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Oz Pinot Noir: Ready for Prime Time?

(February 9, 2000) We gave them the best shot we could. Lined up ten of the most highly regarded Pinot Noirs from Down Under. Then bagged 'em and tasted them blind, with a bunch of double-blind ringers mixed in.

     And, well, the earth didn't move much. Mostly we kissed a lot of frogs. Someone said the food outclassed the wine and I can't disagree.

     See for yourself what I mean. Here's what happened. Again, bear in mind everything was under wraps:

     FIRST FLIGHT.

PINOT NOIR #1. Spicy, cola-scented nose. Nice and fruity, but too much cola for me. Reminds me a little of Whitcraft Bien Nacido N Block. One taster says he likes it a lot. I can't get past the wood. Good fruit, flawed treatment. Turns out to be 1995 Coldstream Hills Reserve.

PINOT NOIR #2. No aromas. No, wait, I can smell some sweat. Opens some later on, but just gets sweatier. Thin cherry flavors on the palate. Decent finish. With all that gamy character, I'm guessing this has to be Burgundy. Yes, it's 1988 Prince de Marode Corton-Marachaudes. I'm unimpressed.

PINOT NOIR #3. Big fruity, raspberry-scented nose. Lots of blueberries on the palate. Fruitiest wine of the flight. Like it a lot! There's some disagreement here, but it's the GROUP FAVORITE OF THE FLIGHT and mine too. It's *+1997 Dry River. Score one for New Zealand!

PINOT NOIR #4. This one also shows a lot of fruit. Develops some horsey aromas after a while, but they're quite bearable, just adding to the fun. Nice attack of ripe red cherries. I like it, but it's from California! *1997 MacRostie Carneros and not a bad value as Pinot Noir goes at a little over $20. Buy it and try it!

     SECOND FLIGHT:

PINOT NOIR #5. Spicy cherry nose. Weirdly herbal and vegetal on the palate. Cherries on the finish. Nice try, but I can't get past the vegetables. It's 1998 Stonier Mornington Peninsula.

PINOT NOIR #6. Mild, sweaty and slightly poopy nose. Them some hints of cherry trickle in. Rather Burgundian so far. But then, when I taste it, what's this? Something here tastes like chocolate Necco wafers. I can't say I adore it, but it's drinkable. Have no idea where it's from. And whaddya know, it's 1995 Sand Castle Winery Pinot Noir...from Pennsylvania! One of the better PA Pinot Noirs I've tasted. If that sounds like faint praise, maybe it is -- but at least it's way better than #5.

PINOT NOIR #7. Deep berry nose. Deep! Jammy on the palate. Showy! Too bad that it tastes like Scotch. Yuck. As time passes, the oak just gets worse. It's 1998 Springvale from Tasmania. Excellent fruit, unfortunate treatment. GROUP FAVORITE OF FLIGHT and mine too, but really, it’s the just least odd in an odd bunch.

PINOT NOIR #8. Aromas are right down the middle. Smells like a nice Russian River Valley attempt. Very acidic on the palate, but acceptable. The thing that really stops me, though, is the...whew, major mint! Was this wine grown in a Eucalyptus grove? Gotta be Australian. But no, it's 1996 Martinborough Reserve from New Zealand.

     THIRD FLIGHT:

PINOT NOIR #9. Bright, WONDERFUL aromas. Raspberry and that spicy something that only superb Pinot Noir can give you. Biting attack, with lots of jammy cherries and raspberries on the finish. Reminds me of an Oregon Pinot Noir in a good year and I'll even go so far as to guess that it's Beaux Freres. And it is! ***1993 Beaux Freres. Just gets better and better. GROUP FAVORITE OF FLIGHT by unanimous vote.

PINOT NOIR #10. This one gives off sweaty aromas, but reveals some nice cherry flavors on the palate. Acidity is pretty high -- one of the most acidic wines of the tasting. Some can’t forgive the acid, but I thought it was within the bounds of acceptability. Turns out to be 1996 Massoni Mornington Peninsula "Red Hill."

PINOT NOIR #11. Dreadfully corked. I can still smell it. Yuck.

PINOT NOIR #12. Skunky aromas. Decent fruit on the palate, but WAY too much sulfur on the nose. Seems to me that someone ruined some pretty nice grapes with an overdose of SO2. It’s 1994 Bass Philip Premium.

     FOURTH FLIGHT:

PINOT NOIR #13. Gorgeous red raspberry nose. Soars! When I swirl the wine has enormous legs so I try and taste for alcohol. Seems pretty high, but in beautiful balance. I guess it has to be California, probably Sonoma Coast. I’m half-right -- it’s ***1997 Martinelli Reserve, and by the way, the alchol is about 14.8%. GROUP FAVORITE OF THE FLIGHT, again by unanimous vote. Fabulous wine and tied on my card with the ‘93 Beaux Freres for wine of the tasting.

PINOT NOIR #14. Ultra-ripe, chocolatey, almost pruney aromas. Still, this one gets away with it. I’d rather they picked a little earlier, but I’ll rate this wine as pretty darned good. It’s *1997 Cloudy Bay New Zealand Pinot Noir. Score another for New Zealand!

PINOT NOIR #15. Minty and medicinal aromas. And then as it develops in the glass -- serious dog poop! Bacon fat too. Tastes more like a brett-infected Rhone than a Burgundy. Undrinkable. Turns out to be 1995 Moss Wood.

PINOT NOIR #16. Starts out very pleasant and varietally true. Really lovely! Then gradually falls apart. 30 minutes later, there isn’t much left to enjoy. It’s 1995 Beaux Freres. Haven’t tasted any other Oregon ‘95s lately. Wonder if they’re falling apart too.

     FIFTH FLIGHT:

PINOT NOIR #17 is corked, and I take no more notes. It was German Pinot Noir and some viewed it as evidence that German Pinot Noirs aren’t any good. That may be so, but a TCA-contaminated wine proves nothing except that cork is a highly unsatisfactory material for closures.

PINOT NOIR #18. Another frustration typical of the day. Good, substantial fruit, but lots of library paste aromas that destroy the experience. This one we can’t blame on the Ozzies. It’s 1990 G. Lignier Clos St. Denis.

     By now you’ve probably guessed my conclusions about Australian Pinot Noir. I didn’t like any of the Australians. Not one blessed wine. The only two from down under that I’d drink with dinner were the ‘97 Cloudy Bay and Dry River -- both from New Zealand.

     However, I’m not dismissing the potential for Australia to develop some really fine Pinots. Time and again I came across what seemed to be good, deep Pinot Noir fruit. The problems were mostly winemaking faults. This reminds me a lot of American West Coast Pinot Noir in its earlier days -- and as we tasted today, these have come a long way in the last decade.

     Keep trying, Australia. You’ll get there.

     Disagree? If there’s a Down Under Pinot that you think I should be trying, email me!

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