Armand Rousseau inspires Aussie pinot makers

Pinot noir is but a blip in Australia’s wine consumption statistics. But it’s one of the most satisfying varieties to drink when winemakers get it right, as they increasingly do. And though style and quality vary enormously, my experience is that those at the top mercilessly test their own wine against global peers, especially the classics from Burgundy, France.

As I judge, taste, visit wineries and interview winemakers, numerous Burgundy producer names pop up. But there’s one name – Domain Armand Rousseau – that every winemaker seems to revere.

It’s a name familiar to some older Canberrans as local wine merchants, Farmer Brothers, imported Rousseau’s wines (as well as Domaines George Roumier and Tollot-Beaut) from the early eighties until thee demise of Farmers in 1994.

Particularly memorable are those years when an Aussie dollar fetched eight French francs and the pool of world billionaires was much smaller than it is today. As an employee and then partner of Farmer Bros, especially in the pre-fringe benefits tax days, drinking top Burgundy (and not just Rousseau) became a daily experience.

It was a similar exposure to great Burgundy that inspired pretty well all of our now acknowledged local pinot noir producers. And though it’s more expensive to indulge a Burgundy taste today, a new generation of makers finds inspiration in the same journey.

So what is it about pinot, and more especially Burgundy, and in particular Domaine Armand Rousseau Burgundies, that ignites such enthusiasm? The answer is in the glass.

Even as a newcomer to pinot (assuming a modicum of wine interest), Rousseau’s wines are delicious. They tend to be pale in colour but very bright; they have a striking purity of aroma and flavour; and despite their pale colour, there’s a silky richness and persistence to the flavours that becomes more pronounced as you move up the quality scale from the village Gevrey-Chambertin through the ‘premier crus’ and on to the remarkable ‘grand crus’, including Chambertin and Clos de la Roche – nine wines in all, produced from 13-hectares of vineyards.

For all that we read of ‘funky’ pinot (a euphemism for smelly), the best young Burgundies, in my experience, offer pure, bright and clearly varietal aromas and flavours, across an interesting spectrum.
Since ‘funkiness’ is usually associated with winemaker inputs (or lapses), and the best pinot makers bend over backwards not to interfere with the grape flavours, the purity of top pinot should come as no surprise.

What is surprising, though, is that despite its comparatively pale colour (although it can be deep), pinot delivers one of the biggest tannin loads of any variety – bigger even than cabernet. It’s just that with pinot the tannins are generally soft, and often accompanied by a high level of naturally occurring, silky-feeling glycerol.

Words can never convey the loveliness of these wines. But clearly, from what they’ve inspired, they work!

And once you’ve tasted pinot as good as those made by Rousseau and other top Domaines, it’s not easy to be satisfied with anything less. This becomes a powerful force for aspiring new-world winemakers.

It’s a big jump from humid, cold Burgundy in eastern France to warm, dry Australia. And in the thirty odd years since the first wave of Burgundy-inspired vignerons set up shop, we’ve seen the pinot focus shifting towards the areas that we now know do it best – notably the Yarra Valley, Mornington Peninsula, Gippsland and Macedon in Victoria and Tasmania.

And just to show what long-term learning this wine business demands, thirty-plus years on the pioneers continue to tweak wine quality through changes in vineyard and winemaking practice. They still drink Burgundy, too.

For other established maker it can be wholesale change – not tweaking – as they replant vineyards to better clones and radically change winemaking practice.

There’s a new wave of pinot makers, too, some of them very good. Where the early, pioneers tended to carve vineyards in remote, untried terrain, drip-feeding capital from their full-time professional salaries, a new well-capitalised genre, builds on the pioneers’ learning. These, too, take their inspiration from Burgundy.

By now, I’m sure you’re wondering why all the fuss and bother over making the very best – when top-end wine makes up a tiny proportion of what we drink. Well, there are a couple of angles on this.

There’s the ‘wine snob’ element for those that’ve tasted and loved the best and want to relive the experience. And there’s the recruitment and trickle-down effect.

What we have now, because of the effort of our pioneers is a generation, albeit small, of pinot drinkers for whom Aussie or Kiwi pinot is the benchmark. They’ve never tried Burgundy. And as we succeed at the top end, we invariably produce wines that don’t make that cut and end up in more affordable blends. These expand the market.

As well, we have producers, like Montana in New Zealand, intentionally scaling up pinot production for mass consumption – and basing the scale up on the work their doing at the top end.

Because pinot’s such a lovely drop and offers so much pleasure, I recently visited a few of our successful, inspirational pioneers in Victoria. Their stories follow.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2008