The Landmark Tutorial 2010: Australian Pinot Noir, no Usain Bolt but fast catching up with very best

We stole our first glimpse of great Australian Pinot Noir (By Farr Sangreal Pinot Noir 2007 Geelong, Victoria) during Michael Hill-Smith MW’s regional overview tasting on day one. Very good it was too.  Describing its maker, Gary Farr (who has worked 13 vintages at Domaine Dujac, the high flying Burgundy estate) as the “John the Baptist of Australian Pinot,” Hill-Smith vividly placed Farr’s achievements in context when he explained that, when Farr set out to crack Pinot Noir, the variety was widely regarded as “positively unAustralian.”

Admitting he’d not believed Pinot was possible out of Burgundy, Hill-Smith himself now makes a Pinot Noir in the Adelaide Hills, one of the cool climate regions which has seen Australian Pinot shine. But regionality is not the only factor which accounts for the growing stature of Australian Pinot Noir at home and abroad.  Remarking that “none of the great Pinots come from large companies,” Hill-Smith pointed out that the variety’s champions have been “true believers…people who live and breathe Pinot…” Not so very far from Burgundy’s horny-handed sons of toil then.

Among them is Tom Carson (pictured) of Yabby Lake, Mornington Peninsula who forged his reputation for Pinot Noir at Yering Station having cut his Pinot teeth at Tim Knappstein in the Adelaide Hills and Coldstream Hills in the Yarra Valley and worked vintages in Burgundy and Champagne in and amongst.  Carson presented the Landmark Pinot Noir session, sharing with us his candid views on Australian Pinot past, present and future.

A hidden gem

Though Pinot Noir was among those cuttings which “the father of Australian viticulture,” James Busby, brought to Australia in 1831, the variety was no Usain Bolt. Slow out of the starting blocks, Carson told us “many years passed before anyone went for a Pinot Noir style.”

Though southern Victorian Pinot has the highest profile today, Tyrrells lay claim to releasing the first Australian Pinot Noir in 1973 (though Carson says Yarra Yering may have got there a year or two earlier).  At any rate it was Tyrrells Vat 6 Hunter River Pinot Noir 1976 that put Australian Pinot on the map when it was crowned “Best in the World” at Gault-Millau Olympics of Wine in France in 1979, something Carson joked “Murray Tyrrell never let us forget!”

No doubt on account of this failure to grasp the Pinot nettle until recently, there’s not a great deal of old vine material in Australia.  In fact, there’s not a lot of Pinot full stop – the variety comprises a mere 2.6% of Australian land under vine.  That being the case, Carson reckons Australian Pinot Noir producers are still very much at the ”pioneering stage,” though he’s swift to point out that’s not to say only Burgundy can make great Pinot. Indeed, Carson firmly believes it’s not necessary to have the exact same conditions as Burgundy (old vines, a very northerly latitude) to produce excellent results.  As Hill-Smith put it during his session “we’re not getting Burgundy out of Burgundy, but Pinot out of Pinot.”

Mining Pinot’s potential

What has become clear, Carson said, is that in Australia, cool climatic influences are key to good Pinot, whether resulting from diurnal temperature variation (regions with a continental climate or elevation), alternatively cool/moist maritime influences e.g. in Mornington Peninsula, Tasmania, on the Yarra Valley floor (slighty) and Gippsland, which experience a convection effect. Surprisingly, Carson contends that many of these regions are significantly cooler than Burgundy once you drill down beyond generic regional statistics (mean January temperatures).

From this basic cool climate building block, Carson says today’s Pinotphiles are narrowing down the best-suited sub-regions for Pinot Noir and, beyond that, now discovering that “every block in the vineyard is unique.”  To that end, Yabby Lake has planted to 10 clones of Pinot, each matched to different soils.

Clones –v- vine age

Still, as Carson explained, this is only “the first layer of finding out their potential – it’s complicated because clones in Australia have an important influence when young but, as vines age, they get better and you see less influence from clones.”

More generally, referring to the industry’s experience of relatively new Dijon clones to date, Carson describes them as “mixed.” For example earlier ripening examples have proved ill-suited to Australia’s warmer regions (because grapes then ripen in the full glare of the summer sun).  Also much more green cropping is required to drive down yields.  Timo Mayer’s work around (see second tasting note below) is a close planted vineyard which solution Carson finds interesting “because crop load and vine balance is so important with Pinot Noir and with traditional spacings, you end up with too much fruit per vine.”

As I mentioned in my report of the Stonier International Pinot Noir Tasting here, though even five years ago Dijon clones were being talked of as a silver bullet in Australia, these days vine age is credited with greater importance.  To illustrate his point Carson said even clone D5V12, the so-called Champagne clone, performs well at 15 years old provided it’s properly managed.

It’s all good news for MV6 which, derived from Busby’s cuttings from Clos Vougeot in Burgundy, is dubbed “the Mother clone.” Admired by Landmark Tutorial panellist Tony Jordan for its consistency it remains Australia’s most commonly planted Pinot clone and, for Carson, it’s Australia’s most important Pinot clone, not least because of its low yields of tiny berries.  Though Hill-Smith was advised not to cultivate MV6 when he planted Pinot Noir at Shaw & Smith, he advocates a multi-clonal approach.

