Pinot noir — small volume, big talk

Pinot noir attracts a lot of talk for a variety that makes up only five per cent of Australia’s annual red grape output. In 2008 it contributed just 47 thousand of the 964 thousand tonnes crushed by our vignerons – a crush dominated by shiraz and cabernet sauvignon at 436 thousand and 254 thousand tonnes respectively.

Pinot’s comparatively small presence in Australia is explained partly by history and largely by climate: historically we grew grapes in warmer areas and came to love the resulting robust reds, led by shiraz. When we sought more elegant red wine styles, including pinot noir, our vignerons had to move to cooler southern or elevated fringes of our warm continent.

Pinot noir, in particular requires a cool to cold climate to deliver the perfume, flavour and supple texture that distinguish it from other varieties. We only have to cross the Tasman to see what a difference a few degrees of latitude makes to its success.

Pinot noir accounts for almost two-thirds of New Zealand’s red wine production, with merlot as its nearest competitor (about one third the volume of pinot) while cabernet and shiraz, restrained largely by climate, are only just on the radar.

In Australia our best pinots tend to come from the southern eastern tip of the mainland at between 37 and 38 degrees south (Macedon, Mornington Peninsula, Geelong,  Bellarine Peninsula, Yarra Valley, Gippsland), occasionally from higher altitude sites further north (for example, the Adelaide Hills) and increasingly from Tasmania, between about 41 and 43 degrees south.

New Zealand’s important pinot plantings start at around 41 degrees south at Martinborough (near Wellington, on the North Island), and continue across the Cook Straight at Marlborough (the country’s biggest grape growing area and biggest pinot noir producer) and to the west of Marlborough at Nelson.
Plantings are expanding, too, further south at Canterbury/Waipara (43 degrees). But perhaps the most significant in quality, if not the biggest in volume, are in the Central Otago district, in the vicinity of Queenstown, at 45 degrees south.

As in Australia, a good deal of New Zealand’s pinot production, particularly in Marlborough, goes to sparkling wine production. But that’s not the pinot that’s grabbing the attention of wine drinkers.

The increasing attention on pinot, from consumers and the industry, builds on the very high quality reds now being delivered by the best Australian and kiwi makers. There’s an inimitable magic in drinking top pinot. But it’s elusive. And though the failures and mediocrities perhaps still outnumber the successes, the odds have increased in favour of the drinker.

Today’s successes build on forty years of pioneering work by small makers. But unlike the case with, say, shiraz or cabernet, where big producers equal boutique makers in quality, top pinot remains largely the domain of the boutiques, both in Australia and New Zealand.

As well, we’re not seeing big volumes of high-quality, low-priced pinot that might bring the variety’s magic to a wider audience. We see the odd, convincingly good pinot at around $20 (for example Curly Flat’s Williams Crossing from Macedon). And Montana – New Zealand’s largest producer, owned by France’s Pernod Ricard – is getting close to the mark with its popular Montana and Stoneleigh Marlborough pinot noirs.

But we’re unlikely ever to see $10 to $15 pinot noir as good as equivalently priced shiraz or cabernet. And that’s because it’s inherently more expensive to make – a function largely of intense viticultural management and lower grape yields.

But increasing numbers of producers are getting their premium pinots right. Here are just a few really top notch styles that I’ve enjoyed in the last few months: Bass Phillip Premium 2004 (Gippsland); various Ten Minutes by Tractor wines priced from $23 to $60, Main Ridge, Stonier’s, Kooyong and Port Phillip Estate (all from Mornington); Curly Flat and Williams Crossing (Macedon); Phi and De Bortoli (Yarra Valley); Felton Road and Carrick (Central Otago, NZ); Ashton Hills (Adelaide Hills); Neudorf (Nelson, NZ) and Ata Rangi (Martinborough, NZ).

All the talk about pinot includes two large-scale events – one in Wellington, New Zealand, this week, the other in Mornington Peninsula in the first week of February. The keynote speaker for each is well-known English commentator, Jancis Robinson. But there’ll be an opportunity to taste top pinot from around the world.

I’ll bring back a shopping list from the Mornington event.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2009