18 is a very high score, but of course we don’t want to reduce these discussions to something as a crass as numbers. 0.1% of our tasting notes are on Pinot Noirs over 18, and that comes down to 140 wines. Mostly from four places. In 4th place is Oregon with 18 of them. In 3rd place with 37 was Australia. 38 from California. And in first place was NZ with 46 wines over 18 points. With an awful lot from Ata Rangi I must say.

Initially we were all asked to supply two wines that we thought were great. I found this terrifying. Great Pinot Noir signifies something really absolutely amazing and unforgettable. I’m so glad we managed to get things arranged to talk about quality rather than great. If I had been asked to bring truly great Pinot Noir perhaps I would have nominated Roumier, Rousseau, or DRC. But something told me you hadn’t the budget.

Of course we weren’t given a budget, but I thought I should choose something a bit more affordable. You should know we had to choose our wines almost a year ago. That is difficult for Pinot Noir. I wanted to choose a wine robust enough to travel.”

2013 Mark Haisma “Premier Cru Les Chaffots” Morey-Saint-Denis, Burgundy, France
Medium garnet in color, this wine smells of flowers and redcurrant. In the mouth, gorgeous wet chalkboard brightness and stoniness delivers flavors of dried flowers and wet earth and herbs. Fantastic acidity and nice fine-grained tannins. 12% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $120. click to buy. My guess: definitely Burgundy. Pommard 2013?

2015 Tolpuddle Pinot Noir, Coal River Valley, Tasmania, Australia
Light garnet in color, this wine smells of green woody herbs and floral notes backed by forest berries. In the mouth, bright raspberry and cherry flavors have a wonderful citric brightness to them and a nice underlying mineral backbone. Herbs linger in the finish. Faint tannins. 13.5% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $50. click to buy. I thought I really had a chance at getting this one, as I had pegged it as California, Sonoma Coast and the 2015 vintage. I thought it might even be Kutch Wines’ 2015 Sonoma Coast.

Goodness greatness. Are we talking great to you, great to me, or great according to the standards of the canon. While I don’t believe winemaking is art (I prefer to describe it as a craft), it is nonetheless judged, evaluated, and written about more like an artform. Like arts of different kinds, there is an accepted, historically defined discourse that defines greatness. Neither you nor I get to define whether Picasso is a great artist. It has been firmly established that he is, in fact, great by an historical, critical consensus among the established and credentialized critics of western culture. The world of wine has, likewise anointed wines and producers as truly great, whether through established hierarchies, such as the 1855 classification of Bordeaux, through the prices set in the market, such as with Domaine de la Romanee-Conti, or through a mass of critical acclaim, such as the endless, and well-justified praise heaped upon Chave Hermitage Blanc, for instance, which might be argued to be one of the great white wines of the world. Those are the wines that the historically and culturally rooted discourse of wine have determined to be great.

That’s my official answer to what great wine is.

But there’s another answer that is purely subjective. What makes a wine great? It depends. Sometimes what makes a wine great is the fact that it’s there, it’s wet, it tastes great, and you get to drink it with someone you love. Sometimes it’s that the wine makes you think, or feel, or experience something you’ve never experienced before. Great wine can sometimes be as simple as a wine that makes you smack your lips and say, “that’s great!”

We all need more of that, don’t we?

* * *

*The comments quoted above represent my attempt to capture them as the presenters were speaking. I type pretty fast, but nonetheless they do not represent a true transcript of the remarks presented. Especially not in the case of Mike Bennie, who read his remarks at a remarkable clip. I offer apologies to the speakers for doing a less than perfect job of capturing their words, and take full responsibility for errors, omissions, or ineloquence.