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Wine

Pursuit of Perfection - Australian Pinot Noir

Australia's established Pinot Noir regions are continuing to develop and evolve remarkable examples of this varietal. But for the big future of Aussie Pinot, we may need to look west.

I'll admit it - not everyone is a fan of Pinot Noir. But that fact, in itself, is what makes Pinot so enigmatic - aficionados swoon, swillers scoff. And this suits Pinot (and its lovers) just fine because in this land of the tall poppy, it is not always favourable to be too popular.

That said, Pinot is one of the most revered and collected wine styles in the world, with the top examples from its homeland in Burgundy selling for outrageous sums of money. It is generally quite delicate (some say light-bodied), and it takes a certain development of one's palate to truly appreciate its delightful nuances, perfumed aromas, textural elements and supple tannin profile.

It appears that if you enjoy wine for long enough, eventually your palate will look for and appreciate the more subtle and complex style that quality Pinot can provide. A good point that illustrates this comes from winemaker Stephen George, who developed the revered Ashton Hills brand.

"A lot of older gentlemen come into the cellar door and say they love Shiraz, but it doesn't love them anymore," he says. "So we are getting some of my generation moving over to Pinot Noir, and the young kids of today are also really embracing it."

THE ALLURE OF PINOT (FOR THE WINEMAKER)

Howard Park Pinot Noir from Great Southern

Winemakers love a challenge, and there is no doubt that Pinot is a challenging grape to grow, and even more challenging to make. The Burgundians have certainly nailed it, but they have been practicing for thousands of years, and this is part of the key. The cool climate of Burgundy has proven to be a major factor, as is the geology of the soils there, but they have also shown the variety to be very site-specific - vines grown in adjacent vineyards, and even within vineyards, can produce very different results. Vine age too, is critical. True of most varieties, but especially Pinot Noir, the best fruit tends to come from mature vineyards, considered to be around 15 years old or more. Yields too, need to be kept low to get the best out of this grape, as it needs all the flavour concentration it can get to show its best.

Australian winemakers have taken these lessons to heart - gradually developing ever cooler areas to grow Pinot, working out the best soil types, and carefully exploring the ideal sites within each vineyard to grow this fickle variety. They're also working out the best clones and the most appropriate vine spacing, and then managing the vine canopy to allow just the right amount of dappled sunlight to reach the ripening bunches. Our vines are getting older, reaching that critical phase of maturity, and yields are managed carefully to coax the maximum from each berry.

Once in the winery, the grapes need careful handling due to their thin skins and low phenolic content, so physical pump-overs are kept to a minimum. These days more and more winemakers are including a percentage of stems in the ferment to enhance the aromatic and textural qualities of the finished wine, and oak usage is more skilfully matched to the style being produced.

THE STATE OF PLAY OF PINOT

Australian viticulturists and winemakers are getting better at producing top quality Pinot with every passing year. And that quality is truly on show in our most recent State of Play tasting. It's been five years since we last had an in-depth look at Pinot Noir in this country. And what a change we've seen in that time! The overall quality of Australian Pinot is certainly on the rise. But what is perhaps the biggest development in the last five years has been the emergence of a potential Pinot giant in the west.

As you will see in our reviews across the following pages, the established Pinot producing regions such as the Yarra ValleyTasmania and Adelaide Hills are still well represented in our Top 20, but they are joined by newcomers, the cool-climate Tumbarumba region of NSW, and an impressively strong showing from the Great Southern and Pemberton areas of Western Australia. In fact, five wines in the Top 20 are from WA - an amazing statistic given that there were none five years ago.

THE EMERGING PINOT GIANT - WA

Emerging West Australian Pinot Noir from Great Southern Albany Denmark Frankland River Mount Barker and Porongorup

We have seen a marked increase in the number and quality of Pinots coming from the West in recent years, particularly from the vast Great Southern area encompassing the five distinct sub-regions of Albany, Denmark, Frankland River, Mount Barker and Porongorup, as well as a secluded pocket of the South West around Pemberton and Manjimup.

So what has led to the emergence of WA as a Pinot powerhouse?

According to second generation winemaker Rob Wignall, whose father Bill pioneered Pinot production in Albany, there have been a number of small improvements that make up the overall picture. He believes that climate change has been a significant and positive factor, moving the region's climate into more of a semi-Mediterranean situation with mild summer days and a reduction in rainfall throughout the growing season, leading to improvements in disease control and better canopy management.

