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Gnarly Pinot From Down Under

“Now we have every reason to believe that in Southern Australia we can produce wines in all respects equal, and some respects superior , to those of France. Let our first-class vignerons have faith in the wines they make pure and simple. It is as certain as anything can be that the manufacture of wine will become one of the chief articles of Southern Australian produce.”

... Thomas George Shaw, Wine, the Vine, and the Cellar 1863



Australia has staked its wine reputation on Shiraz, Riesling, Semillon, Chardonnay and “stickies” (Tokay and Muscat). Big, fruity, juicy and jammy have been the red wines’ trademarks. A feminine and nuanced wine like Pinot Noir has never really fit into the Aussie drinking ethos .

Pinot Noir has historically been pretty much an afterthought, even though Pinot Noir has been grown in Australia since the 1830s, much longer than in many parts in the wrong places (too warm - sound familiar?). There was a movement during the ’70s and ’80s to cooler climates at a time when California was beginning to realize that Pinot Noir prospered best in chilly environs. There were sporadic successes - a 1976 Tyrell Pinot Noir came in first in the Pinot Noir class at the 1979 Gaul-Millau Wine Olympiad - but the wines often were unflattering to this most sensual of grapes. Some of the iconic Australian Pinot Noir labels such as Bannockburn, Bass Philip, Giaconda and Mount Mary were inconsistent and as writer Harvey Steiman said, “they seem to go for earthy complexity early on that makes some vintages downright weird.”

A quiet revolution is now in progress in the cool climate regions of southern Victoria (southeast Australia) as dedicated winegrowers are beginning to craft Pinot Noirs that are downright gnarly (Aussie slang for terrific). Victoria has a colorful history of grape growing that mirrors the historical events in California. The first plantings were in 1834 using vines brought in to the region from Tasmania. Gold was discovered in 1851 which led to a boom in vineyard plantings. By 1890, Victoria produced more than 50% of Australia’s wine. Part of the annual output of wine was blended together and shipped abroad under the name of “Australian Burgundy.” Phylloxera was first discovered in the region in 1875, and by 1910, had thoroughly decimated the wine industry. Recovery was spearheaded by fortified wines which accounted for 80% of all Australian production. The ’70s and ’80s saw a proliferation of plantings of the classic French varietals including Syrah (Shiraz is the preferred Australian term), Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

Like California and Oregon, the Australians are now using modern viticultural techniques for Pinot Noir and handling it with respect and gentleness in the winery. Pinot Noir has found a home in appropriate microclimates throughout Melbourne’s ’Dress Circle,’ the so-called Port Phillip Zone of Victoria (refer to map). This includes the Yarra Valley, Mornington Peninsula, Geelong, Macedon Ranges and Sunbury. Still other regions of Victoria such as Gippsland Zone and North East Victoria Zone show promise.


Some of the areas are continental with large diurnal variations in temperature during the latter stages of the growing season (Yarra Valley and Gippsland), and others have more maritime influence such as Geelong and the Mornington Peninsula. Within regions, the heat summation can vary a great deal (parts of Geelong and the Yarra Valley can ripen Cabernet!). The same clone of Pinot Noir can ripen up to five weeks apart depending on where it is located. Soils range from sandy/brown loam to rich, red volcanic. The volcanic or granite-based soils tend to lend more vigor to the vines. There are parts of Geelong that have limestone below red volcanic soil. Growing season sunshine hours (daylight hours with temperature between 59°F and 77°F) compare favorably with Burgundy (Mornington Peninsula 1420, Yarra Valley 1490, Cote d’Or 1449, Central Otago 1388, Willamette Valley 1660, Russian River Valley 2118,).

I asked my friend, David Lloyd (winegrower and owner of Eldridge Estate in the Mornington Peninsula, and organizer of the biannual Mornington Peninsula Pinot Noir Celebration), to give me a run down on the current state of Pinot Noir in Australia. Although the majority of wineries in Victoria do not grow Pinot Noir, the Victoria region remains the largest producer of Pinot Noir in Australia by far. There are about 4,500 acres of Pinot Noir planted in Australia of which, 4,200 acres are in Victoria (1,900 acres Yarra Valley, 2,280 acres in the Mornington Peninsula, 353 acres in Geelong and 60 acres in Gippsland) and 200 acres in New South Wales. Annual production of Pinot Noir is roughly 550,000 cases (155,000 cases for the Mornington Peninsula). There are approximately 200 wineries producing Pinot Noir in Victoria, 70 of which are on the Mornington Peninsula. Tasting rooms vary considerably with some open by appointment only, others on weekends only, some open the first weekend of the month, and still others open 364 days a year. Roughly, there are about 150 tasting rooms in Victoria and 40 on the Mornington Peninsula.

