Pinot noir reflections

The good news about Australian pinot noir is the superb quality now available from our best producers; the bad news is that good pinot noir will always be dearer than wines of comparable quality made from other grape varieties.

Australian grape growers and wine makers during the 1980’s learned to mass produce high-quality dry table wines from all the classic varieties except pinot noir.

Lindemans Bin 65 Chardonnay, a million litre blend, conquered world markets before its huge success here at home. Like Woodleys Queen Adelaide, Yalumba Oxford Landing, and many others, its success stems from a grape that gives rich flavours wherever it’s grown… in these cases from high-yielding vineyards along the Murray River. It didn’t happen overnight, mind you. It took a decade to get vineyard management and wine making skills right. But these now form the basis of many of our export successes.

Good, cheap rhine rieslings were with us long before chardonnay arrived on the scene. Widespread plantings of riesling pre-dated those of chardonnay by a century. With the arrival of refrigeration in wineries in the 1950’s, mass production of high-quality, delicate rieslings spread quickly.

Notable pioneers in this field were, incidentally, Sydney Hamilton and Count Von Seeck at the Ewell winery (now disappeared beneath suburban Adelaide) and Colin Gramp of Orlando. Gramp’s first major success with cold-fermented riesling arrived with the Melbourne Olympic games in 1956.

In the early 1950’s Colin brought to Australia from Germany two things that changed the face of the Australian wine industry: temperature controlled, sealed fermenters, and a young wine maker, Gunther Prass.

Using Eden Valley rhine riesling grapes, Gramp and Prass made a delicate, slightly sweet white which they then refermented in a sealed vat. They’d invented Barossa Pearl. It was launched at the Olympics and became one of Australia’s most successful wines, recruiting a new generation away from beer and spirits to table wine.

Now, cheap rhine rieslings, all cold fermented, are the wine drinkers best friend when it comes to flavoursome, everyday quaffing. Try rieslings like Seaview and Leasingham and Hutt Creek, available for $5 to $7, and you’ll see what I mean. Pay a little extra, and you move into spectacular quality with wines like Mitchelton at around $10.

Cabernet sauvignon, like chardonnay, was a relatively late arrival on the mass-production scene. Widespread plantings started in the late sixties, then boomed through the 1970’s and 1980’s. As broad acres came on stream in Coonawarra, Padthaway, the Murray River and with significant areas in McLaren Vale and the Barossa Valley, production and quality lifted while prices fell dramatically in real terms.

Our mass-produced cabernets must surely now be the best in the world. Show me a red as good as Seaview McLaren Vale Cabernet 1992 retailing at around $8-$9. Then there’s Hardys Nottage Hill at $5 to $7 (lighter than the Seaview, but a lovely drink nevertheless) and Seppelt Black Label at $7-$9. These are just a few examples. And though wholesale prices have risen, retailer hoarding has so far protected the consumer from the full effects.

Shiraz has been with us since the 1830’s. Just as rhine riesling provides a huge mass of good cheap white, shiraz is the red-drinkers friend when it comes to value. On its own, or blended in Australia’s unique shiraz-cabernet combination, it provides an ocean of deep, rich, satisfying drinking.

Along with riesling, chardonnay, cabernet, and shiraz, our wine makers have now conquered mass production of semillon, sauvignon blanc, chenin blanc, colombard and a host of other varieties making up commercial blends.

Pinot noir, I suspect, will never join this list. Of all the varieties capable of making profound wines, it simply refuses to be mass-produced. The good ones have three things in common: they come from vineyards with tiny yields; the winemakers literally control every step of production from hand-picking of selected bunches to putting the final product in bottle; and the vineyards are in cool areas.

Small yields push costs up not just through having less grapes for capital invested, but also through the high labour costs of keeping vine vigour and yields under control. To some extent this applies to the very best wines made from any variety.

But pinot noir seems to be the most uncompromising of all. Shiraz, cabernet, riesling, and chardonnay all give good flavour from comparatively high yields. Pinot alone makes miserable, thin wines if the vigneron takes his or her eye off the vineyard for just a few moments. But the good ones from the Yarra Valley, Mornington Peninsula, and Tasmania and occasionally from other cool growing areas deliver some of the velvety richness we see in good Burgundy.

