Australian pinot noir

Published by Sally on May 10, 2009

A shorter version of this article first appeared in Drinks Business, January 2009.

Australia has been long derided on the international stage for the poor quality and varietal typicity of its pinot noir wines, and little wonder when Australian imagery has been vast, spectacular, beautiful, panoramic scenery, all of which is the antithesis of the capricious, site-specific, agoraphobic pinot noir. But the last decade has seen a step change in focus as passionate winemakers have been pandering to the variety’s prima donna needs, with some particularly sweet success.

East Coast Tasmania

East Coast Tasmania

It’s arguably not even as niche a product as pinot noir is in France. Perhaps it’s one of those weird statistical comparisons, but Australia, with 2.5% of its vineyard area dedicated to pinot noir, has nearly twice the proportion of pinot noir than Burgundy, which has a meagre 1.3% of France’s vineyard area. For the purists, the absolute hectarage is 4,400 hectares (ha) in Australia versus 10,700 ha in Burgundy.

A quick scan of auction house Langton’s latest classication reveals eight pinot noirs, up from two in the first edition. Langtons’ Andrew Caillard MW, said there had been “a genuine improvement of absolute quality over the last ten years … the top regions are really the Melbourne Dress Circle (e.g. Geelong, Macedon, Yarra Valley, Mornington Peninsula) and Tasmania.”  

Pinot noir plantings may be up only 6% since 2001, but it was also around this time that serious pinot noir producers were getting serious.  Noel Young, proprietor of Noel Young Wines, International Wine Challenge (IWC) Australia Specialist merchant of the year in 2008, which lists 23 Aussie pinot noirs said “progress has been rapid in the last four or five years with the right clones in the right locations, but it’s been happening in Tasmania and Mornington Peninsula since the mid-to-late 1990s as growers have done vintages in France” and experimented with different clones in different soils.

Cool Climate Chic

There’s no getting away from the fact that pinot noir performs to its most precise and perfumed best in cooler climates, and this factor oversees the recent themes of new clonal material, vines coming of age at about a decade old, the trend to site-specific and single vineyard plots, as well as the growing band of producers rocking and rolling with the pinot noir drum.  See table at the end for key areas.

Tasmania certainly has the edge here. “The major natural advantage for Tassie is the wonderful cool climate” said Claudio Radenti of Freycinet Vineyard, “Around the world all the great pinot noirs hail from cool climates. Pinot noirs from warmer climates can be a little heavy and jammy lacking finesse and the gorgeous velvety pinot noir texture.

“The quality potential in Tassie is enormous and exciting. Longer slower ripening conditions favours retention of delicate fruit aromas and flavours” and coolness of climate enables some of those classic, ethereal attributes to thrive.  According to the chief winemaker of Kreglinger Wine Estates (Pipers Brook, Ninth Island and Kreglinger sparkling) René Bezemer, “we retain more of our fruit-derivative components. I look for floral attributes, delicate perfume and distinctive fruit aromas – violets, darker berry fruit, dark cherry.  If I see blackcurrant it’s shrivelled fruit from too much sun. If see strawberry, it’s been picked too early.”    

Pinot Noir

Pinot Noir

Exploiting the trend to cool climate chic, Tasmania’s vineyard area has nearly trebled since the turn of the millennium, with in 2008, 45% of the yield coming from pinot noir.  In 2000, it accounted for less than one-third.   

Over on the ‘big island’, Mornington Peninsula is oft-cited as producing some really good pinot noir. And internally, Mornington Peninsula winemakers have been talking about sub-regions for some time already: three of them.  Pinot noirs from the north are bigger, more muscular, darker style.  The hill – Main Ridge – show delicate perfumes, floral, elegant notes. 

Ten Minutes by Tractor is one Mornington Peninsula producer doing very well, especially with their single vineyard wines, which can all be reached in ten minutes when travelling by tractor. Neil McAndrew, managing director of their UK importer H&H Bancroft, said: “For us Ten Minutes by Tractor have been the best pinot noirs we’ve ever found in Australia.  They are the bridge between Burgundy and Australia. They have some classic pinot noir characters, but they’re not trying to be Burgundy; they have a savoury character which I haven’t seen in the past from Australia. “The volumes are also Burgundian, and what Bancroft get flies out of the door, according to McAndrew, who also said Ten Minutes By Tractor is the sort of premium Australian wines the restaurant sector is looking for.  It sells in places such as The Square, Home House, Fortnum and Chez Bruce.

Kooyong is another highly respected producer in the Mornington Peninsula, planted as recently as 1996.. The managing director of their UK agent, Great Western Wines, said: “He’s producing great quality in terms of acceptance in the market.  The wines that really tell the story of Kooyong are the wines made from individual parcels, retailing at £25 to £30. But Kooyong also makes two other levels retailing at £15-£16 and about £11, and the acceptance for these has been very good, and remains so, with good success in the independent sector and in the on trade.”  The commercial groundswell is certainly beginning in the UK.