In addition, Rob feels that better oak selection and winemaking practices such as 'cold soaking' of the must prior to fermentation have led to improvements in the finished product. He is also a strong advocate for screw caps, believing that the delicate fruit characters of Pinot really shine under this closure, and that they also enhance the age-ability of the wines.

Luke Eckersley, from regional icon Plantagenet Wines in Mt Barker, points to the variations in micro-climates and soil types across the Great Southern region as a factor.

"Pinot Noir styles are varied with complex savoury styles from Denmark; elegant perfumed styles from Porongurup; rich fruit driven styles from Mount Barker; big robust styles from Albany; lighter primary fruit styles from Frankland River," he says.

Michael Ng, winemaker from Rockcliffe in Denmark, adds that the cool climate with coastal influences allows full flavour development in the fruit, while still allowing for wines of finesse and savoury complexity.

And a bit further west, Coby Ladwig of Rosenthal Wines points to the steep hills and valleys of the Pemberton region creating many unique micro-climates that enable varied grape growing conditions, "allowing us to create extremely complex and elegantly styled wines from one region", he says. While neighbouring Manjimup, with an altitude of 300m and therefore the coolest region in Western Australia, has cold nights and warm days ideal for flavour enhancement.

PERFECTING THE FUTURE

In summary, Pinot Noir in Australia is in a healthy position, with the established regions in Victoria, Tasmania and South Australia producing more consistent and ever improving results. Equally exciting are the emerging Pinot Noir regions such as those in WA, as well as Tumbarumba and Orange, that show that the future for Pinot in Australia is bright. So, if you find your Shiraz doesn't love you as much anymore, perhaps look to Pinot, and when doing so, glance west.

THE WINE SELECTORS TASTING PANEL

The wines in this State of Play were tasted over a dedicated period by the Wine Selectors Tasting Panel, which is made up of perceptive personalities and palates of winemakers, international wine show judges and wine educators. With an amazing 140 years collective experience, they love wine and they know their stuff.