October 2nd, 1994

Jancis Robinson, in Wines Grapes and Vines (Mitchell Beazley, London, 1986) tells us pinot noir is one of the most mutatable of all grape varieties. Thus, on its home turf in Burgundy, France, exist more than 1,000 different clones of this one variety. What she doesn’t tell us, and all pinot lovers know this already, is that it makes one of the most intoxicating of all red wines. Perfumed, luscious, velvety smooth and seductive in every way, pinot is not a wine to enjoy in moderation.

I rediscovered its glories on a long and warm Sunday afternoon at Chateau Shanahan recently with a run of 1982 Burgundies. Ruchottes Chambertin Clos des Ruchottes and Charmes Chambertin from Domaine Armand Rousseau and Clos Vougeot from Domaine Georges Roumier delivered the sweet, sensuous, decaying wonders only old Burgundies offer. Thankfully they were acquired when the Australian dollar was stronger and Burgundy not in such great demand. Alas, to repeat the exercise in a few years with, say, the 1990s is well beyond my pocket.

That means looking to the better Australian Pinots for similar pleasure in the future. And while we cannot say for sure which ones might age so gracefully, there are some pretty smart wines on the market, all from quite cool growing areas.

If the pinot focus has shifted to cool Southern Australia, it was a road blazed by Murray Tyrrell. He introduced Australian wine connoisseurs and opinion makers to Australian Pinot with Vat 6 back in the 1970’s. His efforts were given a great fillip when the 1976 won its class in the Gault-Milleau wine olympics in Paris in 1979.

While the award focused attention on Tyrrell’s achievement, it hardly sent Australian wine drinkers on a pinot noir shopping spree. The fortunate few who tasted the 1976 could have no argument that Murray Tyrrell’s success with this very difficult variety was a major achievement in Australian wine making. But the fact was that Australian red-wine drinkers preferred fuller-bodied styles. And if they encountered a pinot during the seventies and eighties, it probably tasted more like raspberry cordial than wine.

If the average quality of Australian pinot in the 1970’s and 1980’s was ordinary, it wasn’t for lack of trying, and there were isolated successes. Tyrrell’s success was perhaps all the more notable because he achieved it in the Hunter Valley, by popular wisdom an area too warm for the variety. It was not achieved by luck but by smart vineyard management, and smart winemaking inspired by Murray’s love of the original pinot, French Burgundy.

Nevertheless, Tyrrell’s the only one to make a go of it in the Hunter, the other successful pioneers being further south. Guill de Pury at Yeringberg in the Yarra Valley consistently turned out terrific pinot in minuscule quantities from the late 1970’s. And his neighbours at Mount Mary and Yarra Yerring succeeded, too.

Now, of course, there are any number of quite good pinot noirs coming out of the Yarra Valley, with particularly notable achievements from James Halliday’s Coldstream Hills as well as Yeringberg — the newly released 1992, for instance, offering that wonderful decaying opulence that sets pinot apart from other varieties.

Gary Farr’s Bannockburn pinot, from Geelong, offers a particularly robust expression of the variety, although my taste runs more to the delicacy of the Yeringberg style. Elsewhere on the western side of Port Phillip Bay, Scotchman’s Hill shows flashes of class.

Some studies suggest the Mornington Peninsula, wedged between Port Phillip and Westernport Bays, may be the best site in Australia for pinot. Stonier’s Merricks winery and others encourage that view. In the West, Wignall’s King River Winery (near Albany) shows promise.

And, of course, there’s Tasmania. where a number of sites may produce the goods. I particularly like Freycinet Pinot, and enjoyed last weekend a Julian Alcorso1991 from the Derwent, under Cellarmaster’s Famous Maker Label.

In 1993, Australian winemakers crushed 10,000 tonnes of pinot and by my estimate more than half of that went into sparkling wine. But it’s the one variety where small makers have the edge on the big companies. The Pinot story is still being written in Australia. It’s far less advanced than for other grape varieties. And I believe the only thing we can say with certainty is that the best are yet to come and they will come from relatively cold growing areas.