Bit by bit Main Ridge perfects pinot noir

In 1975, a Neilsen poll, or even a straw poll, would’ve found few, if any, Australian takers for a $50-equivalent pinot noir. Then, as now, wine pioneers, like Main Ridge Estate’s Nat and Rosalie White, seem to be driven by a vision – and a faith that there’ll be buyers if they can make the wines of their dreams.

These are not the broadacre grape growers, not the empire builders, not the finger-to-the-wind makers – but the small-scale, visionary, artisans seeking the best from a small patch of earth.

There’re hundreds of them in Australia contributing a few drops each year to our ocean of wine. Many struggle, or survive on off-vineyard income. But a few, like the Whites, draw closer to their dream wines through tiny, incremental improvements made over decades.

And some time into the journey, probably not less than ten years, quality arrives and with it the followers prepared to follow the dream and pay the artisan’s price – a trusting relationship that builds with high, sustained performance.

Main Ridge is tiny by any measure with just three hectares of vines. On a mild summer’s day, after good rainfall, it’s a little arcadia – emerald green, flowers blooming and with Rosalie and snowy-haired grandson, Angus, in the vineyard.

But imagine it back in 1975 – probably scrubland and pretty remote at that, high up on the ridge and with walk-in access only in the early days. It would’ve been hard yakka and a major gamble.

Nat says that not knowing with certainty what might work they planted cabernet sauvignon, merlot, pinot noir, pinot meunier and chardonnay – a pretty good guestimate, as only the cabernet failed.

We just couldn’t get the green character out if it’, said Nat, so cabernet’s gone. He rates the merlot as ‘ok’ (an understatement), making about a barrel of it every year, as he does of pinot meunier, the cuttings for which came from the Thomson family’s nineteenth century vines at Best’s, Great Western.

Merlot and meunier add colour to the offering. But Main Ridge’s reputation rests on world-class chardonnay and pinot noir. These command around $50 a bottle – difficult to achieve, but necessary for survival on a meagre three-hectare wine estate.

The 2006 chardonnay ($52 a bottle; $48 by the dozen) is full but delicate showing the wonderful patina of subtle flavour and texture derived from barrel fermentation and maturation. Nat’s aim, he says, is ‘to produces a seamless wine with fruit flavours and unctuous texture in perfect balance’. And he does.

But we passed all too quickly through the chardonnays on our recent visit to linger over the pinots. We’ve had a taste for these since the 1997 vintage and probably arrived at just the right moment to see the 2005s, 2006s and 2007s – wines that could be described as good, better and best.

What we saw in these was a vintage-related flavour increase, culminating in the small but very concentrated 2007. These are still in barrel but struck me as sublime.

How did Nat and Rosalie get to this level? Bit by bit. And some of the important changes have come in the last decade and the last five years. ‘You’d think we’d know it all after thirty years, wouldn’t you?’ Nat jests.

An important change was a shift to wild-yeast ferments about a decade ago. Ultimately it produced better wine. But the first attempt in 1997 looked scary at the time. The wild yeast component (only about one third of the total) developed off characters (aldehydes and volatile acidity). But after barrel maturation for seventeen months and blending, delivered the lovely drop that hooked me onto Main Ridge.

It’s now standard practice at Main Ridge. Nat adds that in the tag-team of wild yeasts generations thrive, die and are replaced by others. Those in the dying phase lose the plot and produce glycerol instead of alcohol – adding to the wine’s rich, silky texture, a key component of great pinot.

Another important change, of the road-to-Damascus variety, came on a visit to Burgundy in 2003. Walking through one of the famed Domaine de la Romanee Conti (DRC) vineyards, he noticed discarded bunches on the ground and that they contained both black and green berries.

He queried the French and received what he calls an obscure response. Trade secrets, I suppose. But it turned out to be the key to not having to egg-white fine his pinots before bottling.

For over ten years he’d been able to bottle bright, clear pinot without filtering it. But to remove the slightly hard tannins prior to this required fining with egg whites – a simple process, like clarifying a stock, where protein the egg white bonds with tannin.

Why bother? Well, every fining and filtering takes away desirable aroma and flavour as well as whatever it is your trying to get rid off.

By deduction, I suppose, Nat applied what he’d seen at DRC. He found that by snipping off bunches that contained both black and green berries at veraison (when the berries soften and darken) he ‘narrowed the band of ripening at vintage’.

In turn this produced wines without the hard tannins and these required no egg fining. He’s bottled without fining or filtering ever since. This is, literally, making wine in the vineyard.

Thirty-three years after Nat and Rosalie founded Main Ridge, they’ve got in the cellar just fourteen 228-litre barrels of 2007 pinot noir – about half the usual production. But the standard wine’s limpid, beautifully perfumed, and silky fine, even with a few months’ maturation to go. And the ‘Half Acre’ component, from a small plot within the pinot vineyard and to be bottled separately, is stamped with class – a sublime drop that’ll give Grand Cru Burgundy a run.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2008