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The panache for Pinot

Have you ever been stuck next to someone at a dinner party who loves Pinot Noir? You know the type. They can wax lyrical about this grape for what seems like hours while you stare into your half glass of Shiraz wishing it was full. As you take a sip, it fills your mouth with its full, plush flavours and you wonder how the bloke next to you is possibly getting the same pleasure from his thin-bodied red.

That’s how Wine Selectors member Joel Goodsir has always felt. He’s a man who looks askance at the Pinot section of the wine list; going straight for the big, bold reds that he knows guarantee a flavour punch. Even if you don’t identify with Joel, plenty do. It just fails to meet the expectations of many a red lover; they feel let down by its lack of oomph.

This is a fact of great disappointment to the Wine Selectors Tasting Panel who will all readily admit to being that person at the dinner party regaling guests with the finer points of this Burgundian red.

Arguably the greatest Pinotphile of them all is Christian Gaffey, who says, “Pinot Noir is a melange of many subtle nuances, each more attractive than the last. Anyone can taste a bold Shiraz and be blown away by its obvious nature, however, Pinot Noir plays hard to get; it makes you work for your rewards. It is like no other variety; it can be expressive, elegant and bold all at the same time.” Sounds like it was time for a Members Pinot Noir tasting.

A place for Pinot

But first, a bit of background on why Pinot is seen as challenging.

Firstly, region is everything. So much so that in Pinot’s birthplace of Burgundy where it’s been grown for hundreds of years, the French have invested just about all those years in isolating the perfect spots. In fact, as world renowned wine writer Jancis Robinson points out, “The Burgundians themselves refute the allegation that they produce Pinot Noir; they merely use Pinot Noir as the vehicle for communicating local geography, the characteristics of the individual site on which it was produced.”

Not surprisingly, region and site selection are equally as important in Australia. The last time the Panel sat down for an in-depth Pinot tasting (Autumn 2012), they were joined by winemakers Jeremy Dineen of Tasmania’s Josef Chromy and Bill Downie of Gippsland’s William Downie Wines.

Broadly speaking, Jeremy pointed out, Australian Pinot Noir needs a cool climate. Some of the best regions have proved to be Victoria’s Yarra Valley and Mornington Peninsula, WA’s Great Southern, Manjimup and Albany, SA’s Adelaide Hills and Tasmania.

However, like Burgundy, individual sites can make all the difference. As Jeremy explained, “People are finding the best little sub-regions, and sub-sites in sub-regions so there is great diversity of flavours, textures and styles.”

Having said that, you can have the best spot in the world, but if you don’t know how to look after your Pinot, you might as well be planting in the desert. Thankfully, Australian producers have greatly improved the other two areas essential to its success – vineyard management and winemaking. As Jeremy explained, “People understand more about soil, irrigation, about utilising lyre trellises and canopy management.” What’s more, Bill pointed out, winemakers have come a long way in understanding the skills necessary to master Pinot including, “Must pumping by gravity, handling ferments much more gently and less pump-overs.”

So if Australian winemakers are mastering the art of this fickle grape, the last remaining hurdle is the drinker.

The tasting

For the tasting, we invited along two red wine-lovers with a penchant for Pinot. Richard Spillane has been a Regional Series member since 2000 and Deborah Best since 2006. Both have recently supplemented their regular deliveries with Pinot specific selections. Richard says of Pinot, “It may not be the red you’re used to drinking, but it’s one you can drink all year”, confessing that he even enjoys it slightly chilled. Deborah agreed, adding, “Pinot Noir is an ‘any time’ wine. You can enjoy it with a casual meal of pizza or something more high end.” Rounding out the trio was Joel, sceptical but open to persuasion.

The line-up of wines reflected Australia’s best regions for Pinot, as mentioned above, starting with three from WA. While it’s the most recent state to dabble in Pinot, which means its vines are very young, Christian is of the opinion that WA is making some great examples. The Peos Estate Four Kings Single Vineyard 2014 was unanimously voted favourite of the three and admired for being delicate and savoury with forest floor characters and supple tannins.

