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Australia Inches Toward Better Pinot Noir

Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Apr 26, 2007 7:10pm ET

Why can't Australia solve the Pinot Noir equation? Oregon has. California has. New Zealand has. But you can count on your fingers the outstanding Pinot Noirs from Oz that we can find in America.

I've had several conversations with winemakers, wine writers and folks in the wine business here, and I am convinced that most Aussies haven't a clue what great Pinot Noir is all about. Yes, the Pinots are getting better. But the makers who are getting it right seem to know a secret.

What do they know? That young Pinot Noir should taste like fruit, and it should balance its acidity, tannins and alcohol so the structure does not get in the way of the flavors. It's about a combination of texture and flavor that feels delicate but gets really generous when you least expect it. The great ones just explode with flavor without losing their essential harmony and grace. Most Aussies I talk to seem to have a different idea.

Over dinner with a prominent Australian wine writer, I was surprised to hear him reject outright Pinot Noirs that taste of blackberries or plums. "Too ripe," he says. "They lack finesse." Oh yeah? Tell it to Romanée-Conti. He also demanded that Pinot Noir be silky and delicate. Tell that one to the makers of wine from the hill of Corton.

And that's just using Burgundy as a model. As California has shown, you can make compelling wine on a different scale. They may not all be to my taste (I prefer more graceful versions), but I recognize their power. It's better in Oregon. New Zealand is coming on strong now, once it got past the idea that Pinot Noir had to be sharp and tangy (and, too often, thin).

That particular Aussie writer is not an anomaly. Most of his brethren here in Oz have the same view, and the winemakers have responded with either nice Pinots with little excitement (most of Tasmania) or faulty wines loaded with earthy character (Victoria). I have always had a problem with some of the icon Victorian Pinot Noirs such as Bass Phillip, Bannockburn, Mount Mary and Giaconda. They get it right occasionally, but they seem to go for earthy complexity early on that makes some vintages downright weird. And they seem willing to sacrifice flavor for acid.

Some of the wines I tasted over the past few days give me hope. I drank a lovely 2005 reserve from Coldstream Hills over lunch with James Halliday, who sold his Yarra Valley winery to Southcorp (now Foster's), but still lives on the property and retains a personal interest in the wines. To my taste the 2005 reserve is the best wine Coldstream has made. It has ripe currant and plum flavors and remains utterly graceful through the long finish.

I visited Michael Dhillon at Bindi in Macedon, about 45 minutes northwest of Melbourne. He now has responsibility for the vineyard planted on a picturesque corner of the farm that his family has owned for generations. The north-facing slope drinks up the sun and the vines root in dirt scattered with gleaming white quartz. Yields are naturally low, flavors are intense.

The young wines are light on the palate and show pure plum and black fruit character. Dhillon opened some older bottles, which still show ripe fruit amid layers of spice and earth. The balances are impeccable.

At Kooyong, on the Mornington Peninsula south of Melbourne, the young wines show a welcome minerality against flavors that range from raspberry to plum. Older wines are not so good, because winemaker Sandro Mosele has only recently gotten the yields and the winemaking in tune. Some of the older wines have a green edge, probably from overcropping, and they miss on the texture. But starting with 2004, he got it right. This is a winery to watch, especially since it has 200 acres to play with.

Its near neighbor, Yabby Lake, is another relatively large operation, financed by movie theater mogul Robert Kirby (more about him in a later blog). Tod Dexter makes the wines and vineyard manager Keith Harris tends 100 acres of vines that spill down slopes that can see the ocean from their hillside perch. First vintage was 2002.

Although the Yabby Lake Chardonnays are still works in progress, the Pinots have been successful since day one. The predominant flavors are plum and currant, sometimes cherry. They're gentle on the palate and achieve silky tannins.

Dexter has been chasing Pinot Noir for two decades on Mornington Peninsula. After he worked seven years for Cakebread in Napa Valley, he came back to his native Australia to make the wines at Stonier's for 12 years.

"We tried everything at Stonier's," he says. "We threw in stems, we cold soaked, we used whole bunches, we tried roto-fermenters, we manipulated temperatures. In the end, it's knowing when to pick, waiting for the green flavors to go away, but not so long that the alcohol gets to be too much.

"And gentle handling in the winery," he adds. "All that manipulation was taking something away from the wines."

That sounds familiar. It's what good Pinot Noir makers everywhere have come around to after all their experimentation.

Australia has no shortage of appropriate places to grow Pinot Noir. Mornington and Macedon are capable. So is Yarra. There are pockets of cool climate regions all over central and southern Victoria. Now comes the hard work of getting it right. Stay tuned.

Harvey Steiman
San Francisco, CA —  April 27, 2007 10:01am ET
Tonight I ordered Paringa Estate Pinot Noir 2005 at Tetsuya's in Sydney. Thinking he he was doing me a favor, the sommelier warned me that the Mornington Peninsula wine was "more like a Shiraz." I insisted, and I am glad I did. The Pinot was ripe and generous, a velvety wine that bore no resemblance to "Shiraz" except for its generous fruit. The sommelier admitted he liked the wine, but that Aussie wine writers didn't. "That's what's holding back Aussie Pinot Noir," I said to the sommelier, adding, "Why are these guys so afraid of flavor?"

He just shrugged. "I drink it at home a lot," he said.
Dave Joyce
Winston-Salem, NC —  April 28, 2007 8:19pm ET
Harvey, Try and grab a bottle of Moondarra PN while you are down there. The Moondarra PN Conception rivals some of the "syrah like" California Pinot's for concentration, while their PN Holly's Garden Whitlands is a lighter, more elegant style with very pronounced aromatics. They are produced in the Gippsland area of Victoria but they seem to defy the standard fare for the region. Their best wine, in my opinion, isn't Pinot Noir, but Pinot Gris under their Holly's Garden label. Certainly one of the best I have had from Australia.

Sounds like you are having one heck of the trip! Thanks for letting us share in it through your blog.
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco, CA —  April 30, 2007 2:10pm ET
Gippsland is one of the cool-climate Victorian regions that shows promise for Pinot. I didn't get to the Moondara this time, but let's hope it finds its way to the U.S.
Dave Joyce
Winston-Salem, NC —  May 1, 2007 6:44pm ET
Harvey, Ronnie Sanders at Vine Street is bringing in the Moondara now, along with the Bindi and Kooyong you mentioned. Hopefully he will submit some of these to Wine Spectator for review.
Brad Edgerton
Beverly Hills, CA —  May 12, 2007 5:33pm ET
Harvey, I read your article about Austrailian Pinot Noir and am planning a trip there soon. How would you rate the Paringa Estate Pinot Noir 2005 that yopu mentioned in your blog? 90 + or not ?
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco, CA —  May 12, 2007 10:08pm ET
Non-blind, I would say 88-89 points for the Paringa Pinot. It's a very likeable wine.

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