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Mount Pleasant: stunning 2014 Shirazes & rare Hunter Pinot Noirs

Jim Chatto, Chief Winemaker at Mount Pleasant, Hunter Valley at Old Hill Vineyard, planted 1880

Jim Chatto (pictured) comes across as a thoroughly down to earth chap.  An impression which was utterly reinforced last August during a visit to the iconic Hunter Valley estate, Mount Pleasant.  First, he makes a bee-line not for the winery, but the vineyards.  A resource of which, he admits, “I was always jealous”  (Chatto joined Mount Pleasant in 2013).  And, when we taste, the winemaker’s wise words are writ large in the wines. 

As he puts it, “the temptation as a winemaker is to fill the gaps, but in a long relationship, you don’t need to do that.”  Where “good sites make old vines” (a point developed here) and with “vine age and site calling out,” Chatto prefers to tell their story, not his. “I am trying to make truly regional wines that speak of site and of season,” he concludes.

So how does he capture their voices?  For starters, it’s about individuating vineyards and parcels within the vineyards.  In 2014, he bottled no less than 15 reds, “because it was a great vintage to explore all the different sites, because you could take your moment to pick [a real luxury in the Hunter].”  Within Rosehill Vineyard, he even differentiated by vine age, making a 1965 & 1946 Vines Shiraz. (As for Rosehill’s whipper-snapper 1985 vines, the winemaker reckons “they need to come of age.”)  With age, he adds, come “chamois tannins” – no better proof of which you’ll find than Mount Pleasant’s Old Hill 1880 Shiraz (reviewed below) or Tyrrell’s Four Acres.

It’s also important, he observes, to accept that “our climate dictates the style (which is how it should be).”  With its short growing season, the Hunter is not the place for high sugars and long hang times.  Cropping vines very low (2-5t/ha at Mount Pleasant) then becomes de rigueur to ensure they have a fighting chance of ripening the grapes before the season breaks.  That way, he says, “we get great flavour and retain natural acidity at moderately low potential alcohols….Thus our wines are naturally medium bodied, and savoury (rather than spicy like our cool climate Shiraz cousins).”

Looking down from Old Hill to the winery below

With no need to gild the lily, Chatto has been reigning in the oak.  Especially for Maurice O’Shea Shiraz whose fruit, he points out, “has tremendous structure and intensity; as such it requires little oak for support.”  Named after the illustrious founder of Mount Pleasant, he adds “[T]he great wines made by Maurice O’Shea had no new oak. In fact he used to wax line any newer barrels as a barrier to limit oak flavour.”  Though Chatto still uses some new oak (notably for Mountain D), he has moved nearly everything from barriques and hogsheads to larger 500l barrels “to be more gentle.”

From the O’Shea era – the original Mountain D

Here are my notes on the 2014 Shirazes/Shiraz blends plus some Hunter Pinot Noir rarities which I tasted during my August visit.  I tasted all the 2014 Shirazes at breakneck speed in August then (save for a couple) again in October at greater leisure at home.

Mount Pleasant B–Side CF14 Dry Red (Hunter Valley)

The B-Side label represents a chance for the winemaking team to experiment.  This wine may not have the unique attributes of a single plot, but it was unique to me.  It’s the one and only co-fermented Shiraz/Montils I’ve ever tasted!  In case you’re wondering (as was I), Montils is a white variety best known for Cognac.  Maurice O’Shea himself planted it at Rosehill vineyard – all two rows of it.  It yielded about 70kg all up in 2014.  The Montils was stored in the cold room until the Shiraz was picked two weeks later; the grapes were co-fermented, with 25% whole bunch and the resulting wine aged in 2-3 year old barrels.  It’s a dry but open-faced red – I reckon the white variety leavens/rounds out the Shiraz.  Slightly dusty, firm old vine/whole bunch tannins bring subtle texture, line and spice to its fresh, juicy red fruits.  I only tasted this wine in August, so a quick snifter, but it was already very drinkable but had the (natural, not oak induced) structure to age well too.  Very much in the new wave smashable but serious Aussie vin de soif style. 13%

Mount Pleasant Mothervine Pinot Noir 2014 (Hunter Valley)

Pinot Noir was among those cuttings which “the father of Australian viticulture,” James Busby brought to Australia in December 1831 following his travels across France and Spain.  His cuttings were said to come from Clos de Vougeot, the largest single vineyard in Burgundy’s Côte de Nuits entitled to the Grand Cru classification.

