With its array of climates, soils and bevy of winemakers dedicated to the pursuit of perfection, it’s no surprise that Pinot Noir is a hot topic in Australian wine. Pinot Noir is the holy grail of winemakers and wine lovers, but it’s also the diva of the wine world – temperamental to grow and difficult to make, throwing up challenges at every step. But when its stars align, the perfection that follows is seen by many to be the ultimate wine experience. Australian Pinot Noir offers an array of characteristics depending on where it’s grown and how it’s made. The best examples are light-bodied yet intensely aromatic with multi-layered characters and incredible length. In this blog, we’ll take a look at some of the most exciting Pinot Noir being made in Australia and look at the winemakers who are applying artisanal techniques to create wines that could set the future of the country’s style.
Pinot Noir: From Beaune to Beechworth
In its spiritual home of Burgundy, Pinot Noir produces some of the world’s greatest and most expensive wines. In Australia, particularly in the coolest regions, the results are often spectacular.
Pinot Noir was one of the grape varieties brought into Australia by pioneer James Busby in the 1830s. The original vines were labelled as ‘Mother Vine 6’ (MV6), the heritage clone that is still widely grown in Australia. Newer Dijon clones arrived in the 1990s and now make up the balance of Australia’s Pinot Noir plantings.
While John Riddoch had unsuccessfully attempted to grow Pinot Noir in Coonawarra in the 1890s, Australia’s first commercial Pinot Noir vines of note were planted in the 1920s by Maurice O’Shea in the Hunter Valley. The vines were propagated with Busby’s original MV6 cuttings, descended from the Clos Vougeot vineyard in Burgundy. O’Shea blended Hunter Valley Pinot Noir with Shiraz to create wines like Mount Pleasant Henry Pinot Hermitage, which gained a reputation in its time as a reliable table wine. A 1960s vine propagation program saw cuttings from those original MV6 clones spread across Australia and even into New Zealand. Although the Hunter Valley climate is technically too warm and humid for Pinot Noir, in good vintages it can excel. For example, Tyrrell’s Vat 6, a wine that won first place in the 1976 Gault Millau Wine Olympics alongside some of France’s greatest wines.
Pinot Noir is an early ripening variety that’s thin-skinned, delicate, at risk of botrytis, downy mildew and powdery mildew. It’s famously fickle regarding location, only showing its best in temperate, cool climates, even though it’s highly susceptible to frost.
The challenges in growing, harvesting and making Pinot Noir are reflected in the high prices of the very best wines. But through technology, research and more knowledge of the varietal, greater plantings of Pinot Noir have seen an increase in the range of more affordable wines.
Australian Pinot Noir spreads
By the 1990s, Australia’s Pinot Noir plantings had expanded into regions with climate and terroir more suited to its temperamental, delicate nature. One of the major proponents of the style was Australia’s foremost wine critic, judge and author James Halliday, who helped reinvigorate the Yarra Valley’s reputation as a fine wine-producing region. After tasting Pinot Noir from Seville Estate and Mount Mary, Halliday and his wife Suzanne were inspired to grow and make Pinot Noir in the Yarra Valley, establishing Coldstream Hills in 1985. Coldstream Hills championed the hero varietals of the region - Chardonnay and Pinot Noir - winning great acclaim and building an enviable reputation for outstanding quality and distinctive varietal character that put the region firmly on the fine wine map.
Other areas where Pinot Noir is grown successfully in Australia include the Adelaide Hills (South Australia’s only significant Pinot Noir region), Tasmania, Victoria and Western Australia.
In South Australia, certain parts of the Adelaide Hills are cool enough to grow Pinot Noir with impressive results. The region is led by original makers Ashton Hills, Jeffrey Grosset (whose winery is in Auburn), Mount Lofty Ranges, Barratt and Nepenthe who laid the foundations for the next wave, including Murdoch Hill, Pike & Joyce, Riposte, BK Wines, Michael Hall, Ochota Barrels and Warwick Billings. The Adelaide Hills Pinot Noir style ranges from finely structured and nervy to broad and slightly less defined.