Next up was the Adelaide Hills. The most surprising thing for Deborah about this bracket was how much Pinot Noir changes in the glass. Christian agreed, saying that on first taste of the Dandelion Vineyards Heirloom 2013 he thought it was a bit lacking, but was amazed how much it changed for the better in the glass and his eventual description was of a “soft, supple palate.”

The Yarra Tassie trail

The Yarra Valley turned out to be the favourite region of the tasting with all three wines praised for their balanced acidity and firm tannins, ensuring great ageing potential. Included in this bracket was the Rochford 2013, one of the bolder Pinots and therefore, not surprisingly, a favourite of Joel’s.

Last but by no means least were four wines from Tasmania. With the Apple Isle being a leading producer of Sparkling wine, it’s no surprise that Pinot Noir is widely planted, making up 95 per cent of the state’s red wines. In recent years, this has also resulted in many fine Pinot Noirs. The overall standout was the Josef Chromy 2013, which was loved for being rich and ripe with plenty of concentration and a fine acid finish.

At the end of the day, it came as no surprise that Deborah’s and Richard’s love for Pinot Noir was thoroughly confirmed. But what of Joel?

“Well”, he summed up, “Once I understood the goal was smoothness and seamlessness and stopped making the comparison with bigger, bolder wines, I got more enjoyment out of the tasting. However, I’m still troubled by the mildness.” Despite the hint of remaining doubt, the most important result was that a former disbeliever is coming around to the Pinot creed.

So next time you’re stuck next to a devotee at a dinner party, proffer your glass for a splash of Pinot and remember you’re swapping a punch in the face for a smooth, seamless palate caress.

Click here to shop our great range of Pinot Noir.

