Pinot takes off

Australian wine drinkers are taking to pinot noir in ever-greater numbers. And they’re prepared to pay far more for it then they do for other varieties.

Pinot noir, once a footnote in Australian red-wine sales figures, accounted for six per cent by value of retail red wine sales in the year to September 2011, according to Nielsen data.

Vintage Cellars liquor executive, Grant Ramage, says the same Nielsen data reveals pinot as “the fastest growing of the major varieties” at 21 per cent for the year, compared to nine per cent for shiraz (which accounts for 26 per cent of red wine sales) and five per cent for cabernet sauvignon.

The figures also reveal that we pay more, on average, for pinot than for shiraz or red in general – $17.50 retail a bottle for pinot, $12.50 for shiraz and $8.49 for red wine overall. (Not directly related, but of interest, is the premium we paid for sauvignon blanc ($11.60) compared to chardonnay ($8.34) – indicating Marlborough’s huge dominance of the sauvignon blanc market).

Ramage believes “a lot of New Zealand’s success with pinot noir was built on sauvignon blanc”. He says difficulties encountered by New Zealand pinot producers in some export markets forced prices down. Combined with the strong Australian dollar, this led to greater numbers of good, under-$20 pinots arriving in Australia.

Encouraged by the popularity of sauvignon blanc from the same producers, Australian retailers frequently promoted their pinot noirs. “This unlocked volume and interest”, says Ramage, probably converting many drinkers to a red style they’d not enjoyed before.

At the same time, Australian producers (they still account for the majority of pinot sales) had also got their act together. Several decades of growing pinot in suitably cool climates, and a huge amount of viticultural and winemaking effort, had lifted the quality of our best wines to a very high level (and priced accordingly).

A spinoff was the development of increasing numbers of convincing pinots at under or around $20 a bottle. This, along with New Zealand developments, set the scene for pinot’s, growth based on a unique “pop” market.

While several rungs down the quality ladder from pinot elites – like Mornington’s Main Ridge Estate, Gippsland’s Bass Phillip Estate or Central Otago’s Felton Road – these new, cheaper wines look, smell and taste like pinot noir. They’re recruiting new drinkers.

However, because good pinot’s more expensive to produce than good shiraz, the starting price is higher – around $20 a bottle versus around $10. But, as the Nielsen figures confirm, growing numbers of people seem happy to pay the premium.

In Australia, pinot noir remains a niche variety, accounting for a little under five per cent of our red grape harvest at 36 thousand tonnes in 2011. Take out the portion that goes to sparkling wine and pinot for red-wine production makes up perhaps four cent of our red output.

As a cool-climate variety, planting is concentrated in the far south and at high altitudes, notably in the Yarra Valley, Gippsland, Mornington and Bellarine Peninsulas, the Adelaide Hills and Tasmania – the latter with huge potential.

In New Zealand, it’s the dominant red-wine variety at around 30 thousand tonnes annual production, and third in volume – a nose behind chardonnay and a couple of laps behind sauvignon blanc (177 thousand tonnes in 2009). About one quarter of New Zealand’s pinot noir goes to sparkling wine production.

A portion of people converted by the lovely new, inexpensive pinots seem certain to move up the chain, tempted by the great diversity of styles now on offer. Anecdotal evidence says drinkers seem fascinated by the variety’s variability. They share the passion of producers for the many regional, sub-regional and individual vineyard wines now emerging.

While sales of the great wines of Burgundy are insignificant in volume and value in relation to the total market, they remain still the gold standard for Australian producers – in style, winemaking technique and the belief that individual sites should be allowed expression.

I’ve reviewed a couple of current-release examples below from one of Mornington Peninsula’s exciting producers.

Ten Minutes by Tractor Mornington Peninsula
10X Pinot Noir 2010 $32

A general Mornington Peninsula blend, largely from earlier ripening sites downhill from the company’s sites on Main Ridge. Features bright, red fruit character, medium body and fine tannins.

Ten minutes by Tractor Mornington Peninsula
Estate Pinot Noir 2009 $46

A blend from the later ripening Judd, McCutcheon and Wallis vineyards on Main Ridge – darker fruit characters, fuller body, rich texture and tighter more assertive tannins.

Ten Minutes by Tractor Mornington Peninsula
McCutcheon Pinot Noir 2009 $75

From the late ripening McCutcheon vineyard on Main Ridge – reveals a broad spectrum of pinot character: dark fruits, savoury and gamey notes, a touch of stalkiness and a particularly rich, velvety texture.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2011
First published 16 November 2011 in The Canberra Times