Age worthy Pinot Noir

Older Grasshopper Rock vintage goes from strength to strength

Grasshopper Rock’s 2013 vintage pinot noir keeps on giving ten years on.

Back in 2013 when this vineyard was only 10 years old we did not know with any certainty how well the wine would age and we certainly did not anticipate the wine would still be awarded an outstanding rating (95 points) by a Master of Wine when opened 10 years later in 2023.

As Central Otago’s Pinot Noir vineyards mature, we are starting to better understand why the best wines can and do age so gracefully.

I recently tasted three Pinot Noir produced in 2010 from our local area (within 5 km of Grasshopper Rock). The wines were all rated very highly when available in 2012. All were awarded gold medals at New Zealand’s premier wine judging competition, the Air New Zealand Wine Awards. Two of the wines remained outstanding (one of the these was Grasshopper Rock), and one was excellent but was a little unbalanced which made it less of a pleasure to drink. Maybe it was due to the site or winemaking or most likely a bit of both.

With the oldest Grasshopper Rock Pinot Noir (2006 vintage) now 17 years old, we are consistently seeing exciting evolution of the wines with time in the bottle. Wine writers are extending their recommended drinking windows with the latest review of the 2019 vintage being recommended with a 16-year window. This window is now well beyond the recommendations of a few years ago which were typically under 10 years.

As Central Otago comes of age we are seeing some Central Otago Pinot Noir vineyards and wines developing a history of consistently aging with grace and harmony.

Identifying vineyard sites which are developing a history of aging Pinot Noir with grace and harmony is a reliable path to finding great age worthy Central Otago Pinot Noir to buy and cellar.

The ability for Pinot Noir to age gracefully comes from the balance between tannins, acidity, and alcohol.

The ability for Pinot Noir to age gracefully comes from the balance between tannins, acidity, and alcohol. The great sites, and Grasshopper Rock is one such site, deliver this balance naturally. Tannin extraction, acidity and alcohol can all be influenced in the winery but winemakers working with great sites and great fruit try to take the approach of less winemaker influence is better and the wine produced should be the best representation of what the vineyard and vintage has delivered.

Tannins are complex polyphenolic compounds found in plants and our one group of aromatic compounds found in fruit and plants. As the grape ripens the tannin structures change and the array of tannins become more complex. The mouthfeel of astringency in unripe fruit is caused by tannins.

Understanding of taste and smell

The understanding of taste and smell is complex because of the indirect pathway from compounds in the grapes and wine being converted to taste and smell signals to the brain.

The taste buds of the tongue identify taste, and odour receptors of the nose identify smell. Both sensations are communicated to the brain, which integrates the information so that flavours can be recognized and appreciated. Some tastes (salty, bitter, sweet, sour) can be recognized without the sense of smell.

When we smell and drink wine the tannins and other aromatic compounds in the wine react with our taste buds and odour receptors and send signals to the brain. It is a complex chemical signalling process which is why two people drinking a glass of wine from the same bottle may perceive different flavours or balance of flavours. It is also why taste and smell are influenced by emotions, the environment, vision, illness, and age. It is not that the aromatic compounds have changed but that our receptors are interpreting things differently and our perceptions have changed.

As grapes ripen on the vine, sugar levels rise, acidity levels decline and ripeness increases. Flavours increase and we decide when the best time is to pick the grapes based on tasting them. What we are looking for is the grapes to have reached peak flavour complexity before they lose acidity. It is a balance between flavour and acidity. Acidity is needed to retain freshness.

To revert to the discussion on perception of taste being controlled by out taste buds, the greater the range of different aromatic compounds in the grape at harvest, the greater will be the range of potential flavours in wine that our taste buds can potentially perceive and signal to the brain.

Climate, grape variety, vine management and fermentation all influence the development of these compounds critical to interacting with our taste buds and odour receptors.

A long slow cool ripening period in March/April is a key element in developing complex and age worthy Pinot Noir

In Central Otago a long slow cool ripening period in March/April is a key element in developing a distinct and complex array of tannins and other aromatic compounds. Within Central Otago, the sub regions experience different late ripening temperatures. Alexandra has one of the coolest and slowest ripening periods which gives Alexandra its distinctive Pinot Noir aromas and flavours. And within the Alexandra basin individual sites experience different meso-climates and even different clones of Pinot Noir respond differently to each other. Wind (timing, temperature, strength) can influence development as different compounds will develop in the skins in response to wind.

Research into the influence of temperature on development of these aromatic compounds in grapes shows the balance between groups of aromatic compounds is influenced by temperature. At Grasshopper Rock during autumn, temperatures will often reach 20+ deg C by day and fall below 5 deg C overnight. It is reasonable to assume this also changes the balance of aromatic compounds developed in the grape and therefore the precursors to taste and smell. 

There is a multiplicity of influences on the development of tannins and other aromatic compound. The complex array of compounds and their balance and then the taste and smell perceptions signalled to the brain makes it a frustrating exercise to try and deconstruct the influence of site and season on taste and smell. However, what we do now know is that some sites, such as Grasshopper Rock, consistently develop outstanding balance in the array of these tannins and compounds in the grapes and give this wine a unique consistency in its character and quality.

Acidity and alcohol are not as complex, but they do have a critical influence on balance in wine and in the evolution of the compounds in wine over time and therefore taste, smell, and general mouth feel.

Acidity in Pinot Noir is naturally higher (low pH) in cool climates such as Central Otago. Alexandra because it is one of the cooler sub-regions along with Gibbston, has higher acidity than the warmer regions. High acidity is important because it slows chemical reactions, and which helps in the slow evolution of the compounds in the grape and wine. Low acidity tends to speed up chemical reactions which will occur naturally due to the instability of the large complex aromatic compounds

Alcohol is volatile and will influence the evolution of the polyphenols in the wine. Central Otago Pinot Noir is not generally high alcohol. Alcohol and high acidity in balance will mean that a wine that is higher in alcohol may not seem high in alcohol due the higher acidity. If the wine is in balance, the alcohol % figure in Central Otago Pinot Noir means little when enjoying the wine.

After producing 17 vintages of a single vineyard Pinot Noir, it is clear the Grasshopper Rock Earnscleugh Vineyard site is producing outstanding age worthy Pinot Noir. Great wines come from great sites but only when they are planted with the right vines and cared for by hard working people in the vineyard and in the winery.


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