Cool regions in Victoria have found great success with Pinot Noir. In the Yarra Valley, regarded as Australia’s premier Pinot Noir region, the varietal was championed by founding wineries Seville Estate, Mount Mary, Yarra Yering, Oakridge, Gembrook Hill and Coldstream Hills. More recently established wineries include Yering Station, Toolangi, Hoddles Creek Estate, Innocent Bystander, Serrat, Rochford Wines and Mac Forbes.
On the Mornington Peninsula, with a climate cooler and wetter than Yarra Valley, the way was paved by early-established wineries Main Ridge Estate, Stonier, Crittenden Estate, Paringa Estate, Tucks Ridge and Hickinbotham. From the late 1990s further development led to the launch of wineries including Foxeys Hangout, Scorpo, Yabby Lake, Hurley, Dexter, Ten Minutes by Tractor, Montalto and Garagiste.
Gippsland, stretching from Victoria’s high country to Bass Strait, is home to Bass Phillip, established by Phillip Jones in 1979 and widely regarded as the region’s leading Pinot Noir producer, if not one of the best in Australia. Other noteworthy producers include Bass River, Australis, Narkoojee, Caledonia, Bellvale and Tambo Estate.
From Geelong, names to watch include Farr and Farr Rising, Bannockburn, Clyde Park, Lethbridge and Scotchmans Hill.
At 500m above sea level, the windy, cool Macedon Ranges is home to a small batch of boutique wineries battling the elements to create elegant, refined Pinot Noir. Leading Gippsland producers are Bindi, Curly Flat, Shadowfax, Silent Way, Lane’s End, Kyneton Ridge and Granite Hills.
Western Australia’s two major Pinot Noir regions are Great Southern and Mount Barker, both benefitting from the influence of the Southern Ocean providing the perfect cool temperatures for Pinot Noir. Margaret River, a slightly warmer area, produces a small amount of Pinot Noir in cooler years. Western Australia’s coterie of Pinot Noir makers includes Marchand and Burch, Larry Cherubino, Robert Oatley Vineyards, Evans & Tate, Picardy, Byron & Harold, Bellarmine and Harewood Estate.
Tasmania, Australia’s southern-most wine region, grows Pinot Noir with impressive results in vineyards right across the state. Variations in sub-region and meso climate give subtle qualities to the styles produced across the state. Moorilla Estate was the first winery in Tasmania (established in 1958) followed by the likes of Pipers Brook, Tamar Ridge, Bay of Fires, Moorilla Estate, Pooley Wines, Stefano Lubiana, Tolpuddle and Domaine A.
Australian Pinot Noir styles
A common misconception by wine drinkers unfamiliar with Pinot Noir is that it’s too light or too ethereal. Its pale, almost transparent on occasion, colour can mask the complexity and depth that lies within. It’s rarely going to stand up to tooth-staining, high-alcohol reds like Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon or Primitivo, but what Pinot Noir loses in strength it gains in complexity, length, structure and a silky flavour profile.
When young, Pinot Noir’s primary fruit flavours are most prominent and range from black cherry, strawberry and plum to violets, redcurrant and raspberry. As Pinot Noir ages, it reveals more complex characters in the spectrum of tobacco, forest floor, smoke, mushrooms and spice. In higher quality wines these characters will appear over a greater length of time, with the finest wines retaining a core of primary fruit after more than a decade in bottle.
Australian Pinot Noir and the winemaker’s role
Along with the influence of region or terroir, the greatest impact on Pinot Noir’s expression of style comes from the winemaker’s technique and approach. Australia’s new Pinot Noir identity leans towards the Burgundian style, one with a distinctly Australian edge.