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Better than Burgundy?
Words by Mark Hughes on 2 Jul 2015
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Natural Wine
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Whites of delight
Words by Mark Hughes on 6 Aug 2015
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Blend these two varieties together, however, and its like Harry Potter has grown up to become a winemaker and put a spell on all the bottles of SSB to make them insanely appealing to the drinking public. Bubble bubble, little toil, no trouble Technically speaking, I can understand why you would blend these two varieties. You take the lazy grassy aromas and tropical flavour of Sauvignon Blanc and smarten it up with the structure and mouthfeel of Semillon. It’s like an overweight teenager with nice skin making use of a season pass to the gym. Conversely, and this is perhaps a reason given by those who can’t take to the super zingy freshness of young Semillon, it softens the acidic nature of Sem and endows it with a subtle fruit-punch appeal. Value-wise, it is also very appealing. Most SSBs on the market are somewhere between $15 and $25. And while it is not the first choice match for most dishes, it goes pretty well with a range foods, especially summery fare such as seafood, salads and mezze plates. Add all that up, and SSBs seem like a pretty handsome proposition. Must be those hours in the gym! A bit of history While Australia has taken SSBs to its vinous heart since the 1980s, this classic white blend has actually been produced for donkeys in the south-west of France, namely Bordeaux and Bergerac. More often than not it is as the crisp, dry white that we are familiar with, but the French also blend Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc to make the sweet dessert wine, Sauternes. Western Australia’s Margaret River virtually owns the Classic Dry White category in this country, which again, is a bit strange seeing the region isn’t really noted for producing either Semillon or Sauvignon Blanc in their own right. But, as you probably know by now, when talking about wine in this country, two plus two doesn’t always equal four. So what gives here? Well, two things (or more if you adhere to my mathematics from above). The Margaret River region was the first to really latch onto the SSB blend. It became popular at cellar door and other producers in the region saw it as their ‘bread and butter’ wine, and jumped on board. When the region started selling their wine to the rest of the country, Margs had already established a reputation for producing refreshing and attractively priced Classic Dry White. They have been running with it ever since. But as we found out in this tasting, there are other regions starting to cotton on. The magic of Margaret The second reason is best answered by Kim Horton, senior winemaker at Willow Bridge Estate in Margaret River. “You would think that by looking at the Semillons from the eastern seaboard, that as a variety it would be the least likely to sit with Sauvignon Blanc in a blend,” levels Kim. “However the weather conditions in Western Australia’s south allow clean and longer ripening of Semillon. The Semillon aromatics are very herbaceous and grassy, but also, depending on the climate, quite lemon dominant or veering towards watermelon and guava. In short, what one variety lacks, the other can assist.” The Tasting and the results For this State of Play tasting we looked at SSBs from across the country. Naturally, the majority of the wines entered were from the Margaret River region, and they dominated the Top 30, with 19 wines. Five of the other top scorers were from other Western Australian regions, namely Great Southern and Frankland River. Of these WA wines, most have Sauvignon Blanc as the dominant partner in the blend. An interesting observation from this tasting was the subtle use of oak which brings a bit of structure to the mid-palate, particularly of the Sauv Blanc dominant wines. This added complexity broadens SSB’s food matching abilities and shows the blend has an exciting future away from its ‘simplistic’ label. The most surprising result was that two of the three top scoring wines were not from WA! The Drayton’s 2013 Semillon Sauvignon Blanc was top of the pops, wowing the judges with its savoury nose and fantastic mouthfeel. While the Grosset 2015 Semillon Sauvignon Blanc earned its spot on the podium with its thrillingly elegant purity and ripe fruit characters. The most notable feature of these wines, as with most of the other standouts from the eastern seaboard, was the fact that the Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc were sourced from different regions. For instance, for the Grosset, the Sem was Clare Valley , the Sauv Blanc from the Adelaide Hills . “For me, the perfect SSB blend must be from two regions,” says Clare Valley winemaker Jeffrey Grosset. “Semillon from a mild climate with plenty of sunshine to achieve a generous citrus and structured palate, and Sauvignon Blanc from a cooler climate, such as the Adelaide Hills, where it can achieve tropical gooseberry-like flavours. To produce a blend from one region alone is unlikely to achieve the depth of flavour and balance.” The sentiment is shared by Edgar Vales, winemaker at Drayton’s, who sees a real future for SSB in the Hunter. “There is a synergy that exists between the two varieties,” says Edgar. “Particularly with Hunter Sem blended with Sauv Blanc from cooler regions such as Orange , Adelaide Hills or Tasmania .” While you can expect to see the emergence of new names in the SSB category, the Margaret River region will continue to shine. And that’s music, a classic (dry white) hit, to the ears of winemakers like Kim, and the drinking public. “The fact most parts of Australia enjoy six months of sunshine, a high percentage live near the coast and with our general love of fresh seafood, the Sauvignon Blanc Semillon blend is a perfect accompaniment to our everyday life.”   The Top 30 Classic Dry Whites (November 2015) Drayton’s Family Wines Semillon Sauvignon Blanc 2014 (Hunter Valley, $20) Howard Park ‘Miamup’ Sauvignon Blanc Semillon 2013   (Margaret River, $28) Grosset Wines Semillon Sauvignon Blanc 2015 (Clare Valley/Adelaide Hills, $35)   Happs Sauvignon Blanc Semillon 2014 (Margaret River, $24) Redgate Sauvignon Blanc Semillon 2014 (Margaret River, $22.50) Vasse Felix Classic Dry White Semillon Sauvignon Blanc 2015 (Margaret River,   $19) Willow Bridge Estate Dragonfly Sauvignon Blanc Semillon 2014 (Geographe, $20) Rob Dolan Trye Colours Sauvignon Blanc Semillon 2013 (Yarra Valley, $24) Fermoy Estate Semillon Sauvignon Blanc 2015 (Margaret River, $22) Miles From Nowhere Sauvignon Blanc Semillon 2015 (Margaret River $15) Millbrook Winery Barking Owl Semillon Sauvignon Blanc 2015 (Margaret River,   $17.95) Moss Brothers Semillon Sauvignon Blanc 2014 (Margaret River $25) Forester Estate Block Splitter Semillon Sauvignon Blanc 2014 (Margaret River, $20). 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Two Blues Sauvignon Blanc 2014
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