The following article is an extract, in part, of the 7th edition of the Australian Wine Guide which is now available.
Pinot Noir is an extremely hard grape variety to master, both for the grower and consumer. When successfully made it rewards the taster with a wine full of elegance, grace, and charm, even an occasional opulence. Pinot Noir is grown in the Burgundy region of central France and is a partner to Chardonnay in Champagne and other sparkling wines. In fact, more Pinot Noir is produced in Champagne than the Côte de Nuits in Burgundy. However, it is Burgundy, and in particular, the northern Côte de Nuits subregion, that offers the finest expression of Pinot Noir admired by people across the world.
Outside of France Pinot Noir is found in Oregon and Washington State in the United States; whilst Martinborough and Central Otago are two renowned regions in New Zealand.
Pinot Noir is amongst the trickiest of grape varieties to grow. It suits a cool climate, but one which allows the grape to achieve a physiological ripeness. The ripening process has got to be spot-on, otherwise if picked under-ripe the resulting wine will be thin, weedy, herbaceous and lack colour. Flowering must be uniform, and the summer moderate, with preferably a long, late ‘Indian summer’ style autumn. If the grapes are left on the vine too long and subjected to high temperatures the wine becomes stewed and loses all its elegance. Pinot Noir yield per hectare are low; and because it is an early ripening grape variety it is susceptible to frost in some cooler areas. It is very crop-sensitive, in other words, it loses flavour if it is allowed to produce too many grapes per vine. Crop/bunch thinning and leaf plucking are two common vineyard techniques employed to ensure quality and lower crop levels.
Soils play an important part in determining the outcome of Pinot Noir. In Tasmania some of the best Pinot Noirs are grown on basalt or dolerite soils. These types of soil produce more robust, savoury wines. Curly Flat outside Lancefield produce a single bottling off their red basalt soils and my tasting notes reflects the soil “black fruit, brambly muscular wine with powerful tannins (for a Pinot). It had a savoury driven palate and equally long finish”. At Paringa Estate on the Mornington Peninsula they have Ferrasol soils which is a clay and basalt mixture and produced similar concentrated wines. In Oregon the soils are volcanic; whilst in Central Otago loess soils are interspersed with gravel. French Pinot Noir in Burgundy sits on limestone subsoil which allows excessive water to drain; but it also acts as a sponge and slowly releases the water to the vines’ roots.
Below is an extract on regionality from an article I penned for Winestate Magazine in 2022.
“Dr Rocco Longo, from the Tasmanian Institute of Agriculture, at the University of Tasmania has conducted research into regional expressions of Australian Pinot Noir. In his project, which was summarised in the Wine & Viticulture Journal (2021), his team analysed Pinot Noir for Adelaide Hills, Yarra Valley, Mornington Peninsula and Tasmania. The team discovered there were three ethyl esters, namely ethyl decanoate, 2-methylbutanoate and ethyl 2-methylproponoate as well as decanoic acid that made up regional expressions of Pinot Noir. Sounds double Dutch to me. Thankfully Dr Longo explains that ethyl decanoate contributes to the aroma of black cherry, jam and smoke and this, along with decanoic acid, is found in Yarra Valley wines. I’m intrigued with decanoic acid as it adds ‘complexity’ to a wine, which is what we want in a good Pinot, correct? They found that Northern Tasmania produce more concentrations of ethyl 2-methylproponoate which produced sweet fruit and apple aromas. Mornington Peninsula was noted as having least anthocyanins, which would mean that they appear the lightest in colour.” On a recent trip to Geelong there seemed to be a sub-regional difference. Red fruit driven wines were found on the Bellarine Peninsula and this would connect with the findings about Mornington Peninsula wines as the regions are only separated by Port Phillip Bay. More darker fruit Pinot was common in the Moorabool Valley, distinctly different from the Bellarine.
There are over 45 different clones of Pinot Noir, and careful selection is required to suit the vineyard climate/terroir. Popular clones in Australia include: MV6, 114, 115, and the ‘new’ Dijon clones – 667 and 777. “MV6 is the backbone of Australian plantings”, comments Phillip Moraghan, winemaker in the Macedon Ranges. “It provides muscular wine; whilst 114 is more aromatic, some would say feminine. 115 has tight compact bunches, similar to MV6, and provides depth to a blend”. Abel is popular clone in New Zealand, it displays black cherries and higher acidity and is thought to have come from cuttings taken from Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. Winemakers have a wealth of options to plant and the French ENTRA-INTRA® clones, 943 seems promising being described by viticulturalist Nick Dry displaying “great flavour and complexity” on the middle palate.
