The sixth chakra – the seat of concealed wisdom – lies between the eyebrows. It is where the bindi is placed to retain life force energy and strengthen concentration. According to followers of esoteric anotomy the bindi protects the body against demons or bad luck. The chakras are essential wheels of energy that punctuate the body from the base of the spine to the forehead. Practitioners of the metaphysical grape Pinot Noir – believe that this super-mundane variety has its own tantric forcefields. There is a divine power that flows from the landscape and vineyard, through the hand of the winemaker and into the wine. Pinot Noir is philosophy and meditation. It can heal and liberate the senses. For some the rare intertissued robe of Pinot Noir is a mystical obsession.
It seems appropriate that a recent convention of Victorian Pinot Noir winemakers was held in a spa town. It is doubtful – however – if a single soul bothered to bathe or partake in the lightly sulphured mineral waters of Hepburn Springs. “Familiar in his mouth as household words” Clare the Tarrawarra Queen , Dhillon of Bindi, Harrop of Shadowfax, Flamstead of Giants Steps, Mosele of Kooyong, George, the genius of Paradigm, Tractor Martin of ten minutes away and a myriad of other scruffy barefoot happy few assembled and tasted their way through the 2007 vintage – occasionally taking time out to drink Burgundy and other potions of distinction including beer. The workshop clinics – where every winemaker puts up a bottle (or two) for critique - are off-limits to journalists. The discussion wanders everywhere from lighthearted commentary to serious remedial advice. This is an engine room of innovation; full of talent, great people and generosity of spirit. These sessions are all about the improvement of quality, style and a better understanding of regional difference. This must be one of the finest wine shows in the country unfettered by marketing cynicism, the fakery of medals and one-upmanship. The quest for improving the breed and making great Pinot Noir is a life-long and very personal journey.
The elongated, gangly Michael Dhillon has a look reminiscent of a young Elvis Presley. His easy going charm, wit, thoughtfulness and spirit have won him great affection among the Australian fine wine community. Dhillon does not consider himself a winemaker; rather a wine-grower or farmer. He is a man of enlightenment; an eleveur-philosopher. His bailiwick is both the physical and the emotional. He represents a new face of Australian fine winemaking – unconstrained by the straight jacket of conventional wisdom and the blokey narrow-minded forums of mediocrity. As the years go by his Bindi wines have steadily gathered momentum and voice.
The Bindi vineyard is small and located on elevated grazing land on the slopes of Mount Gisborne. The property has been in family hands for 150 years. Dhillon helped his father Bill to plant the original vineyard in 1988. While studying economics at Monash University, he found his calling in wine. Rather than studying for his technical winemaking ticket at wine university, he became a traveling cellar rat. Stuart Anderson – the Bugatti-loving founder of Balgownie – gave Michael Dhillon a rounded vocational start. This highly unusual pilgrim’s progress through the world of small winemaking, great cellars and grand old bottles provided a philosophical foundation. A natural humility (and clear articulated thinking) has taken Michael Dhillon along a new path of enquiry. The move towards biodynamic viticulture is unsurprising. The very name of Bindi suggests a way of thinking that goes away from the mainstream and a desire to capture the positive natural forces of the earth. Michael Dhillon’s reasoning behind going biodynamic is interesting. He outlines five fundamental principles.
“Firstly you have to have a fantastic vineyard site. You have to be honest about what you have. We can’t all own Richebourg. With Pinot Noir its important to be thoughtful about what each vine can yield. I was happy with ½ to 1 tonne/ acre. A few years down the track it has been possible to get a little more”
“Vineyard management is completely different now. Not every thing can be explained by science and it’s something you have to accept.”
“Pinot Noir is a very sensitive grape. Some winemakers stamp their ego and insecurities all over it. A heavy handed philosophy can slice through the transparency of the wine.”
“You have to think about the marketing of the wine and whether it is possible to engage and capture the interest of the media and sommeliers etc.
“A biodynamic principled business has to be sustainable from a numbers point of view. I am not a winemaker. I prune the vineyard, take down sales orders and rack barrels. This is family enterprise and every facet of growing wine has to be fully understood. Saying that, however, there is something very spiritual and physical about biodynamic viticulture. It makes you feel good about what you are doing. I respect my place and I want it to be healthy. A healthy place will always make healthy fruit.”
The Bindi vineyards, elevated at approximately 500 metres, are located on gentle north facing slopes. The minute 1.3 acre Block 5 –planted in 1992 - is the most naturally protected vineyard. The vines – grown on shattered quartz over alluvial silts and top soil (mostly sandy grey loams over clay).- are all vertically shoot positioned to optimise exposure to sunlight. Wine making is “unsophisticated, strictly non-interference – but not uncontrolled”. Dhillon believes strongly in natural wines showing “perfume, harmony and elegance.” The Block 5 Pinot Noir sees about 25% to 40% new French oak. The level of oak depends on the nature of the vintage; “The last thing I want is to have an oaky wine.”
