First taste: Giant Steps 2015 Yarra Pinot Noir & Chardonnay

The 2015 vintage has been touted as a great year for Yarra Valley Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.  Giant Steps has proclaimed it the best yet, so I was looking forward to tasting the latest releases at Liberty Wines’ tasting this week. Did they deliver?  

Excellent though the Chardys were, the Pinots were just knock out.   You’d be hard pressed to find a more joyous bunch of serious, terroir-driven Pinot Noirs for little over £20/bottle. I’ve already taken advantage of Oz Wines’ “Killer Giant Steps All Red 2015” case offer, which includes 4 bottles of each Pinot for £259 (NB this deal ends after this weekend).  I love how different they are, with a clear arc of evolution to follow in terms of which cuvée to drink when.

So why are the ’15s so good?  Head Winemaker Steve Flamsteed – Gourmet Traveller Wine’s Winemaker of the Year 2016 – cannot remember a year where good yields were matched in harmony with such pristine fruit quality.   According to Giant Steps’ vintage report, lovely winter rains and a wonderful spring resulted in a good even fruit set. This was followed by ideal summer growing conditions, with an average January temperature of 27.5°C. A welcome rain event in mid February refreshed the vines and the Pinot Noir was hand picked in near perfect condition with lovely flavours and sound acidity.

You’ll find my notes on Giant Steps’ Chardonnays and Pinots below.  First, here’s a quick update from its owner, Phil Sexton (pictured), who is happily embracing his new-found status as “just a grower.” Last April he sold sister negociant brand, Innocent Bystander, to Brown Bros. It had become so big, he explains, “that it had become a distraction.”

Being a grower  in the Yarra is important too where, observed Sexton, “fruit is in short supply.”  In fact, though most fruit will be home grown, to secure top notch grapes he is not averse to fruit swapping – a growing practice in the valley.  It enables Giant Steps still to source grapes from the Gladysdale vineyard (now owned by Treasury Wine Estates), which it exchanges for grapes from Sexton’s Applejack vineyard. Another route to fruit is a spot of contract winemaking, for which part payment is in those oh so sought after grapes.

Pizza and wine: Wood fired pizza at the Healesville cellar door restaurant

By the way, in case you’ve ever visited Innocent Bystander’s buzzy winery/cellar door/bakery/brewery/restaurant in Healesville, rest assured, it has been re-badged Giant Steps.

Giants Steps Yarra Valley Chardonnay 2015 (Yarra Valley)

In 2015, Giant Steps produced its first Chardonnay and Pinot Noir made from a blend of estate vineyards.  In common with the single vineyard range, they are naturally fermented with no sulphur addition in the (gravity-fed) winery other than a minimal dose at bottling.  Fruit for this wine was sourced from the Sexton, Tarraford, Applejack and Jobling estate vineyards.  The hand-picked fruit was fermented and aged for 11 months in 500 litre French oak puncheons of which (20% are new and 80% older oak). No malolactic fermentation took place; lees stirring was carried out for around two months.  It’s a complex Chardonnay with attractive gently nutty oxidative notes and cashew nuances to its juicy apple and white peach fruit.  Long and textural.  Retains a bright core of fruit and acid.  13.5% £19.99 at Oz Wines and Noel Young.

Giants Steps Lusatia Park Chardonnay 2015 (Yarra Valley)

A single vineyard wine made in broadly the same way (25% new oak here), yet so different.  Speaking of securing fruit/sites, the acclaimed 47 acre Lusatia Park vineyard in Woori Yallock was acquired by de Bortoli in 2015 from the Shelmerdine family (with whom they had collaborated on the PHI label from this site).  It was planted in 1985 on the Lone Star Creek in the Upper Yarra Valley at 220 metres. The elevation, north-facing aspect, deep free-draining red soils, and close-planted vines ensure intense varietal flavours derived from long, consistent ripening. The palate is more tapered and mineral than the Yarra blend – unsurprisingly, more singular with a crystalline textural quality – glimmers of mica minerals – to its lemon/candied lemon peel and ‘drier’ grapefruit.  Long and deep, with an edge of sour dough to the savoury finish.  Lovely intensity; a characterful, lingering Chardonnay. 13.5% £27.99 at Oz Wines

Giants Steps Yarra Valley Pinot Noir 2015 (Yarra Valley)

Fruit for this wine is sourced from the estate vineyards: Tarraford, Sexton and Applejack.  The fruit was 100% hand-picked and fermented in 4000 litre open oak vats. Rack and return takes place by gravity and some light hand plunges are carried out. The wine undergoes 100% malolactic fermentation and was then aged for 11 months in (25%) new and used French puncheons. The wine was bottled without filtration. This wine is easy going in the nicest possible way – open-faced and generous with a guileless charm.  With delicious sweet, perfumed milk chocolate-edged red fruits from tip to silky toe, it bursts with joyous energy and is sure to put a smile on your face.   Raring to go.  13.8%  £19.99 at Oz Wines and Noel Young.

Giants Steps Lusatia Park Pinot Noir 2015 (Yarra Valley)

As with the Chardonnay, this relatively cool Upper Yarra site’s character is clearly articulated.   Lusatia Park Pinot Noir sports lively pink grapefruit, rhubarb and sour red cherry fruit (riper than that sounds) with soaring, savoury aromatics of dried chinato herbs.  Lovely complexity.  Racy but balanced acidity and a fine spine of powdery tannins gives it great line and length.  Provocative and highly engaging, I loved the intensity and energy of this Pinot.   Savoury but elegant, it is made from 100% MV6 clone.  The fruit was hand picked and then fermented with indigenous yeast in 4000 litre open oak vats. 30% whole bunches were used across two separate fermenters for perfume and structure. Delestage took place by gravity and the wine underwent 100% malolactic fermentation. It was then aged in French oak puncheons for 11 months (25% new). 13.5% £27.99 at Oz Wines

Giants Steps Primavera Vineyard Pinot Noir 2015 (Yarra Valley)

Like Lusatia Park, the Primavera vineyard is also located in Woori Yallock.  Giant Steps have sourced fruit from Lou Primavera’s vineyard for some years, but this is the first single vineyard Pinot.  The vineyard was planted in 2001 to the MV6 clone. It sits at 240 metres above sea level and Sexton told me it has particularly ferrous, red friable soil.  No doubt elevation and vintage combined to produce a season in which lignification allowed for 100% whole bunch ferment.  Aside from this and the use of 5000 litre open fermenters in addition to 4000 litre oak vats, the winemaking was little different from Lusatia Park.  Inevitably, given the whole bunch component, Primavera is spicier, with a seemingly drier, more savoury profile to nose and palate – less immediacy or urgency to its fruit.  Rather, juicy blood plum and fleshier plum are interwoven into a long chassis of spicy, textural but ripe, fine tannins with hints of forest floor and incipient mushroom.  Gently anchored in this raft of tannin, lingering fruit becomes a back lit glow.  In time, it will come to the foreground, so while this is broachable now, it is one to stash away (or decant).  Very good indeed.  13.8%  £27.99/bottle at Oz Wines

Incidentally, Oz Wines will host a portfolio tasting on the afternoon of Saturday May 13th at The Lansdowne Club in Mayfair. Customers can mix up a case (12) on the day for delivery after the event. There’s a special 10% discount available on any wines ordered on the day. Tickets, which cost £31, don’t go on the website until February 1st so it is best to call 0333 700 1832 for details or email  Heads up – if you order before the end of January, tickets are only £29 each.

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