Climbing, Climbing

Both Mornington Peninsula, and Geelong, noted for the likes of Bannockburn and By Farr – on the other side of Port Philip are low-lying coastal zones which garner cooling winds from the Bass Strait. Yet planting at cooler, higher altitudes is also beginning to reap rewards in places such as the Adelaide Hills, though the Macedon Ranges are arguably more successful.  It was in the Macedon Ranges, at 560m elevation, that Phillip Moraghan of Curly Flat settled, having eliminated both Geelong and Mornington Peninsula.  He explained his search was “all about pinot ‘grief’, looking for soil, cool climate, water” all issues for this fastidious grape variety.

But is arguably Bindi, 500m up at the southern end of Macedon that leads the field. The vines, which require straw buttressing in winter, have some age, having been planted in 1988, with 1991 the first vintage.  Owner Michael Dhillon said: “We see about 7-9 years as a real turning point for complexity and structure.”  

Yarra Valley

Yarra Valley

Steve Webber, winemaker at De Bortoli in the Yarra Valley, also cites vine age, as well as continuously improving quality practices, saying : “I think that with more care and attention to the manual practices [hand picking, hand sorting, whole berry fermenting], we have seen a huge shift in our own quality … I think pinot noir is a vine age thing. Generally our quality is improving with vine age. But poor quality old vine material is not good. I am just starting to make a single vineyard wine from a property that has pinot noir planted in 1990 and 1997”, adding that single vineyard is an important way forward for pinot noir.

A criticism of the Yarra Valley, making as it does, everything from sparkling to fortified, is that its pinot noirs don’t do so well in the warmer years, or indeed the warmer areas, so you need to be in the higher altitude, more southerly, reaches of the valley. But not everyone thinks like that. Rob Hall, winemaker at Mount Mary, just about 30m above the valley floor said: “you can still make very good pinot noir in warmer years, but may not be in the style you’d choose.  Normally we’d like a more delicate style of pinot noir, we’re not keen on tannin or wood. So you might get more tannin in a warmer year. But you can do something with the canopy to keep the fruit cooler.” He added “we’re purchasing south facing slopes for pinot noir and chardonnay to counter some of the warmer years. ”

Champion Clones

Along with site and vine age, newer, trendier clones such as 667, 777, 114 and 115 have been in Australia, also for about a decade. Pirie said there had been a “big impact of new clones and new sites leading to more refined pinot noir expression. At Tamar Ridge, up to 2006, wines were dominated by ‘old’ clones, plus MV6, an old introduction into Australia. These are robust clones but are lacking some of the high notes of true Burgundy.  In the last few years the Pommard clone and the ‘Bernard’ clones from Morey St Denis were introduced. A blend of Pommard and MV6 will be one of the Tamar Ridge reserve wines in 2008.  The Dijon clones, grown on the right soils, have the classic perfume of cherries and summer pudding berries.”

Creature Champions

But above all, human champions are at the vanguard of Aussie pinot noir’s lifting reputation.  Dhillon said: “15 years ago it was young vines, often in poor locations, little experience in the vineyard and winery.  Most [winemakers] did not have a philosophy based on understanding the international benchmarks.  Today, the vines are older, vine management better, yields lower, winemaking more appropriate and the best sites are proving themselves capable of expressing unique qualities.”

“We have inspired growers and winemakers who have a passion and a thorough understanding of benchmarking, using the correct clones and the right sites to grow this unique and challenging grape variety” said Dalwhinnie Wines’ winemaker David Jones, adding “the Mornington Penisnsula Pinot Noir Celebration [a bi-annual pinot noir fest with international flavour, which started in 2003] has been an iconic event and a great inspiration to reach even higher quality levels.”

Another such event is the Victorian Pinot noir workshop, a winemaker-only event, now in its 6th year, where more than 60 winemakers come together to discuss the grape and how to get better and more from it.  Having witnessed “a growing ‘collegiality’ amongst Victorian winemakers who venture down the love-struck path of growing and making pinot noir, more so in this state than I have observed elsewhere” the Victorian Wine Industry Association’s chief executive Joanne Butterworth-Gray thinks this co-operation has been “critical to the success of Victorian pinot noir on the world stage.”

The scale may necessarily be small for the best results, as indeed it is in Burgundy, and as Radenti said, “there are considerably more serious producers of pinot noir in the current decade than in the previous one. There is better understanding by these young professionals of what it takes viticulturally and in the winery to come up with the goods.”

Pinot noir plantings in Australia

A lot of areas are experimenting but a few core regions dominate higher quality production

Adelaide Hills                       391 ha

Geelong                                   170

Macedon Ranges                    58

Mornington Peninsula       252

Tasmania                                 625

Yarra Valley                          706

Sub total                              2,202   50% of total pinot noir plantings

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