Australian regional pinot noir – Phil Sexton and Martin Spedding

Published by Sally on February 15, 2011

Phil Sexton

Phil Sexton

At the Australia Trade tasting in January, Phil Sexton of Giant Steps/Innocent Bystander in the Yarra Valley, and Martin Spedding of Ten Minutes By Tractor in Mornington Peninsula, argued a strong case for an expression of place in Australian pinot noirs from the three regions of Mornington Peninsula, Yarra Valley and Tasmania.

Sexton said that while “pinot noir has been in Australia for quite a while, getting snapped up quickly in the Melbourne and Sydney markets, it’s new for us to be taking pinot noir into other parts of the world.” Only around a decade ago expressive Aussie pinot noir with great varietal definition would have been an oxymoron.

And whilst Tasmania is some way distant, the Yarra Valley and Mornington Peninsula are only an hour’s drive from each other. Even so said Sexton, we need to “re-orientate our thinking on Mornington Peninsula, Yarra Valley and Tasmania – there is a direct relationship between this part of Australia and the Antarctic; there’s nothing between us [and the Antarctic].” 

The Yarra Valley is a large, diverse region, some 70 miles across, and this makes it difficult to generalise about a Yarra style.  There are simply too many different aspects and mesoclimates.  Soils too, vary enormously, going from “the oldest soils known on earth in the Upper [cooler] Yarra to younger, deep red, friable soils in the northern [Lower] Yarra” Sexton said, adding this has an influence on yield with “1-2 tonnes/acre range on the older soils, and up to 3-4 tonnes/acre” on the younger ones.

Given this diversity of mesoclimate, Winkler’s heat degree days remain a blunt instrument. The Yarra Valley comes in “at 1354, which sits between Bordeaux and Burgundy” Sexton said.  But “in the Yarra Valley our diurnal variation, especially in summer is more important. We get hot days, hotter than Mornington Peninsula, especially in summer. And [Yarra Valley] evenings, especially in the higher vineyards, drop quite significantly at night time. This gives good natural pH, and high acidity.”

Of the Yarra Valley wines shown, Sexton said “they are similarly produced. We tend to see pHs in the range of 3.5. Total acidity is usually 6-7g/l, a magical number for us because generally it means we don’t have to mess with the acids.  All four were open vat fermented, with minimal plunging, trying to avoid extraction, and looking for floral fruit.  All four have some barrel fermentation, but one of the problems of going too far with barrel fermentation in our part of the world is you get some real bacon, charcuterie characters.  They were all out of oak within 12 months, and the most new oak at 20%.”

Martin Spedding

Martin Spedding

Viticulture in maritime Mornington Peninsula is small scale said Martin Spedding “all [~200 vineyards] are family owned, with the focus on cool climate wines expressing the unique characters of each site.”  Altitudes get up to 300m just a short distance from the bay, and “most vineyards are in the hills and on slopes getting cool air from the ocean and the bay”.

Soils are also varied, with sand-based sedimentary clays in the north, and basalt-derived red ferrusol soils towards the south.

As with the Yarra Valley, Mornington Peninsula offers different mesoclimates. Spedding said “it’s difficult to generalise. Ten minutes by car from Red Hill to Yabby Lake can be four weeks difference in harvest dates.” Which is a similar difference between the peninsula and the valley.

Stylistically though, Spedding said “spiciness is very much Mornington Peninsula. Asian spice characters, plus bracken and pencil shaving characters, along with potpourri, aromatic, violets and herbiness.”  Sexton said Yarra Valley pinot noirs are “more perfumed, elegant, you don’t get into those five spice, herbal hints and lovely concentration you see in Mornington Peninsula wines.”

Tasmania vineyards are concentrated around Launceston in the north and Hobart in the south. Though further towards the Antarctic, Sexton said don’t just “look at the latitude. It has a lot more to do with the relationship to the ocean. Both Tasmania wine areas are close to the ocean.”  And one of the advantages is “great natural acidity” added Spedding.

Tasting notes

Yarra Valley wines are 2008, as 2009 was the year of the bush fires and the problem with smoke taint was huge.

Mornington Peninsula wines were 2009, where, said Spedding “the extremes of the heatwave in 2009 didn’t have a large impact on us, except some parts of northern Mornington Pensinsula.”

De Bortoli, Reserve Release Pinot Noir 2008, Yarra Valley, ~£25
Pale cherry colour, pure and perfumed with wild strawberries and a sweet fruit attack which continues all through the palate. Light, elegant with full flavour intensity and length. Sweetness of fruit is the core of this, with a faint silhouette of supporting sandalwood under the horizon. Very good.

Giant Steps, Sexton Vineyard Pinot Noir 2008, Yarra Valley, ~£19
Pale cherry colour, only faintly aromatic, with medium body and spiced dark cherry notes.  Tannins are restrained, and fruits are rich and sweet. Warm and enticing.

Mac Forbes, Woori Yallock Pinot Noir 2008, Yarra Valley, ~£33
Very pale cherry colour with crunchy red cherry, cherry sorbet which melts warmly and attractively on the palate. Sweet fruit core, with aromatic spice, intense, big fruit density for such a fragile looking wine. Fine-fine tannin texture, barely perceptible. Balance and precision with softness of mouth feel and long finish. Very good.

Yarra Burn, Bastard Hill Pinot Noir 2008, Yarra Valley
Smoke and aromatic spice. Tarry note mid palate, quite butch, the least pinot noir like of this line up.

Yabby Lake, Single Vineyard Pinot Noir 2009, Morninton Peninsula
Medim pale colour. A hint stemmy, in a complexing, peppery way, with smooth and medium-bodied black cherry sweetness. Rich and quite lush ripeness, glycerol texture, and just a bit of grip to the finish.

Kooyong Estate, Pinot Noir 2009, Mornington Peninsula
Rich, red cherry compote, warm and enticing on the nose. Quite full bodied and fat, with varietal flavours of tart cherries and fresh compost. Complex and rich, with quite broad shoulders for a pinot noir. Long finish.  

Stonier, Pinot Noir 2009, Mornington Peninsula
Aromas of cultivated strawberries, warmly spicy. Rich definition of bright cherry fruit, nicely balanced in a rounded way. Not massively complex, with good varietal definition.

Ten Minutes By Tractor, Estate Pinot Noir 2009, Mornington Peninsula
Lifted perfume of violets and sweet peas. Rich and flavoursome, in a medium to full body. Richly and elegantly proportioned with immense depth and volume of flavour, and a long finish. Very good.  

Domaine A, Pinot Noir 2006, Tasmania, ~£40
Deeply coloured with lifted and stalky nose, full bodied, with some of the more classic pinot noir characters absent. Rich, ripe, fat red fruit.   

Pirie Estate, Pinot Noir 2007, Tasmania, ~£18
Pale cherry colour. Bright and crunchy red cherries and crystallised strawberries. Medium to light, fresh and fragranced, body, Bright, linear and smooth, finely grained light tannins and attractive definition. Long finish.

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