Most Pinot Noir vines are planted on their own roots. If rootstocks are used, Schwartzman and SO4 are common. In Australia, there are 16 significant clones of Pinot Noir planted, of which the most common is MV6. MV6 is known as the “Mother Clone,” and was originally taken from Clos Vougeot. and has a floppy canopy, rarely over crops, small bunches and berries, concentrated plumy and meaty characters, and great structure as a foundation clone in a blend. Other clones include D2V5 (UC Davis origin, aka 1A), D5V12 (UC Davis origin, aka 20), G5V15 (UC Davis origin, aka D2V6, 8048, the same as Wädenswil or 2A)), G8V3 (UC Davis/Swiss origin, aka 13), G8V7 (UC Davis origin, aka 15), H7V15 (UC Davis origin, 22), Mariafeld (Swiss origin, aka 14), 18GM (German origin, 13), Pommard (UC Davis origin, aka 5 and 6), Dijon clones 114, 115, 386, 521, 667 and 777 (Dijon/Morey St. Denis origin). The Davis clones were used in many early Pinot Noir vineyards. D5V12 was widely planted as a sparkling wine clone. It crops high and often lacks the flavor of other clones. It does well in warmer parts of the Pinot Noir growing regions when cropped below 2 tons per acre. The Dijon clones make up most of the newer plantings. 667 is just beginning to appear and 777 is the most recent and the rarest.

Trellising is most often vertical shoot, although quite a few growers employ some form of Lyre or Scott- Henry. (see trellising types for Pinot Noir on page 4). Yields vary from 1.1 tons per acre to 5 tons per acre in the irrigated parts of the state. Most vineyards are between 2 and 3 tons per acre. Very little irrigation of any sort is used once the vines are established. This promotes a deep root system which is essential for vine survival and required to produce the flavors of fine Pinot Noir. Few producers use biodynamic principles.

The biggest challenges to growing Pinot Noir are birds (netting is required), cool snap at flowering that gives a poor fruit set, frost in some regions and rain at harvest. Many of the vineyards are in former apple orchards, so the Light Brown Apple Moth and its larvae are a problem. Copper, sulfur and Scala are used to protect against botrytis. Most growers use one or two sprays of under-vine Roundup. Some have experimented with soil tillers to replace Roundup and some are using hay, but the recent drought (as of mid-May, 2007, the 12 month rainfall was the lowest in Victoria since they began keeping records in 1855) has meant most of the hay is allocated to feeding livestock. With small producers, most of the vineyard work is hands-on by the owners including pruning, trimming, leaf pulling, shoot thinning and spraying. In many intermediated-sized vineyards, teams of immigrants from Asia are used. Harvest runs from the end of March to early June.

Winemaking is traditional. Most press with air bag presses, although a number of small producers use hydraulic basket presses. Fermentation is carried out most often in stainless steel and 100 liter plastic vats. Only 5% of production is done in large oak fermentors.

About 50% of all Pinot Noir produced in Australia is sold directly to consumers at the winery or through a mailing list, with the balance evenly divided between restaurants and wine shops. Precious little of Australia Pinot Noir is exported to the United States (see page 8).

Top Victoria Pinot Noir Producers

Yarra Valley

Some wine critics consider the Yarra Valley too hot for growing Pinot Noir. The wines can exhibit baked or stewed fruit flavors. Years ago, my first introduction to Australian Pinot Noir was the Yarra Yering Pinot Noirs, which definitely verified this criticism.

Coldstream Hills: Co-founded in 1985 by noted Australian wine writer, James Halliday, this winery pioneered Pinot Noir in the Yarra Valley. The winery was sold to Fosters in 1996. Halliday lives on the property and is actively involved.

