Pursuit of Perfection - Australian Pinot Noir
Words Dave Mavor
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)
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
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 Valley, Tasmania and AdelaideHills 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
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
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.