Little is known about what happened to Busby’s Pinot Noir cuttings, though Busby did plant a vineyard in the Hunter.  So when Maurice O’Shea planted 0.58ha of Pinot Noir when he acquired Mount Pleasant in 1921, it’s quite possible that the cuttings came from Busby’s source.  An alternative theory is that Mount Pleasant’s Pinot Noir is sourced from a ‘gum boot clone’ which O’Shea himself brought in from France (his mother was French and the winemaker had studied oenology in Montpellier, France).

What is known for sure is that O’Shea’s original planting of Pinot Noir at Mount Pleasant is the source of Pinot Noir clone MV6.    In the 1960s,  Graham Gregory (then NSW Director-General of Agriculture) took cuttings from Mount Pleasant for the vine propagation program which produced MV6 (MV standing for Mothervine, hence the name of Mount Pleasant’s Pinot Noir).

Highly rated for its backbone, MV6 remains Australasia’s most widely planted Pinot Noir clone.  According to Chatto, it doesn’t hold its acid well in the Hunter.  Nor does it have the perfume and intensity of cooler climate Pinot Noir (Chatto should know – he makes his own Pinot in Tasmania). Rather, being an earlier ripener than Shiraz, the grape’s tannins get fully ripe and the resulting wines are “robust and tannic.” In fact Pinot from O’Shea’s block is also known as ‘Pokolbin Pommard.’ It was traditionally used as an insurance “to bolster some of the weaker years for Shiraz.”

With 25% whole bunch ferment, Mount Pleasant Mothervine Shiraz 2014 has a marked backdrop of firm but powdery, spicy, savoury tannins to its taut red fruits and bitter chocolate notes to the finish.  Medium-bodied with a tang of sour cherry/plum, it’s a little Italianate.  It was aged for 10 months in French oak puncheons (25% new). 13%

Incidentally, I tasted two mature Hunter Pinot Noirs during my August visit.  Alongside the Mount Pleasant Mothervine 2014 I tasted Mount Pleasant Pinot Noir 1982  in magnum, also from the original O’Shea block.  As in Bordeaux, 1982 was a great year in the Hunter and this Pinot was very much alive, albeit a tad austere – that’s Pokolbin Pommard for you!  It revealed classic Hunter iodine notes with classic varietal truffle undertones.  Chalky tannins accentuated its minerality.  I suspect it would have opened up and shown more with time in the glass but, in any event, it’s holding very well.

The other mature, albeit somewhat younger Pinot was Tyrrell’s Vat 6 4 & 8 Pinot Noir 1999 which Chris Tyrrell brought along to dinner at Muse (well worth a visit if you are in the Hunter).  The vineyard was planted in the 1960s by Tyrrell’s grandfather, Murray.  He sourced cuttings from the original O’Shea planting and I was initially struck by a certain Pokolbin Pommard intensity.  With time to linger and a large bowled Burgundy glass, this initially shy, firm seeming wine revealed five spice-laced velvety black cherry and red berry fruit with hints of clove/iodine and pronounced mushroom, well supported by ripe but firm tannin.