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Merlot Members Tasting
Words by Ralph Kyte Powell on 4 Jun 2018
Merlot is a mystery to a lot of us. Many other red wine grapes have much more recognisable varietal personalities, giving them more immediate impact than Merlot . Cabernet Sauvignon , for example, nearly always says ‘Cabernet’ emphatically, via varietal cues that cut across the vagaries of region, climate, winemaking, and culture. Blackcurranty character, leafy austerity, angular, savoury personality and tannic backbone mark Cabernet-based wines, apparent even in warmer, riper versions. So it is with Pinot Noir ’s distinctive fruit characters, softness and silken structure. Pinot Noir says Pinot Noir loud and clear, but what of Merlot? Confusing Merlot’s identity crisis is the multiplicity of different styles available. In the coolest places, the variety’s leafiness can become too herbal and green; in the warmest places, it can be big, jammy and soupy. When overcropped and made on an industrial scale, Merlot can be washed out, sometimes sweet, a simple quaffer. In the middle of all this, we find Merlot’s ideal spot in skillfully tended vineyards in temperate areas. Here we encounter suggestions of plum, mulberry and fruitcake, raspberry, cherry, violet, spice and dried herb hints, maybe chocolate and olive from oak input. These wines tend to be soft, plump and juicy, worthy of plenty of attention as a friendlier type of red wine than tannic Cabernet or Shiraz . Compared to Cabernets, Merlots are generally much lower in methoxypyrazines too. These compounds in grapes give raw, green, herbaceous characters that can be shrill and unpleasant, another reason for good Merlot’s friendly personality. Cabernet’s comrade Merlot’s historic role as a blending variety also tends to compromise its individual identity. In its Bordeaux home, its early ripening characteristics act as insurance against the later ripening Cabernet Sauvignon, especially across difficult vintages. Merlot develops higher sugar levels and riper fruit characters weeks before Cabernet, and it’s planted much more widely in the Bordeaux region as a result. Its rich, supple personality tempers Cabernet’s more severe traits in a blend, and it usually doesn’t need nearly as much mellowing bottle age to be gluggable. Around the world Merlot’s fortunes have been improving worldwide over the last few decades as plantings have expanded into new territory. Chile has been at the forefront and has built a large export market for easy-sipping Merlot. In the Old World, Merlot has been replacing other more mediocre varieties in vineyards across the European continent. Its international appeal and reputation for friendly wine has supported vast new plantings in places like France’s south-west as the French hit back after the inroads New World wineries have made in their traditional markets. French wine drinkers possibly don’t know Merlot by name very well, but they like it and so do their international customers. American consumers have an idea what to expect from Merlot – softness, maybe a little sweetness, easy drinking. New Zealanders are also familiar with Merlot’s easy manners and the variety has traditionally sparred with Pinot Noir as the red of choice for Kiwis. In recent times, NZ Pinot has been ascendant, but Merlot is still in the mix. Generally, Australians are much less Merlot-aware. No mention of Merlot can be made without referring to the cult American movie Sideways . In the USA, Merlot is the second most popular red wine grape after Cabernet Sauvignon, mainly due to vast quantities of soft, low tannin reds that appeal to wine novices. In Sideways , made in 2004, wine tragic and wine snob Miles rails loudly against Merlot. “If anybody orders Merlot, I’m leaving. I am not drinking any f…ing Merlot,” he declares, and his comments contributed to a drop in Merlot sales in the USA, the UK, and probably Australia. Merlot has recovered, but I suspect a slightly negative perception lingers, helped by Merlot’s lack of a distinct varietal identity in the minds of many consumers. Taste expectations So to discover what makes Merlot tick, we recently gathered together a panel of eight keen Merlot fans from the ranks of Wine Selectors Members for a tasting dinner at Melbourne’s Papa Goose restaurant. Joining them were Selector publisher, Paul Diamond and yours truly. Sixteen wines from across Australia were served masked in brackets of four. South Australia was represented by seven wines from a diversity of regions, with the emphasis on somewhat cooler places like the Adelaide Hills , Eden Valley and Limestone Coast/Coonawarra regions. Victorian wines included examples from the Yarra Valley , the Pyrenees and the warm vineyards of Rutherglen , while New South Wales and Western Australia presented a cross-section of vineyard sources. As we sat down to taste, we made a quick survey of what the Members looked for in Merlot. “I like Merlot because it’s not too heavy,” said Wine Selectors Member, Darren Dean, “It’s soft, easy to drink, sweet and smooth.” Fellow Member Ingrid Fraser agreed. “They are soft, complete wines, plump and lovely,” she said. Paul looked for, “consistency of mouthfeel, smooth texture, seamlessness.” Softness and smoothness were terms most tasters used to describe Merlot’s general appeal. Were these characteristics reinforced as the dinner progressed and the group came to terms with the wines served? Paired to perfection Matching food and wine is much discussed in the gastronomic world. Carefully constructed dishes, devised with a particular type of wine in mind, can offer experiences that transcend the simple idea of eating and drinking. When we consider food-friendly wines, the softer, lighter, lower tannin drops offer more food compatibilities than bigger, tougher wines. Thus, Pinot Noir, or softer, cool climate style Shiraz, works well where the big bruisers fall short. On this basis, Merlot should excel as a food wine, and as the dinner progressed, the pairings proved harmonious. This was due to Papa Goose chef Neale White’s intuitive ability to create Merlot-compatible dishes to complement the wines. The four course menu began with a superb dish that echoed Merlot’s charm. Cured and smoked duck breast was accompanied by beetroot, raspberry and red sorrel, all flavours that dovetailed superbly with the first bracket of wines. Gnocchi with king oyster mushroom, tarragon and amaretti cream pointed up the depths of the following group of four wines, with rich flavours and textures woven through aromatic ones. Eyebrows were raised when we saw that the porterhouse with red wine sauce was coming with caraway coleslaw – caraway can be formidable – but the dish’s subtlety actually drew out some of the foresty, herbal notes in the wines, making the sum of the parts far more than the individual inputs. Cheese can be problematic with a lot of wines, but the mild, mature Pynegana Cheddar, served to finish dinner, had fruity accompaniments of chutney, quince paste and muscatels to temper it. Merlot stood up to the entire menu, confirming its delicious suitability at the table. The dinner confirmed in everybody’s eyes that Australian Merlot does indeed have its own distinct personality, and that it deserves to be centre stage alongside better-known brethren like Shiraz, Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon. Merlot should be on everybody’s shopping list.