De Bartoli, Diamond Valley (David and James Lance), Domaine Chandon (the French have considerable investments in Australian wine country), Evelyn County (James Lance), Hillcrest (Phillip Jones), Metier (Martin William MW), Mount Mary, Rochford’s Eyton (David Creed), Tarra Warra Estate, Wanitime (Reg and Maryann Egan), Yarra Burn, Yarra Ridge, Yarra Yering, Yering Station, and Yeringberg (Guill de Pury). (Winemakers in parentheses).

Geelong

This region is a difficult area to farm grapes due to the constant threat of drought, compacted soil, wind and spring frosts.

Bannockburn: Gary Farr was the long time winemaker here. He was trained in Burgundy and his wines are Burgundian in sole. The densely-planted estate vines were planted in 1974. In 2005, Farr was replaced by Michael Glover who spent the previous five years at Moorilla Estate. Gary Farr also has his own label, By Farr, as does his son Mick, Farr Rising.

Curlewis, Innisfail (Nicolas Farr), Provenance, Scotchman’s Hill

Macedon Ranges

The Macedon Ranges are less than an hour’s drive northwest of Melbourne at the foothills of the Great Dividing Range. Rainfall is moderate and the volcanic soils are well-drained.

Bindi Wine Growers: This is an Australian icon that produces outstanding Pinot Noir, Chardonnay. and sparkling wine. Founded in 1988 by Bill Dhillon, the name Bindi came from the traditional dot, signifying female energy worn by women on their foreheads in India, Bill Dhillon’s native country. His son, Michael, who helped his father plant the vineyard, is the current winemaker. Australian wine guru Stuart Anderson was the winemaker until 1998. Yields are very low (1.0-1.4 tons per acre) with vigorous vertical canopy management, very careful hands on winemaking using wild yeasts, no fining, minimal filtration and aging in French barriques. The 15 acres of estate vineyards have a distinctive terroir of volcanic soil flecked with quartz. The entire 1,200 cases yearly of unique wines are entirely handmade and estate produced and bottled. Three Pinot Noirs are produced: Composition (from primarily younger vines blended with fruit from elsewhere in the vineyard), Original Vineyard (showing perfume and soft fruit), and Block 5 (more dense and structured). Recently, a new bottling was introduced for the 2004 vintage, “The Lost Highway Project,” which features a label by artist Justin Hampton who is recognized for his edgy-rock illustrative style. Michael Dhillon was recently nominated for Australia’s most prestigious award for winemaking, the Quantas/Gourmet Traveler Wine Winemaker of the Year.

Curly Flat: Phillip Moraghan founded this winery in 1991. He has done several vintages in the United States, including Ponzi Vineyards in the Willamette Valley. A Pinot Noir specialist, his wines are highly praised and often the equal of Bindi. The estate vineyard is 33 acres and production is 3,500 cases per year. Trellising is unique and horizontally divided. The main type is the Lyre trellis, the other type used is the Geneva Double Curtain. The theory is that the vine canopy has two curtains of foliage, allowing sunshine inside to maximize exposure to sunlight, facilitating better ripening, and increased intensity of flavor with less risk of plant disease. Phillip remarked to me that “Pinot Noir is often called the ‘heartbreak variety’. Why? I think it is simply a matter of Pinot Noir being a very selective escort - she only likes particular environments. When planted on the better sites, in the right regions, the only heartbreak comes when viticulturists and winemakers are ill-mannered in how they look after her in the vineyard and in the winery. This is no ordinary variety - she is of the highest class - and must be treated accordingly.”

Domaine Epis (Alec Epis), Kyneton Ridge (John Boucher), Rochford

Mornington Peninsula

Only an hour’s drive from Melbourne sits the Mornington Peninsula on the southern coast of Victoria. The Peninsula has more than 170 vineyards set amongst rugged coastlines and stunning landscapes. It is a region with plentiful rainfall, little risk of frosts, and copious daylight sunshine.

