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Better than Burgundy?

Thank you, Bill Downie, I now respect Australian Pinot. Bill said something to me about Pinot Noir that triggered an understanding and ultimately made me want to seek out a great Australian Pinot and savour its every drop. I am hoping by the time you’ve finished this article, you’ll feel the same way.

As winemakers go, Bill is a bit of a legend in the Pinot world, but an anomaly in the wine universe. You see, he only makes Pinot. That’s it. His entire focus is Pinot Noir. He is an unashamed Pinotphile. Bill admits he has always been enraptured by Pinot’s romantic charm, but he really fell in love with the varietal when he was sent by his then employers, De Bortoli, to spend some time in Burgundy learning about Pinot.

Five vintages later his love had become a marriage, a blessed union between a winemaker and a grape. He came back all smitten and doe-eyed and intent on making great Australian Pinot. Victoria is where he focused his attention, and in addition to his own vineyard in Gippsland, Bill now makes Pinot from vineyards in the Yarra Valley and the Mornington Peninsula.

As Bill, Jeremy Dineen from Josef Chromy Wines and I were getting ready to sip, swirl and spit our way through a bunch Pinot Noirs, Bill was regaling me with his adventures in Burgundy and he said something that resonated deep within my wine scribe soul, as well as my tastebuds.

“My time in Burgundy taught me to have a true and meaningful respect for the place you are in, wherever that might be,” he said, before nonchalantly adding, “Before I went to Burgundy I was in Australia trying to make wine that tasted like Red Burgundy. But after I had been there I no longer wanted to do that, I wanted to come home and make wine that tasted like the place I was, be it Gippsland, the Yarra or Mornington Peninsula".

All of a Suddent it Made Sense

When I first entered into this wonderful world of wine, I had bought into all the hype and hoopla about how amazing this Pinot Noir varietal was. But I had tasted enough bad home-grown Pinot that it had sullied my respect for the varietal, and as I had explored more with Old World wines, the Australian Pinots I consumed seemed too big and boisterous compared to the elegant Red Burgundy I’d savoured.

But Bill’s words had made me see the error of my ways. I had tasted Aussie Pinot wanting it to be the best of Burgundy, when I should have been rating it for what it was – Australian Pinot.

Bill explained to me that we would never make a Pinot Noir that tasted exactly like Red Burgundy; however with the right ingredients we can make top quality Pinot that is uniquely Australian and far more expressive. So what are those magical ingredients needed to make great Pinot Noir? The most important are climate, site and vineyard management, not to mention the gentle caress of the knowledgeable winemaker.

Climate

Pinot Noir prefers cool conditions but not those with a major temperature drop at night. It simply detests the heat so it seems pointless to grow Pinot anywhere that is warm, such as places like the Hunter or Barossa. Maybe as a component of sparkling wine, or as a Rosé, yes. But even if you are the world’s best winemaker, don’t try to make a straight-out Pinot Noir in a warm region. You just can’t do it. Many have tried and failed. Even the revered wine critic and Burgundian lover, James Halliday, toiled fruitlessly to make Pinot in the Hunter.

Perfect cool climate environments for Pinot exist in Australia in just a few regions, notably in Victoria’s Yarra Valley with its cool, crisp slopes and average humidity, and the Mornington Peninsula with its maritime cooling nights. But perhaps the region that is causing the most excitement is Tasmania.

The Apple Isle is already earning a reputation as a producer of world-class Sparkling wine, so Pinot Noir, a key component of Champagne, along with its Burgundian sister Chardonnay, has been planted here for some time. It makes up half of all the vines in Tasmania and 95 per cent of red wine. More recently, straight Pinot is starting to find its feet here.

Jeremy Dineen, who is also regarded as a maker of great Pinot after 10 years working with it at Josef Chromy in Northern Tasmania, says that climate is key to attaining the elegance for which great Pinot is renowned.

“You are talking about a wine that has very fine tannins, where texture is one of the most important things, so if you can get a balance of ripe but fine tannins and fresh natural acidity, with those bright fruit flavours, it is the perfect Pinot and that is only going to come in the cooler climates,” he says.

“If you look at the flavours you can only get that same perfume, subtleties, complexities and balance of natural acidity from cool climates and that is a really important part of Pinot.”

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