Pinot Noir, in general, should be elegant, with light to medium tannin structure and good acidity. It is not as heavy or intense as Shiraz or Cabernet Sauvignon and so provides an alternative for drinkers and makes an excellent choice for a lunch-time red. It has a lower amount of anthocyanins and therefore appears lighter in colour. The best Pinots have a silky quality and leave a powerful impression on the palate. Wines coming from very cool climate might display herbal or tomato bush aromas, whilst warmer climates result in wines with ripe jammy red fruit characters. Young Pinot often displays delightful primary fruit aromas of cherries, strawberries or flowers, such as violets, all backed up by discreet oak aromas. These primary fruit aromas fade as the wine matures in bottle, but they should be replaced with sought after flavours such as gamey, spicy, salami, truffle, forest floor, barnyard or undergrowth aromas, what the French delightfully call sous-bois. Tannins should be subtle and fine but definitely there. ‘An iron fist in a velvet glove’ is one of my favourite analogies, expressing the power that a Pinot Noir can display, whilst maintaining its inner finesse and elegance. These examples can happily age for five to seven years.
In summary, and looking at the influence of winemaking, two real styles of Australian Pinot have emerged. One is the soft, light, fruit driven type, using partial carbonic maceration or whole berry techniques, producing overtones of cherry and strawberry. The other is a heavier more gamey, meaty, truffle style with the influence of French oak maturation, commonly referred to as a Burgundian style Pinot. The juice undergoes a hotter fermentation, up to 34 degrees centigrade, to extract all available colour and tannin.
Pinot remains a difficult varietal to master, with the best results coming from the cool regions around Melbourne. Macedon Ranges, Yarra Valley, Mornington Peninsula, Geelong and the Adelaide Hills region in South Australia are amongst the leaders in producing good Pinot Noir; with Frankland River, Pemberton, Mt Barker and Tasmania the other specialist areas. Bass Phillip in Gippsland is renowned for producing excellent Pinot Noir with texture and complexity.
Quartz Reef and pioneer Central Otago winemaker Rudi Bauer summarises Pinot this way. “Great Pinot Noir must have great entertainment value; this simply means that it can hold your attention and curiosity for a very long time. Overall it should display complexity which incorporates: varietal definition, site expression, seasonal uniqueness and to some extent house style – all in balance”
AKA: Pineau (France), Spätburgunder (Germany), Pinot Nero (Italy).
Aromas: Cherry, strawberry, raspberry, truffle, gamey, meaty, mushroom, forest floor.
Styles: Dry, light bodied and elegant wine with fine low soft tannins. Despite its delicate nature it should have good length, persistent flavour and a silky texture on the palate.
Food: Pinot Noir is at home with a vast array of dishes. Oily fish such as salmon or tuna are classic matches. Duck, particularly Peking or confit style, is a must with heavier meatier styles. The acid in Pinot can cut the fat richness of the duck nicely. Pinot Noir is an ideal lunch-time red wine.
Drink now or cellar? Cellaring Pinot Noir is a risky business. The outstanding wines can mature happily for 10 years whilst the majority of Pinots in Australia are best drunk within 1-4 years.
A Selection of rated wines from the 7th edition Australian Wine Guide – search the website for details and vintages.
Curly Flat (Macedon Ranges)
Moorooduc Estate McIntyre (Mornington Peninsula)
Artis (Adelaide Hills)
Attwoods Old Hog (Geelong)
Bannockburn De La Terre (Geelong)
Billy Button Shy Susan (Tasmania)
Clyde Park College Block (Geelong)
Clyde Park F Block (Geelong)
Giant Steps Sexton Vineyard (Yarra Valley)
Paringa Estate The Paringa (Mornington Peninsula)
Pooley Wines (Tasmania)
Provenance Wines Ballarat (Victoria)
Provenance Wines (Henty)
Henschke Giles (Adelaide Hills)
Scotchmans Hill (Geelong)
Silent Way (Macedon Ranges)
Tamar Ridge Single Block (Tasmania)
TarraWarra Estate Reserve (Yarra Valley)
TarraWarra Estate (Yarra Valley)
Yeringberg (Yarra Valley)
Yering Station (Yarra Valley)
Yering Station Reserve (Yarra Valley)