I tasted a mini vertical of 2006, 2005, 2003, 2000 and 1997 Bindi Block 5 Pinot Noir. These are mostly from warmer years. Clearly the wines have moved up to a new level of complexity and interest. Bindi’s reputation was achieved through the grass root support of influential sommeliers. While the Original Vineyard Pinot Noir is included in Langton’s Classification, Block 5 Pinot Noir is widely considered as the better half. The volume of demand at auction is strong for what is essentially a micro-make.
2006 Bindi Block 5 Pinot Noir has fresh cherry/ red fruit/ mineral aromas and some delicate floral/ camomile notes. The palate is well-concentrated with lovely red cherry/ redcurrant fruits and lacy tannins. Savoury oak kicks in at the finish. The wine is on the delicate side, but it’s well balanced. A few years of cellaring will result in more palate richness and complexity. 89 points
2005 Bindi Block 5 Pinot Noir is a beautiful wine with extraordinary perfumed raspberry confit/ cherry aromas and mocha/ apricot complexity. It’s classically proportioned with sweet generous strawberry/ raspberry flavours, underlying savoury/ biscuity oak and slinky loose knit tannins. The wine has remarkable energy and persistency. It finishes al dente but has excellent flavour length. This is a great Bindi Pinot Noir; arguably one of the very best Pinots of the 2005 Australian vintage. 97 points
2003 Bindi Block 5 Pinot Noir has lovely delicate aromatic camomile/ strawberry/ vanillin aromas. It’s a well weighted silken textured wine with camomile/ redcurrant flavours, ripe lacy tannins and subtle vanillin oak. It has excellent viscosity, buoyancy and sweetness of fruit with fresh but underlying minerally acidity flowing through to the finish. Another bloody good wine. 94 points
2000 is more evolved with secondary characters pervading through the wine. It has mocha/ red cherry aromas and flavours with hints if raisins/ vellum and herbs. The palate has plenty of richness of fruit, mocha oak characters and supple chocolaty tannins. It finishes long and sweet. It’s a really good reference point and a decent drink but shows how far Bindi has come in five years. 85 points.
1997 is a very complex wine with plenty of meaty/rose garden aromas and mocha/spice notes. The palate has excellent volume and richness with red cherry/ meaty/ rose/ sweet fruit flavours and savoury new oak. The tannins are sappy and build up stalky. Slightly underpowered at the finish. I found this wine surprising. The wine has aged really well and while not necessarily perfect, it does show the extraordinary potential of this vineyard site. 88 points.
Michael Dhillon came across Biodynamic viticulture and winemaking in 1998. He visited Nicholas Joly of the celebrated Clos de Coulee de Serrant in Savennieres, Loire Valley. Hound at feet, antiques everywhere and shelves stuffed with ancient livres, Joly gave an inspiring two hour discourse on biodynamic principles. “Then I tasted his wines; they were horribly oxidised! I loved the talk, but to be quite honest it took six years for me to get my head around the whole idea of the biodynamic thing. When Dad gave me the task of managing the vineyard three years ago, I started to use biodynamic preparations including 500 and 501. We now use compost, place straw under vines and spread seaweed and fish emulsions. The vines are more exuberant and the rows are no longer a hard pan. Life has come back into the vineyard. To be fully biodynamic you have to believe in power of the constellations and the way the soils respond to the universe. It’s way more spiritual and thoughtful than organic principles. ”
Central Otago is a landscape of cavities and buttresses, schistic walls of mountains and deep glacial lakes. The harsh drab green and slatey grey formations are scribbled with indelible pathways, pounded by gold miners and packhorses over a century ago. Down below the roaring Shotover River flushes its way down past the hulks of gold mining equipment, with yet another load of rafting adventurers. Up above, the last remnants of winter are slowly melting away. Poplar trees, wild thyme, rosehip and stands of orange poppies hollyhocks and wild lupins punctuate and flourish along the roadsides and unmettled lanes and byways, a reminder of all those that passed through this most spectacular countryside.
Past Queenstown and through the treacherously beautiful Kawarau Gorge lies a hidden glacial valley of moraine terraces, murky turquoise lakes and espaliered apricot trees and cherry orchards. One gully west to of the historic Bannockburn Gold Sluicing, lie the neat quilted patchwork vineyards of Felton Road. It’s seductively perfumed and beautifully structured Pinot Noirs have caught the imagination of pinot noir fanatics all over the world.