Less is more

Summing up how best to express the beauty of Pinot (a variety about which he says “arms and elbows can be really pronounced”), Carson believes it’s about “an intuitive feel for what needs to be done and, more importantly, what shouldn’t be done.”Given that “site and integrity of site is where we’re heading,” he says these days producers are focused on “getting Pinot ripe in vineyard and doing less in winery” (for example using larger format 500l oak barrels to protect fruit and perfume because“barriques push too hard”).

And when he says ripe, he’s quick to clarify “we’re not worried about sugar” – grapes are picked on flavour and acidity.  For Hill-Smith more hands off winemaking (wild ferments, pre-fermentation macerations, use of whole berries and stems) means“we’re going beyond pure fruit to structure.”

Onward, upward

Despite “flashes of brilliance,” Carson says, going forward, “you really have to search for it…producers still struggle with consistency… there’s still a lot to do.” No doubt increased vine age will help, both in terms of driving down yields and enabling producers better to assess clonal material.

But Carson is also right when he says of Pinot from anywhere, “it’s the hardest variety to get all components in balance.”  His wish list for “intoxicating complexity”includes:

  • perfume and fragrance
  • depth of fruit – red, a bit of dark fruit and a bit of green fruit
  • a green edge – which, when the wines age, gives that forest walk complexity.
  • texture – velvety or silky
  • structure – fine tannins, fruit tannins
  • a peacock’s tail – length of palate

Bring it on!

The tasting

Wines were tasted blind in two flights.  Carson explained he’d chosen the first flight of not heavily manipulated wines” to illustrate “where we need to take Australian Pinot Noir.”  It comprised 2008 Pinots, all single vineyard wines from young vines (up to 15 years old) made by a mostly younger generation of well-travelled, sensitive winemakers there to guide the wines” so they show the potential of the vineyard in the bottle.

Summarising the 2008 vintage, Carson said South Victoria was hit by a heat wave towards the end of March but, by this time, most of the Pinot Noir had been harvested and conditions had been coolish, so an exciting vintage for those who’d picked before the heat spike.

As for the second flight, it provided an opportunity to taste benchmark older wines made by some of Australia’s Pinot pioneers, typically from the so-called“dress circle around Melbourne” which Carson said was “highly regarded in the 90s, but not now where people are planting Pinot Noir.”  Rather new plantings are focused around Mornington Peninsula, Gippsland and Tasmania (specifically the Tamar Valley, Davenport and the east coast).  Incidentally, Carson pointed out of this second, older flight that, of 18 bottles, 8 were corked and 2 oxidised.

Flight 1

Mac Forbes Woori Yallock Pinot Noir 2008, Yarra Valley – the palest wine of the flight with a  bright nose and palate of delicate, fresh red fruits, subtly creamy strawberry/raspberry and a savoury suede quality to its tannins.  The tannins are surprisingly textured for the weight of the wine, but it makes it interesting and, going forward, will support the fruit as it opens up and the flavours broaden with time. Very good.

Mayer Close Planted Pinot Noir 2008, Yarra Valley – from quite young vines around 10 years old it’s showing some (more developed) garnet flashes.  On the nose it’s pretty stemmy, a quality which retreats on the attack where vivid, crunchy red fruits come into play.  Well structured, the palate shows texured, slightly green/clove-like/smoky, pithy tannins.  A tad distracting for me, but it certainly makes you sit up and take notice and, better still, starts to blow off with time in glass – a wine to decant.  Needs time for the green edge to translate into that forest walk character to which Carson referred.  Good potential.

Farr Rising Geelong Pinot Noir 2008, Geelong – made by Gary Farr’s son Nick this is a deeper colour with garnet flashes; a bigger, well structured wine.  On the nose one senses sweeter, riper fruit, sous bois too (this wine sees lots of whole bunch), which follow through on an earthy palate with good depth of sweet, fleshy red cherry, chocolate (chocolate orange even).  There’s good freshness too.  At the moment the tannins are a little hard.  Needs time to mellow/harmonise.

Allies Garagiste Pinot Noir 2008, Mornington Peninsula – made by Barney Flanders and David Chapman, as the name suggests this is made in tiny quantities (200-300 cases) and hails from volcanic soils at the more elevated (200-250m) southern end of Mornington Peninsula.  It’s a pale wine with a whiff of geranium, a crunchy (fresh) quality and slightly hard tannins.  Yet to develop interest, it’s just not giving much away. Carson reckons you need to see at 5-7 years old, it will come around.

William Downie Gippsland Pinot Noir 2008, Gippsland – deep ruby and perfumed with that chocolate orange character (stems?).  In the mouth it shows svelte sweet red cherry surrounding a backbone of firm, bony tannins.  Good length and focus.  Needs time to flesh out; lots of promise.

Stefano Lubiana Estate Pinot Noir 2008, Tasmania – plenty of depth of colour with an old socks’ nose, quite funky, with a developed torrecfaction quality [Carson thought overripeness] and overstated, rather woody tannins.  Incredibly different from when I tasted it in London in January 2011 – a much more positive experience (see here), though not for Tim Atkin!