Mount Pleasant Light Bodied Dry Red Mountain C 2014 (Hunter Valley)

The Mountain Range pays homage to O’Shea’s ability to spot unique parcels. Depending on what style they were – light bodied, medium bodied or full-bodied – O’Shea gave each different code names: Mountain C, Mountain A and Mountain D.  This wine – Mountain C – is light bodied and comes from the 1946 vines at the top of Rosehill vineyard.  As you’d expect, it’s paler than its siblings, Mountains A & D.  It’s a beautiful wine.  Tightly coiled, with a firm acid backbone and terrific intensity to its vivid, ruby-coloured palate.  It smacks of pomegranate, whose bite is balanced by sweet red cherry notes.  Blackcurrant and incipient iodine notes emerge with time in glass.  The tannins are plentiful but fine, very powdery. By day three, it’s opening up a tad with pretty florals, though the focus remains on its bright, crunchy, well-focused red fruit.  With its sheathe of powdery tannins and firm, bright acidity this has tons of potential – I was going to say not your traditional light bodied wine but, actually, in the Hunter it is!  Not that I’ve had the pleasure, but I have it on good authority Mount Pleasant Light Dry Red 1947 Shiraz Pinot Noir is a case in point.  Mountain C 2014 was aged in large format French oak (c. 20% new) for 15 months. 13%

Mount Pleasant Mount Henry Shiraz Pinot Noir 2014 (Hunter Valley)

Speaking of Shiraz Pinot Noir, in 2011, the team at Mount Pleasant revived Maurice O’Shea’s original blend.  It was named in honour of O’Shea’s great friend and supporter, Henri Renault.  Although the blend may sound like an unholy alliance, other producers are now making examples too.  I asked Chatto why bring Pinot Noir into the mix? Here it’s not about bolstering Shiraz in a poor year – certainly not in 2014, regarded as the best Shiraz vintage since 1965!  Rather, he replied, “we would only blend in Pinot if we felt it improved the wine both structurally and aromatically.”  While he reckons Pinot would “corrupt the personality of site” for other Shiraz parcels, Chatto believes that Mount Henry is “a blend of a particular parcel of [Rosehill] Shiraz that works synergistically with the Pinot to make a better wine.” 

So what of the wine? The Pinot Noir (35% of the blend) comes from the original 0.58ha of “Mothervine” Pinot Noir planted by O’Shea in 1921.  Deep crimson in hue, it reveals red berry (especially raspberry) fruit and has a firmness – that four square quality á la Pokolbin Pommard which has dissipated just a touch when I taste the wine two months later.  It’s a fascinating wine.  While the tannins firmly anchor the finish and frame the fruit, it starts to unfurl, even fly, by day three.  With room to breathe, its complexity and charm comes through – spicy and subtly earthy whole bunch notes and cool, stone-washed blue and red fruits.

Chatto tells me Mount Pleasant have now doubled their Pinot Noir holdings, (with another 0.6ha of cuttings from the original vines).  He is also planting more Shiraz (which still accounts for nearly 98% of red production), as well as Tempranillo, Sagrantino, Mencia & Montepulciano.

Mount Pleasant Medium Bodied Dry Red Mountain A 2014 (Hunter Valley)

As you’d expect, the medium-bodied Shiraz in the Mountain range has a bit more fruit weight and ripeness to it. Apparently it has the same oak regime as Mountain C, but I found the (smoky bacon) oak more pronounced, though it’s perfectly well integrated with the woody/earthy raspberry, plum and black cherry fruit.  Fruit which has lovely clarity and length thanks to good acid drive. Hints of mint, savoury clove and the same incipient iodine note I found in Mountain C forecast greater complexity to come.  Abundant ultra-fine powdery tannins carry a long finish.  Very good; great potential. 13.5%

Mount Pleasant Full Bodied Dry Red Mountain D 2014 (Hunter Valley)

This wine, the full bodied Mountain Shiraz (“D”) was matured in small format oak (barriques), my notes say 100% new but I suspect that’s wrong.  I only tasted this wine in August when the oak seem to sit on it, detracting from the clarity of fruit and acid-driven tension which I enjoyed in the Light & Medium Bodied Mountain Wines.