Eldridge Estate: Owner and winemaker David Lloyd has been dubbed the ‘Clone Ranger’ in Australia for his research on clonal varieties of Pinot Noir. His interest was triggered in 1990 when he went to Oregon and met Barney Watson who was researching flavor profiles of clones and make small batches of Pinot Noir to verify his research. In 1995, David and Wendy Lloyd bought a property in the Mornington Peninsula. Through replanting and grafting, they now farm 7 Acres of Pinot Noir (6 clones) and Chardonnay (5 clones). David has begun to release single clone Pinot Noirs which is unusual for Australia. His elegant style of Pinot Noir (similar to those of Main Ridge), have gathered a dedicated following.

Kooyong: Owned by Giorgio and Dianne Gjergia, this winery was founded in 1996. 80 acres are planted to 20 clones of Pinot Noir and 30 acres to 10 clones of Chardonnay in five separate vineyard blocks. Early on the young wines did not produce distinctive wines from the different blocks and only an estate Pinot Noir was crafted. Since 2001, three single-vineyard bottlings have been introduced (Ferrous, Haven, and Meres) in addition to the estate bottling. There is also a second label called Massale for Pinot Noir. The winemaker is Sandro Mosele. Mosele has raised the quality of Pinot Noir on the Mornington Peninsula and he has received numerous accolades. Jeremy Oliver noted that “the arrival of Sandro Mosele is possibly the best thing that could happened in the Mornington Peninsula.” Mosele prunes ruthlessly and conducts severe shoot thinning to reduce yields.

Main Ridge Estate: Nat and Rosalie White, who established their winery in 1975, are among the pioneering winegrowers in the region. In 1978 they were granted the first commercial winery license on the Peninsula. The vineyard was started by hand, meaning Nat and Rosalie dug every post and vine hole by themselves. Netting was placed on and removed by hand (a two week job to get them on and two weeks to get them off). Now a local contractor comes and nets the vineyard for him in a day. The vineyard is primarily Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. The site is very cool, comparable to Burgundy. Nat uses Burgundy as his model and says, “Pinot is very expensive to make - why aim for anything less than inspirational? Burgundy is still the benchmark.” When asked what he likes to eat with Pinot, Nat chimes, “I like Pinot between courses. It’s when you can really enjoy it. Pinot between courses revives the palate. Beautiful wine should be savored as an accompaniment to food, not used to merely wash it down.” I thoroughly agree with him on that. Two Pinot Noirs are produced here: “The Acre,” and the “Half- Acre.”

Paringa Estate: Lindsay and his son Jamie and daughter Sarah farm this small (10+-acre) vineyard. Founded in 1988, the winery produces 6,500 cases annually.

Stonier Wines: Brian and Noel Stonier planted one of the pioneer vineyards of the Peninsula in 1978. The winemaker is Geraldine McFaul. The Pinot Noirs are known for fragrance, flavor and finesse.

Ten Minutes by Tractor: Originally started by three family-owned vineyards, 10 minutes apart by tractor. Now owned by Martin Spedding who owns one of the three vineyards and leases the other two.

Yabby Lake: Financed by Village Roadshow Productions mogul, Robert Kirby, this newer label (first vintage was 2002), is under the direction of winemaker Tod Dexter from Stonier Winery, consultant Larry McKenna (New Zealand - Escarpment and famous for putting Martinborough on the world Pinot Noir map - he has been christened the “Pinot Maestro,” and “Prince of Pinot,” (the latter title I gladly share), and vineyard manager Keith Harris. Kirby’s childhood ties to the Mornington Peninsula led him to plant the 100-acre Red Hill vineyard in 1998. The site was chosen after consultation with worldrenowned viticultural consultant Dr. Richard Smart (“Flying Vine Doctor”) and local viticulturalist and vigneron Gary Crittendon. He also teamed up with Yarra Ridge’s Louis Bialkower to develop Northern Rhone-style Shiraz in Heathcote. The inaugural 2002 vintage of Yabby Lake Pinot Noir was named the Top Australian Red Wine by the Penguin Australian Wine Guide. “The acme of style: a fabulous faultless wine that Australia should be proud of.” This was the first time that a Pinot Noir had been named as the number one red wine in Australia. Winemaker Tod Dexter really admires Burgundy and loves “the exquisite balance between power and elegance they display. You just want to keep drinking them.”