Curly Flat Pinot Noir 2008, Macedon Ranges – divided into 43 different parcels, each clone from this vineyard at 600m is vinified separately.  Though initially very quiet on the nose and a little hollow on the palate with time and air it builds showing very bright, sappy and delicate red cherry fruit supported by a fine if firm spine of tannins. Lovely intensity to the finish.  Youthful but broachable.  Carson reckons the wines have really “shot up notch” since 2004.

Yabby Lake Block 2 Pinot Noir 2008, Mornington Peninsula – shows a herbal note on the nose though the palate is more floral with lifted violet notes to its ripe, creamy but vivid red cherry/cherry stone fruit. Attractive rolling acidity and refined tannins make for a long finish.  Very broachable, complete wine.  Carson reckons it will peak at 5-8 years old.

And finally, here’s my tasting note for the By Farr Sangreal Pinot Noir 2007 Geelong, Victoria presented by Hill-Smith in his presentation on regionality:

By Farr Sangreal Pinot Noir 2007, Geelong, Victoria – a deep colour with an earthy, soily nose and fresh grated beetroot which follows through on the palate.  In the mouth, though the flavour spectrum is dark, it’s very well defined with good underlying freshness to its fleshy bulk of damson, plums and black cherry and a lovely lick of five spice. Smoky oak notes emerge on a long, savoury finish.  A relatively dense, solid style compared with the 2008s, but none the less attractive for that.  Just different.

Flight 2

Paringa Estate Pinot Noir 2002, Mornington Peninsula – opaque with a garnet rim.  On the nose it’s a little smoky with some overripe (raisin) notes as well as sweet hay and violets. In the mouth it’s positively corpulent compared with the wines of the previous flight; firm tannins offer solid support.  According to Carson, 2002 was very cool “the last true cool year in Mornington Peninsula” and fruit set was poor, resulting in very small bunches with a high skin/stem to juice ratio and very low yields – less than 1t/acre.

Bass Phillip Premium Pinot Noir 2002, Gippsland – Very deep in colour with damp straw on the nose and a somewhat raisiny palate.  For me, not a hint of Pinot about this wine.  Fortunately, Carson most generously brought a magnum of the 98 vintage from his own cellar to dinner which more than redeemed the situation.  It showed plenty of “Pinosity” with sous bois to nose and palate, deep but layered (with spices) fruit and beautifully textured tannins.  A dense but extremely well balanced Pinot.

Freycinet Vineyard Pinot Noir 2001, Tasmania – garnet hue and well into its tertiary stages with a savoury nose and palate with mushroom, sous bois and a firm backbone of tannin Missing fruit and vibrancy Carson agreed that, though lovely and delicate at 3 to 5 years old, it’s falling apart slightly.  Query if greater vine age has brought better fruit intensity for current vintages.

Mount Mary Yarra Valley Pinot Noir 1997, Yarra Valley – though a little lacking in length, lots to like about this wine with its spicy, gamey ripe fruit, cool clay undertones and smudgy tannins.

Bannockburn Serré Pinot Noir 1997, Geelong – a chocolate orange note to nose and palate points to stems but, like the Mount Mary, this ticked lots of boxes for its mature Pinot characteristics with cherry truffle, spice and game well supported by velvety tannins.  Very drinkable but just a tad sweet and solid for me – I preferred the relative delicacy/fluidity of the Mount Mary.

Bindi Original Pinot Noir 1997, Macedon Ranges – very pale with an evolved spice, savoury nose.  In the mouth it flatlines – has lost its fruit vibrancy and structure.

Coldstream Hills Reserve Pinot Noir 1997, Yarra Valley – big in everything its firm carapace of tannin is crammed with tightly packed fruits of the forest edged with savoury roast coffee bean and mushroom notes.  Impressive, as was the equally concentrated and structured 92 vintage which James Halliday (pictured opening it) brought to dinner one evening – here’s my note.  A stinky camphor nose and palate with traces of oyster shell leads on to a palate with dense tannin and fruit both, nuanced with notes of resin, spice and forest floor.

Reflections

As I recall, my first experience of Australian Pinot Noir some 15 years ago was Plantagenet Pinot Noir from Great Southern.  Back then, when I was just starting out on my adventures in wine, its easy squishy fruit and smooth tannins appealed.  As I became increasingly interested in wine I glimpsed flashes of brilliance but, all too often, found myself caught between the rock and a hard place of jammy New World expressions of Pinot Noir and charmless, lean and mean Burgundy.

This session excited me because it reinforced that Australian Pinot Noir is coming of age and finding its sweet spot.  Contemporary Australian Pinot Noir is not about fruit sweetness, nor is it about densely oaked high extract wines.  Rather it’s about shimmering fruit – perfumed and fresh with line and a fine spine of tannin.  Delicacy combined with the structure to age promises greater complexity down the track too – our first flight was positively youthful.

In summary, there’s much to look forward to as today’s wines mature in bottle and tomorrow’s wines benefit from increased vine age and, wed to that, a better understanding of terroir and clones.

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