Heading south to pinot country — Nicholson River and Bass Phillip

In a sense, the Australian pinot noir story is a small one. The variety represents only about four per cent of our annual red grape crush – and much of that goes to sparkling wine production. But, in another sense, it’s a big story because it’s one of the great varieties and provides succulent drinking when it’s done well.

Even if we accept that New Zealand, overall, does it better than we do (it’s their leading red variety), that’s largely a consequence of our latitude. In other words, as pinot’s a cold-climate variety, Australia’s best pinot vineyards cling to our cooler, southern fringes.

These have been probed for over thirty years now by vignerons seeking cool, humid climates comparable to those found in France’s Burgundy region, home of pinot noir.

And at Chateau Shanahan we’ve been sniffing our way through some of the cool-grown pinots in the last few months, recommending the ones we like. Then in January we drove south to visit a couple of pinot pioneers and a few comparative newcomers, too.

For first port of call we’d pencilled in South Gippsland’s Bass Phillip Wines – home to Australia’s most expensive pinot. But we stopped en route at Nicholson River Winery, some 160 kilometres to the northeast, in East Gippsland.

And what a contrast between the two: Nicholson River with a substantial passing trade, making idiosyncratic wines – a little bit of something for everyone – and delighting in making affordable pinot; Bass Phillip, off the beaten path, and focusing squarely on the top of the market.

Ken Eckersley founded Nicholson River Winery, just a few minutes drive off the Princes Highway east of Bairnsdale, in 1978. He says ‘it began as a hobby based on enthusiasm for wine. But we had to learn to farm, grow grapes, make wine and sell it’.

He planted sixteen varieties and ‘had to learn how to make each of them’. But they didn’t all work and even now, at age 65, he and wife Juliet are substantially restructuring the vineyard. ‘It’s the last throw’, Ken said.

Chardonnay was the first winner and remains Nicholson River’s flagship – the rich and delicious 2005 currently selling at $35. But Ken’s pinots are good, too, although he reckons ‘the snobs have captured pinot. I like to make a nice pinot noir and sell it at $15’.

And he does – the 2004 walked out the door during our visit. This is big-value, estate-made wine, as good as pinot gets for that price. Ken’s Nicholson River Pinot Noir 2005 ($35) delivers, too. If not as polished as some at the price, it has real depth of pinot flavour that goes on pleasing – the bottles we later drank in Melbourne seemed never big enough. See www.nicholsonriverwinery.com.au

A day later and a degree further south on a remote dirt road in Leongatha South we pull up outside Bass Phillip. Is this really the home of revered pinot? Ramshackle cottage, overgrown grounds, piles of timber – deliverance country, it seems, without the banjo player.

Instead, proprietor Phillip Jones steps forward and we’re talking Burgundy, pinot noir, yields per vine, wine quality, humidity and the fertility of Gippsland soil – ‘grass grows in the hinges of my ute’, says Phillip.

The cool maritime climate here suits pinot and the constant humidity is a blessing and curse at the same time. Jones says that as grape skins are porous, humidity limits the loss of volatiles and, ultimately, means better aroma and flavour in the wine. Conversely, in dry climates, he believes, pinot loses flavour through transpiration.

He argues that all of the world’s great vineyards, bar Champagne and Burgundy, are near water – but that those two exceptions nevertheless enjoy humid vineyard environments because of their water retaining and expiring soils.

Here in Leongatha the constant humidity, says Phillip, makes mildew a perennial problem. It’s there on the neat vines and tiny, green/grey berries, resisting sprays and capable of desiccating the crop if not controlled.

Exposure to sunlight is one method of control, so throughout the vineyard the team’s plucking leaves to open the leaf canopies and expose the fruit. A biodynamic regime limits what spraying can be done – and Jones laments that its most ardent believers live in dry climates.

In five hours of talking and tasting, we barely touch on winemaking. For Phillip Jones, wine quality comes from the vines, vineyard locations and grapes. That’s where good pinot flavour comes from.

His vineyards are densely planted, in the Burgundian style – typically at nine thousand vines to the hectare although in one they’re packed in at seventeen thousand. The Aussie norm is about two thousand.

To maximise flavour, Jones targets a grape yield of about one third of a kilogram per vine – equivalent to around three tonnes per hectare. He bases this on the long-term Burgundian experience where the maximum permissible yields, defined as hectolitres per hectare, range from the equivalent of just under half a kilogram per vine for grand cru wines to a little over one kilogram for basic Burgundy.

And all this focus on grapes pays off in wines that can be strikingly Burgundian in style – intensely perfumed and flavoured and a joy to savour. Despite a tiny output, Bass Phillip produces an at times confusing number of pinots, including Issan, Village (now Crown Prince), Premium, Estate and Reserve – based on individual vineyards or plots within vineyards.

The best cellar beautifully as we saw during our visit in a 1997 Jacques Raymond Selection and 1991 Bass Phillip Premium, one of the best Aussie reds I’ve ever tasted. The market likes Bass Phillip wines, too – the 2005 Reserve recently fetched $288 a bottle at Langton’s auctions.

These are cult wines now, and deservedly. But there’s terrific value in the lovely, about-to-be-released Crown Prince 2007 ($49). The wines are difficult to find, so it’s best to call the winery on 03 5664 3341.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2008