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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.

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