Barrymore Estate (Peter Cotter), Box Stallion Wines (Alex White), Crittenden At Dromana (Gary Crittenden), Darling Park Winery (Robert Paul), Dromana Estate (Rollo Crittenden), Elgee Park (Geraldine McFaul), Foxey’s Hangout (Tony Lee), Hickinbotham of Dromana (Andrew Hickenbotham), Hurley Vineyards (Kevin Bell), Kewleys Vineyard (Brian Kewley), Mantons Creek Vineyard, (Alex White), Marinda Park Vineyard (Sandro Mosele), Merricks Estate (Paul Evans, Alex White), Montalto Vineyard & Olive Grove (Robin Brockett), Moorooduc Estate (Richard McIntyre), Morning Star (Sandro Mosele), Myrtaceae (Julie Trueman), Osborns (Richard McIntyre), Paradigm hill (George Mihaly), Phaedrus Estate (Ewan Campbell & Maitena Zantvoort), Pier 10 (Judy Gifford), Port Phillip Estate (Sandro Mosele), Rahona Valley Vineyard (John Salmons), Red Hill Estate (Michael Kyberd), Scorpo Wines (Sandro Mosele & paul Scorpo), Seaforth Vineyard ( Phil Kittle), The Duke Vineyard (Geoff Duke), Three Wise Men (Graeme Leith). Tuck’s Ridge Winery (Michael Kyberd & Don Lewis), Willow Creek (Phil Kerney), and Winbirra Vineyard (Sandro Mosele).

Beechworth

Multiple varietals are planted in this hilly region from Pinot Noir to Shiraz to Nebbiolo. Availability of water can be the biggest challenge here.

Giaconda: A winery of cult status in Australia. The owner is “flying winemaker” Rick Kinzbrunner. According to Andy Tan, “the most Chambolle look-alike Pinot Noirs with great purity of fruit, but not particularly age-worthy.” The Chardonnays are legendary.

Savaterre: Keppel Smith found this site in northeast Victoria in 1996 after searching for years through Australia’s wine regions. Located at 1,400 feet in the mountains near Beechworth, the closely-spaced Pinot Noir and Chardonnay vineyard is farmed organically. This is considered one of Australia’s top 25 vineyards.

Gippsland

This is a very large region with many varied climates and topographies. The region is a two hour drive southeast of Melbourne in the Gippsland Mountain river-district.

Bass Phillip: This ultra-cult Pinot Noir producer has been making tiny quantities of Pinot Noir since 1990. The vineyard is located in the southernmost part of Victoria. It was named after two explorers of the region, George Bass and Arthur Phillip. Philip S. Jones planted the small Pinot Noir vineyards in 1979 following the Burgundian style of close spacing of the vines. The wines have been inconsistent, but enough of them have been good enough to be likened to the best wines of Vosne-Romanee. I have had several through the years and they are notable in their orange hue which makes them appear years older than they are. Like many wines from Burgundy, there are many that disappoint, but some are quite stunning.

Moondara (Sandro Mosele), Philip Island (David Lance).

Top Southern & Western Australia Pinot Noir Producers

Southern Australia - Adelaide Hills

Southern Australia is known for Rieslings, Shiraz and other Rhone-style red wines. The names Barossa, Clare Valley and McLaren Vale are magical ones for wine enthusiasts. The quality of the wines here and the plethora of food artisans and excellent restaurants appeals to travelers much like Napa/ Sonoma does to Californians. The cool Adelaide Hills region is Southern Australia’s best area for Pinot Noir.

Ashton Hills (Stephen George), Barratt (Jeff Grosset), Geoff Hardy Wines (Ben Riggs), Grosset (Jeff Grosset), Knappstein Lenswood (Tim Knappstein).

Western Australia

This large wine-growing region has had limited success with Pinot Noir. In a cooler area such as Pemberton, for example, James Halliday notes : “The jury is still out. An enormous amount of faith has been pinned on the variety but the results have neither been convincing or consistent when used to make table wine.”

Old Kent River: Established in 1985 by Mark and Debbie Novak, the wine is made under contract at Alkoomi (which produces 60,000 cases per year). Maybe the best Pinot Noir from Western Australia according to sommelier Andy Tan.