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Seven New Wines to Explore this Spring
Celebrate the arrival of spring and explore a whole new world of wine with some exciting alternative varietals guaranteed to become firm new favourites. To take the guess work out of what you think you might or might not enjoy, the Tasting Pane l has selected seven favourite main-stream varietals our Members love and suggested a new alternative varietal that is similar. Chardonnay + Roussanne, Sauvignon Blanc + Vermentino, Pinot G + Arneis, Riesling + Gruner Veltliner, Shiraz + Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon + Durif, and Pinot Noir + Nero d’Avola. Favourites you love + new finds to enjoy 1. Roussanne
"Wonderfully aromatic, Roussanne delivers all the stonefruit and honeysuckle characters that Chardonnay drinkers can’t resist,” says Tasting Panellist, Dave Mavor . Roussanne hails from the Northern Rhône and its name comes from ‘roux’, French for ‘russet’, which describes the reddish-gold colour of its skin when ripe. It thrives in moderate to warm climates such as Barossa Valley , McLaren Vale and Rutherglen . Its rich texture makes it ideal with creamy sauces – roasted poultry, shellfish with cream sauce, pork dishes. Discover the delights of Roussanne for free with each Chardonnay Charm Dozen 2. Vermentino 
“ Sauvignon Blanc fans will love how Vermentino is just as mouth-watering and full of citrus flavours,” says Tasting Panellist, Nicole Gow . Find out more about the variety with Nicole's Vermentino guide here . Most famously grown on the Italian island of Sardinia, it makes perfect sense that Vermentino suits Australia’s warm climate, especially that of McLaren Vale . Styles range from light and fresh to rich and textural. It thrives in cool to warm climates giving different characteristics. Grown increasingly in Australia, most notably in King Valley , McLaren Vale and the Hunter Valley . Bright acidity and textural elements make it idea with a range of simply-prepared foods – grilled white fish, calamari, and tomato based sauces. Experience the refreshing citrus flavours of Vermentino for free with the Symphony of Sauvignon Blanc Dozen. 3. Arneis
“Crisp, floral and packed full of pear with a lovely texture, like Pinot G , Arneis is a fabulously food-friendly white,” says Tasting Panellist, Keith Tulloch . Originating in Italy, Arneis is a white varietal winemakers often blend with Nebbiolo to add a touch of sweetness and perfume. Here in Australia, it’s living up to its reputation as being a little difficult to grow – an emerging hit. It thrives on cool to moderate climates such as Adelaide Hills , King Valley and Mornington Peninsula . A crisp yet generous and versatile variety – pair it with salads, egg-based dishes, antipasto. Discover the food-friendly Arneis for free with the Pinot G Perfection Dozen 4. Gruner Veltliner
“ Gruner Veltliner is very similar to Riesling , but with just a little more richness and a distinctive peppery aroma that I know you’ll adore," says Tasting Panellist, Trent Mannell . Gruener Veltliner is the most famous and widely planted white variety in Austria. Here in Australia it’s gaining a great following due to passion of producers including Tomich Wines, Cape Barren and Geoff Hardy . It thrives in cool climates such as Adelaide Hills . An elegant, complex and savoury variety, ideally suited to aromatic dishes, spicy vegetables, tofu and Japanese. Venture into the world of Gruner Veltliner for free with the Flourish of Riesling Dozen 5. Zinfandel
“Big, rich and plummy, Zinfandel offers all the intensity that Shiraz lovers look for," says Tasting Panel co-Chairman, Phil Ryan . Know in Australia more by its Puglian name of Primitivo, this robust red can have a very high alcohol content, sometimes as high as 17%! In America, it’s also made into a white wine called White Zin. It thrives in warmer climates such as Barossa Valley, McLaren Vale and Rutherglen . Its sweet fruit and spicy tannins pair well with smokey, spicy dishes – barbeques, spicy Asian dishes, and curries. Savour the deliciousness of Zinfandel for free with the Shiraz Intensity Doze n 6. Durif
“ Durif and Cabernet are similarly luxurious with dark cherry, chocolate and hints of anise,” says Tasting Panellist, Dave Mavor . Hailing from the south of France, Durif is now most prolific in Australia and California. It has great ageing potential and blends beautifully with Shiraz. It thrives in hot climates such as Rutherglen, Barossa Valley and Riverland . Pair it with richer, high fat foods to balance the robust tannins – rich braised meats, casserole and meaty pasta. Delve into the delicious world of Durif with the Chocolatey Cabernet Dozen . 7. Nero d’Avola
“With its spicy fruits and supple savoury texture, Nero d’Avola will sweep you off your feet,” says Tasting Panellist, Adam Walls . Find out more about the variety in Adam's video here Translating as ‘black grape of Avola’, Nero d’Avola hails from the Italian town for which it’s named. It didn’t arrive in Australia until 1998 and while it’s not widely known, it’s proving to be a delicious drink. It thrives in moderate to warm climates such as Barossa Valley, McLaren Vale, Riverland, Heathcote and Murray Darling. Pair it with rich dishes that will be balanced by the tannins and high acidity – osso bucco, spicy Indian and game meat. Make a Nero d’Avola discovery for free with the Pinot Noir Explosion Dozen . Expand your cellar with all of these great new finds, and open up a whole new world of food and wine matching possibilities.
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