When it was suggested to David Bryant of the Hillcrest winery in the Yarra Valley that, seeing as though he prefers to seal his wines with corks rather than with screwcaps, he might like to start planting his own cork trees, his wife Tanya promptly quipped: “Knowing David, he’d plant one tree per bottle.” It was a joke with the truth wrapped up in it – in that it’s illustrative of the obsessive attention to detail going on at Hillcrest in the hunt for great pinot noir. It is an obsessive hunt not confined to Hillcrest – there is a lot of it going on in Australian pinot noir right now. It is partly why Australian pinot noir has jumped so markedly in quality.
And it has: I recently had a long lunch with my favourite Burgundy nut recently and after we’d had a few glasses too many he came out with the unbelievable: “I know that you’re going to fall off your chair when I say this. And I acknowledge that I’m only admitting this publicly because I’ve had a few. But on more days of the week than I can even believe myself, I prefer drinking Australian pinot noir these days. It’s become a really good drink.”
Indeed it has – and it needed to. There is no doubt that good pinot noir has been made in Australia over the past 20 years, most of it at the hands of Phillip Jones of Bass Phillip, Gary Farr of Bannockburn, the Lance’s at Diamond Valley Vineyards, various winemakers at Mount Mary, Stephen George at Ashton Hills and less frequently at Coldstream Hills, Stonier, Paringa Estate, Wantirna Estate, and Freycinet – and very few others.
As good, and as excellent, as some of these wines are though, serious lovers of Burgundy – the grand home of the world’s best pinot noir – have rarely been swayed. Indeed, there is still a prevailing view in the fine wine marketplace that Australia generally doesn’t make good pinot noir. It is because of this prevailing view that New Zealand pinot noir has taken such a stronghold on (relatively) high priced new world pinot noir sales in Australia: New Zealand pinot is good, and Australian pinot noir is not, so if you’re not buying Burgundy then you’re buying Central Otago – so the thinking goes.
This is why New Zealand pinot noir is the best, and worst, thing that ever happened to Australian pinot noir. It’s put an enormous squeeze on a lot of Australia’s more aspirational pinot producers, in many cases robbing them of sizable amounts of (what for a short time had seemed like guaranteed) sales to the better restaurants. In the process it’s given Australian pinot noir a good swift kick up the rear end.
And while it might not be time to let out a Tarzan-roar just yet, all the signs are that this kick has done Australian pinot noir the world of good.
Scene one: James Halliday and the late Len Evans, the two Australians with the greatest knowledge and experience of the greatest wines of Burgundy, are on the panel at the Stonier International Pinot Noir tasting a couple of years ago. All the wines are served with their identities masked. There are a couple of New Zealand pinot noirs and a couple from the United States in the selection, a handful of Australians, and also a selection of Burgundies from excellent producers: Domaine Georges Roumier, Domaine Dujac, Faiveley, Domaine Bruno Clair, and (the love-hate producer of Burgundy) Dominique Laurent. The selection of Burgundies included a Grand Cru from a great year – the Laurent was a (admittedly seriously over-oaked) Clos de Vougeot from 2002; the Dujac was a Charmes Chambertin, also from 2002 – and was littered with French wines that sell, in Australia, for more than $150 per bottle. Some of the Burgundies in this tasting sell for more $200 per bottle.
And yet, in this tasting, James Halliday and Len Evans announced their favourite wine as (and they did not know the identity of the wine as they made the judgement) the 2003 Stonier Reserve, from the Mornington Peninsula. More than that: they thought that it was a Burgundy, most likely a Grand Cru, and most likely from a very good year.
It was a single moment from a single night, and perhaps not too much should be read into it, and of course there is the argument that if you gathered the same wines in ten years time, the Burgundies would power through – or so it is assumed. What can be deduced from this moment is something simpler though: you can barely imagine, at the hands of such experienced tasters, a $40 Australian pinot noir pulling off such a feat ten years ago. The point to take away: Australian pinot has come a long way, and is at the start of a run that, to those who know what great pinot noir tastes like, will really start to turn heads.
Scene two: Michael Dhillon of the acclaimed Bindi vineyard in the Macedon Ranges in Victoria is standing by the edge of a row of his vines. It’s a spectacular sight: vines tended with meticulous care, blocks of quartz jutting from the soil, bushland bordering the natural fields of the estate. “Our view is,” Dhillon begins, “that there are a lot of vineyard sites that will make really good chardonnay, but not many that will make interesting pinot noir, or pinot noir with a strong personality, or pinot noir with real ageworthiness. We think we’ve got one of those sites here – I almost feel like we have a moral obligation to follow this course …”
He continues: “We’re still learning, we’re still growing our vines – it’s frustrating, because people judge you on every wine, of every vintage, but we’re well aware that we’ve got a big body of work in front of us, and that the body of work that’s ahead of us will be more defining than what’s come before. With vineyards, and especially with pinot noir vineyards, you’ve got to talk in big windows. If you’re not talking in big windows, then you’re not facing reality.”
Which brings us back to Hillcrest in the Yarra Valley: its pinot noir vines are 35 years old (cropped at about 0.8 tonne per acre), and its “new” plantings of pinot noir, mostly planted in 2000, will not be used under the estate label until they are 15 years old. These words, and these actions, are indicative of what is happening in Australian pinot noir now: for too long the most prominent Australian pinot noir brands were more often than not the brands with the most financial backing; slowly it’s becoming the producers with the most patience, and the most forethought, and the most tender of care, that are shining through.
Scene three: at my desk in 2004 I poured a glass of 2003 William Downie Yarra Valley Pinot Noir, and I didn’t think much of it. It seemed unforgiving and unyielding, lacking in perfume, and while I wouldn’t have called it thin, it wasn’t substantial either – I put it aside and moved onto the next wine. It was only the next day, when I was cleaning up, that I tasted the wine again on a whim – and was shocked at the transformation. It was an entirely different wine, and entirely better – it was the kind of transformation, over a day of air-contact, that you often encounter with Burgundy wines, but so rarely do with new world pinot noir. I called Bill Downie (who made the wine) to investigate. I had to.
It turned out that what I experienced was not accidental. “Australian pinot noir has a bad reputation for ageing, or not ageing,” he said, “and to some extent I think it’s what the market for a time was looking for. The wines had to look good as young wines in order for them to sell – but in going for that pretty young style, they often had to sacrifice the things that would allow them to develop well in the longer term.” The result was fruity wines that lacked acid, tannin and real backbone. They did not age as well as the people buying them hoped that they would. Downie was determined to buck the trend. He is part of a revolution.
And that’s what it is, a revolution. When you look at Downie’s wines, De Bortoli’s Reserves, Savaterre, Kooyong’s single vineyard wines, Epis, Bindi, Phi, Punch Close Planted and a swag of others – there is simply no denying it.
And if Australian pinot noir has a reputation that it does not age particularly well – it seems quite certain that the best of the current crop will take that reputation and shatter it.
Campbell Mattinson is the author of the Big Red Wine Book (Hardie Grant, $24.95).
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