Picardy: Dr Dan Pannell founded Moss Wood winery in the Margaret River region. This winery in Pemberton was subsequently chosen as a suitable site for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

Bellarmine Wines, Salitage, Wignalls Wines

Top Tasmania Pinot Noir Producers From what I read, Tasmania is Victoria’s rival when it comes to Pinot Noir. The fact that Tasmania was the source of the first vines planted in Victoria makes for some heated competition (similar to our lovehate relationship with France where our treasured vinifera vines originated). There is very little exposure of top-shelf Tasmanian Pinot Noir in the United States (it is snapped up by local islanders). The only Pinot Noir I have had is 9th Island which is made by Piper Brooks and is an inexpensive, simple Pinot Noir which one might find comparable to California Pinot Noirs on lower supermarket shelves here in California. I can only pass on what my readers and the press have said about Tasmania Pinot Noir and it has been very glowing. Tasmania has long been a source of quality grapes for sparkling wines made in mainland Australia (for example, Domaine Chandon and Southcorp). In Tasmania, there is now more Chardonnay planted than any other varietal, but there is significant acreage of Pinot Noir, Riesling and Pinot Gris. Sauvignon Blanc has shown considerable promise. Of those making Pinot Noir, the Tasmania Pinot Noir Forum acts as a unifying organization to promote and improve grape quality going back to 1999. There are 170 producers and over 100 brands of Pinot Noir in Tasmania.

According to the Tasmanian government’s website, the modern age of winegrowing in Tasmania began in the 1980s with some capital-infusion from Europe. By 2006, there were 3,163 acres of vineyards. This is very small in comparison to Australia’s total output, representing less than 0.5% of the national total. It does, however, account for a higher proportion of value, because of the higher prices that grapes demand from this island state.

The climate in Tasmania is varied but primarily maritime with some inland sites being warmer and more Mediterranean in nature (and conducive to Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Shiraz). Pinot Noir seems to thrive in most all but the warmest parts of the island.

Mark Willis, a Pinot enthusiast from Australia, notes that “If you look where it is situated, it makes total sense that Tasmania should make fantastic Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. It is truly one of the great emerging Pinot Noir regions of the world. There are stunning restaurants and it is truly one of the last great unspoiled first world regions that exist.”

The first modern commercial winery on the island was Moorilla, which was started in 1958 by Claudio Alcorso, who named the winery after the Aboriginal word, “the rock by the water.” It is now owned by a syndicated company. Winemaker Andrew Hood is a central figure in Tasmania for he makes wine for at least 30 small producers. He has twice been a finalist in the Quantas/Gourmet Traveller Wine Winemaker of the Year awards.

In 2003, Panorama Vineyard, south of Hobart, charged $160 for its 2001 Reserve Pinot Noir. Other producers, Domaine A and Moorilla Estate, not to be outdone, released Reserve Pinot Noirs for $100. Hefty price tags, yes, but Victoria remains the topper - 2001 Bass Phillip Reserve Pinot Noir was released at $220 a bottle. Are these prices insane??

Tamar Valley: East Arm, Holm Oak, Notley Gorge, Rutherhthe, St. Matthias, Silk Hill, Resevears Estate, Tamar Ridge Wines.

Pipers River Region: Bay of Fires, Brook Eden, Dalrymple, Golders Vineyard, Pipers Brook Vineyard, ProvidenceWines.

Central East Coast: Apsley George Vineyard, Spring Vale, Freycinet Vineyard (Andrew Hood).

Coal River Valley: Domaine A (Peter Althaus), Wellington (Andrew Hood), Stoney Vineyard.

Derwent Valley: Meadowbank Estate (Gerald Ellis), Moorilla Estate, Winstead, Stefano Lubiana (Steve Lubiana).

Huron Valley (Southern): Elsewhere Vineyard, Panorama Vineyard (Michael Vishacki).

Small amounts of the most prominent Pinot Noirs noted above such as Bass Phillip, Bindi, Giaconda, Kooyong, Moondara, and Yabby Lake are exported to the United States. A Melbourne retailer, Winehouse (www.winehouse.com.au), sells many rare Australian Pinot Noirs and wine can be shipped to the United States for about $230 a case (gulp). In the United States, Bindi, Kooyong and Moondara are imported by Vine Street Imports (www.vsimports.com, 212-627-0850). Yabby Lake is imported by Terlato Wines International (www.terlatowines.com, 847-604-5724).

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