With a variety as temperamental and delicate as Pinot Noir the challenge lies in how far to push it in the vineyard and winery to achieve greater complexity, aroma and depth without compromising its ethereal delicacy and peacock-feather finish. Winemakers striving to create the best Pinot Noir wines are leaning towards a small-batch, traditional labour-intensive, low-tech winemaking approach. Some of the techniques being used include sub-regional and single-block experimentation, natural fermentation using wild yeasts, pre-fermentation cold soak or chilling grape must under 10ºC (to delay the onset of fermentation and extract greater colour, flavour and tannins), minimal or no use of sulphur, zero or restricted fining and filtration regimes, and the choice of oak type, oak age, and intensity of toasting.z Pinot Noir is such an expressive varietal that the effects – and subsequent success or otherwise – of the winemaker’s choices will be immediately noticeable in the finished wine.
Australian Pinot Noir mavericks
A revolution is underway as winemakers push the boundaries to bring Pinot Noir a crisp new image. Years of winemaking experience in Europe gave Mac Forbes a strong knowledge of traditional, old-fashioned winemaking, the impetus behind his eponymous brand, creating wines that define the Yarra Valley style through site and fruit expression. Mac’s EB (Experimental Batch) range takes the results of random winery and vineyard trials to gain a broader understanding of site-specific and winemaking influence. Mac Forbes’ crystal clear Yarra Valley Pinot Noir reflects typical smoke and spice notes with a tangy crispness that brings the palate to life. The Woori Yallock Pinot Noir, from a vineyard planted in 1995, gains its personality from a hand-sorted fruit, partial whole bunch fermentation, portion foot stomped (pigeage) with no fining or filtration.
Based in Victoria’s Macedon Ranges, Michael Dhillon at Bindi Wine Growers works with the soil, site and vines to highlight Pinot Noir’s best qualities and create some of Australia’s most finely structured, iconic wines. Dhillon focuses purely on quality, complexity and restraint, creating Pinot Noir with that ethereal combination of power and elegance, perfectly balanced.
Along with wife Kirstyn, Brendon Keys is the force behind BK Wines. Keys’ philosophy behind his wines is drinkability – wines that make people talk and think. BK Wines Skin ’n’ Bones Pinot Noir pushes the boundaries, with long skin contact giving the wine a bone-dry finish (hence the name). This unfiltered, unfined Pinot Noir has a distinctively savoury aspect of sour cherry and blood orange with hints of cool-climate spice and fine, powdery tannins. Brendan’s artistic, non-conformist approach is challenging the conservative norms and pushing Pinot Noir out on a limb.
At family-owned Pooley Wines in Tasmania, young winemaker Anna Pooley handcrafts Pinot Noir with minimal intervention to showcase the qualities of the vineyard. The Cooinda Vale Pinot Noir from 20-year-old vines shows fruit, spice and minerality all in perfect balance, with a fine line of graphite-like tannin giving a backbone of support. Pooley’s Butcher’s Hill Pinot Noir is intensely perfumed with spices and cedar surrounding the primary fruit. With minimal winemaking input, these individual vineyard wines speak clearly of their origins.
In the rolling hills of the Yarra Valley, at Garagiste, founder Barnaby Flanders makes Pinot Noir with an artisanal hands-on approach, using destemmed, hand-sorted grapes fermented in open fermenters with wild yeasts. The wine is given careful cap management for optimal colour and tannin extraction followed by 10 months’ maturation in French oak hogsheads. The wines show excellent structure and length with hints of spiced cold tea and a fresh crispness that sets them up well for medium-term cellaring.
Australian Pinot Noir: The sky’s the limit?
At its best, Australian Pinot Noir is unique, expressive, multi-layered and finely structured. With a nod to the traditional styles of Burgundy, Australia’s artisan winemakers are coaxing the best out of Pinot Noir to create wines that express the best of region, soil, climate and show minimal evidence of the winemaker’s touch. With a growing demand for the stories behind the wines, the market is receptive to these small-batch producers who are taking a non-conformist approach to one of the world’s most famous and most sought-after varietals. The results thus far have been impressive, and as they continue to pursue the goal of Pinot Noir perfection it would take a brave man to bet against them achieving their aim.
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