The modest, self assured and rugged wine-poet Blair Walter – who plays Beethoven and Opera to his barrels – is a revolutionary wine maker. His wines belong to a genre of New Zealand Pinot Noirs that are beating down the sacred doors of Burgundy. I don’t believe that it is blasphemous to say that within our own life time, the very best of this ilk will be seen as equal to many grand cru names; if it hasn’t happened already. Certainly the velocity of interest in Felton Road is extraordinary.
“If you love Pinot Noir, extreme weather and sports – this is Eldorado,” Blair Walter says. “Most of the vineyard sites in Central Otago are quite marginal. You only have to look at the scientific papers and research. Quality is related to vineyard site, what happens in the vineyard and the winery.” Felton Road’s north facing vineyard, slumped in the warm cleavage of foothills, is early lambing country. These protected vineyards are immaculate. Indeed the vista towards Cornish Point, all cloaked in a divine light, is almost unworldly.
The vineyard – also planted in 1992 - has been planted in blocks, each numbered in sequence of planting. Considerable attention has been given to clonal mix, site selection to grape variety and trellising. Each of the blocks has slightly different soil profiles from Waenga soils with high clay content and underlying schistic gravels to the “thickest and pudgiest Block 5.” Felton Road moved towards biodynamic viticulture in 2002. Cover crops were introduced to create competition and reduce vine vigour. In 2003 the first preparations of 500 were mixed and spread throughout the vineyards using wands of wild Thyme wrapped in string. “The preparations have encouraged more microbial activity in the soils. This has translated to a healthier vineyard.”
Blair Walter says “We have always focussed on the idea of sustainable wine growing and avoiding such things as herbicides and synthetic fertilisers. Initially our move into biodynamic viticulture was for ourselves. Our decision to achieve certification was to squash all doubts about our intent. In the end it’s all about integrity.”
The Felton Road Pinot Noirs are special wines with a strong evocation and integrity of place. The wines have a strong thread of black cherry fruit, herb notes (it is interesting that wild Thyme grows on the back hills) and silky sweet tannins. The more recent wines have really developed more volume and richness a reflection of older and healthier vines and a deeply involved, highly motivated team.
The 2006 (Estate Blend) Pinot Noir has intense violet/ dark cherry/ ginger aromas. The palate is well concentrated with dark cherry/ red currant/ ginger flavours and silky sweet loose knit tannins. It finishes long and smooth with some minerally notes. This is a beautifully weighted wine with lovely overall line and length. 94 points
2006 Felton Road Calvert Vineyard Pinot Noir shows fresh cranberry/ raspberry/ strawberry aromas and hints of herb garden. The wine has plenty of fruit sweetness and richness of flavour with cranberry/ strawberry flavours and velvety – almost plush tannins. Finishes firm and grippy. This is a really interesting wine as it moves away form the black cherry fruit profile. The vineyard is actually share farmed with Craggy Range and Pyramid Hill. 87 points
2006 Felton Road Block 3 Pinot Noir is a cracker with lovely fresh black cherry/ spicy/ vanillin aromas and herb garden notes. The wine is impressively concentrated and richly shot with black cherry/ vanilla/ spice flavours and loose knit slinky dry tannins. It finishes firm almost gritty at the finish but it is beautifully poised and utterly delicious. 97 points
2004 Felton Road Block 3 Pinot Noir is an unusual wine and quite evolved considering the vintage. It has red cherry/ earthy aromas and touch under ripe green pea/ stalky characters. Felton Road herb pervades. The palate is quite meaty/ gamey with some red cherry fruit and sappy tannins. It finishes grippy firm. The wine reflects a wet cool season in Central Otago. 85 points
2002 Felton Road Block 3 Pinot Noir is fresh and complex with black cherry/ meaty/ red currant/ vanillin/ grilled nut aromas and flavours. The palate is well concentrated with sweet black cherry/ meaty/ savoury flavours and dry slightly sappy tannins. Finishes long and sweet. 92 points
For many people Pinot Noir is a philosophy or religion. The profound old cliché “in vino veritas” is particularly relevant to this most beguiling and beautiful of all elixirs. The search for the great antipodean Pinot Noir has been a genuine path of enlightenment for many winemakers and consumers. The truth – however is not Grand Cru Burgundy. While there is boundless beauty and ethereal quality in this genre, it can equally and expensively disappoint. In recent years I have seen several profound, compelling and seductive Australian and New Zealand Pinot Noirs. Inevitably they are made by the most sensitive and thoughtful of winemakers. Michel Dhillon and Blair Walter love and believe in their country. You can smell and taste that spirit of place in the pinots of both Bindi and Felton Road. They are joyful and soulful wines - something to get lost in when the clouds roll in or when the wheels of energy shine through.
Andrew Caillard, MW
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