Mount Pleasant 1965 Vines Rosehill Vineyard Shiraz 2014 (Hunter Valley)

The Rosehill single block wines are only made in exceptional years.  Cuttings were sourced from Old Hill. This wine stood out to me from the pack both in August and October.  Chatto himself admitted he is very pleased with it – the best he has made, he reckoned.  The structural and sensual dimensions seem so beautifully intertwined, the fruit – earthy raspberry, sweeter, velvety framboise and kirsch, pretty white flowers – parrying playfully with both tannins and acidity.  It gives this medium-weight, beautifully balanced wine a joyousness which is impossible to resist.    Old vine sinewy tannins and lively, mineral acidity underwrite a long, super-persistent finish with a lick of milk chocolate oak.  On day three, crushed black fruits and spices join the melée.  Marvellous.  Youthfully exuberant and quite broachable now (decant), but with a long life ahead of it, so resist if you can.  It was aged for around 15 months in large format French oak, 30% new. 14%

Mount Pleasant 1946 Vines Rosehill Vineyard Shiraz 2014 (Hunter Valley)

Tighter, drier and more savoury of expression than the ’65, with mouthcoating old vine savoury (walnutty almost), sinewy tannins.  Contrastingly motile in the mouth with silky black cherry and plum fruits close to the stone, which add flesh and juice.  Incipient iodine minerality and liquorice spice emerge with time in glass. A very energetic, virile wine with lots yet to give.  Stash this one away for sure. It was aged for around 15 months in large format French oak, 25% new. 14%

Mount Pleasant 1921 Vines Old Paddock Vineyard 2014 (Hunter Valley)

Sourced from the first vineyard planted by Maurice O’Shea, the Old Paddock Vineyard is sheltered from afternoon sun and winds.  Tightly wound, there’s plenty of structure here – savoury tannins (plentiful but fine) and acidity.  Even on day 3 it’s a little inscrutable, but firm, crunchy red fruits and vivid acidity suggest it will have a long life ahead.  14%

Mount Pleasant Old Hill 1880 2014 (Hunter Valley)

Old Hill Vineyard, planted 1880

This aged, rather spindly vineyard is one of the Hunter’s oldest.  The Shiraz was hand picked in three passes through the vineyard, only selecting the perfect bunches on each run.   It shows.  This wine’s old vine chamois tannins wildly impressed me on my first taste in August.  Chamois soft, very fluid and fine, they’re like a long wheel base chassis, bringing great impetus and length to this deep dive, brooding wine.  A real charge of energy.  Going back to it in October, I noticed how much paler it was than the others – distinctly red, with a translucency.  It put me in mind of Dean Hewitson’s remark about Hewitson Old Garden Mourvedre, which comes from a vineyard planted in 1853.  He said,as these vines get ‘old’ something happens to their tannin production.”  As they say, don’t judge a book by its cover.  This wine may be pale but it has awesome intensity.  The palate has a beautiful arc of red and black currant, crunchy pomegranate and juicier berry fruit which builds at a pace of knots in the mouth – really vivid, lively and persistent.  The tannins, so long and savoury, bring a softness, almost a creaminess to the finish which, by day three, reveals hints of chocolate and earth. Outstanding.   It was aged in large format French oak barrels (c. 30% new) for 18 months.  14%

Mount Pleasant Maurice O’Shea 2014 (Hunter Valley)

Maurice O’Shea, the estate’s flagship wine, is a famously long-lived multi-vineyard blend.  With a shift away from the “bigger is better” fashion of the noughties (including lashings of new oak and American oak), the O’Shea is now being made in a much more classical style (my notes of this vertical tasting lift this off the page).  Chatto told me he is now doing “grape swaps around the region to honour its namesake’s ‘best of the best’ approach and add another dimension to the wine.”  It certainly has more muscle than the other Shirazes, a quite different mouthfeel.  If you like, combining different parcels refreshes the parts a single vineyard wine cannot; at this early stage, it seems very complete.  One is conscious of the 2014’s virility even on the nose, which has a whiff of smoky, clove-edged tannin.  In the mouth, powerfully concentrated but bright small berry and currant fruit – black, red and blue – flesh out and soften the frame before the sinewy, pithy/spicy tannins reassert themselves on the finish.  Long, very controlled and complete, with a wonderful smoky, incipient iodine minerality to the finish.    A tour de force.

 

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