A letter from Mornington

I’m writing from the Mornington Peninsula, an area viewed by local vignerons as the heart of Australia’s pinot noir country. They’ve adopted pinot as their signature variety. And in a show of unity rare in an Australian wine region they’re taking this single, strong message to the world.

It’s a comparative small wine-growing region, where 61 wineries crush 6,000 tonnes a year of grapes from 940 hectares of vines. But it’s highly specialised as pinot noir accounts for 43 per cent (2,576 tonnes) of that output.

To put that in perspective it’s interesting to look at production in other areas specialising in pinot. The output of France’s Cote d’Or region (Burgundy), for example, dwarfs the Mornington figure – pinot accounts for about 45,333 (60 per cent) of the annual 75,333 tonnes crush.

And while the nearby Yarra Valley crushed significantly more pinot than Mornington, it’s 4,200 tonnes represented 22 per cent of the total of 19,000 tonnes – indicating that the Yarra’s far less specialised.

The story changes dramatically, though, when we shift a few degrees south to Tassie, where pinot represents 45 per cent of wine grape production – 1,264 out of 2,807 tonnes. However, much of this is destined for sparkling wine production, not red table wine production. Still Tasmania remains an increasingly important source of top-notch red wine made from pinot noir.

But the most stunning concentration of pinot production in the southern hemisphere is in New Zealand’s Central Otago region at 45 degrees south. Last year’s pinot production of 7,509 tonnes represented 80 per cent of the area’s 9,495 tonne harvest.

And in America, Oregon’s Willamette Valley vignerons processed 17,463 tonnes of pinot in a total crush of 25,869 tonnes.

Part of the marketing push by the Mornington Peninsula Vignerons Association is the annual International Pinot Noir Celebration, a two-day symposium and tasting, attended this year by about 170  wine industry folk and writers from around the world and a sprinkling of die-hard pinot drinkers.

They’re all pinot nuts and opinion makers, drawn there by the range and quality of wines up for tasting (not just from Mornington) — and discussions, led by some of the best Australian, New Zealand, French, American and Canadian winemakers and writers.

This year’s tastings included wine from France’s Burgundy region, California’s Anderson Valley and Oregon’s Willamette Valley in the United States, Chile’s San Antonio Valley, the Okanagan Valley in Canada’s British Columbia and several Victorian, Tasmanian and New Zealand regions.

But at the opening of the Celebration, keynote speaker Jancis Robinson, suggested a few surprise pinot-producing regions that might be included in future tastings.

These could include wines from Ontario – once too cold for grape growing, but not any longer – and perhaps some from Austria, Switzerland and Germany. The Germans, she said, are “mad about pinot noir”, known there as spätburgunder.

It’s now Germany’s second most planted variety after riesling, she said, and some of them are very good. She’d recently attended a tasting of very old German spätburgunders and French Burgundies (1920s to 1950s vintages) in the twelfth century Kloster Eberbach. The German wines fared reasonably well, she said, and some of the 1940s vintages looked more youthful than the Burgundian classics.

Jancis said she viewed the world’s growing interest in pinot as a search for lighter, more refreshing wines. She then moved on to the event’s theme – does good pinot result from nature or nurture – to be addressed in a series of masked tastings.

Over the next few weeks we’ll look at these and review a range of very different and very exciting pinot noirs.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2009