Five Decades of Best’s Pinot Meunier

11 December 2019. Words by YGOW.

In partnership with Liebherr, we gathered at The Recreation in North Fitzroy (Melbourne) for an incredibly unique and historic tasting of aged varietal pinot meunier from Best’s.

Best’s, in Victoria’s Great Western, can make a few sole claims. Possessing the world’s oldest pinot meunier vines is one of them. With some of Melbourne’s finest palates in attendance, Best’s winemaker Justin Purser was kind enough to guide us through five decades of their ‘Old Vine’ Pinot Meunier. This was a rare chance to see just how well it ages in ideal conditions.

If you were to see Best’s from the air, bold white letters would tell you exactly where you were, with the words “BEST’S CELLARS” stretching the length of the russet roof of the old winery. A relic of land-marking for the 1929 East-West Air Race, the sign has endured, with only the nuance of font giving away its true antiquity. Best’s is a bit like this – a moment of seemingly lost time that speaks ever clearly today.

Beneath that buckled roof, supported by a web of hewn eucalypt, lie the old cellars, cut into the earth in the mid-19th century. Adze-faceted beams carry the kinked ironbark floors, with hulking casks arrayed along the walls like provisions in the bowels of a galleon. This is where the oldest extant red wines made from the oldest pinot meunier vines on the planet were made and bottled.

“Pinot meunier was first planted at Best’s in 1867, and then that was part of the nursery block, which is still there. There are about one and a half rows. And then in 1868, they planted another 15 rows,” says Purser.

Pinot meunier is a mutation of pinot noir. And the name meunier is a reference to the leaves, which have this white, dusty sort of fur on them that looks like flour,” he notes. Meunier is the French word for miller, and the wine was originally labelled as ‘Miller’s Burgundy’ at Best’s.

The workhorse Champagne variety, ceding almost all glory to chardonnay and pinot noir, pinot meunier is rarely made into a still wine, and even more rarely into a serious red wine.

“A lot of Champagne producers regard it as a bit of a weed… as that fruity sort of, hole filler in sparkling wine. Whereas as a red wine, it can be really complex. And you think of schwarzriesling [a meunier synonym, used to make Schillerwein in Germany], which is essentially a rosé… it’s not regarded as a classic, dry red wine. But it can make, fantastic, age-worthy wines.”

It was not until 1967 that Best’s, at the urging of a young Viv Thompson, took the plunge and bottled a mono-varietal wine from meunier, when those original vines were 100 years old.

In the 1970s, an ampelographer identified that about 15 per cent of the old meunier vines were actually pinot noir, explaining a small portion of smooth-leafed vines. Purser also noted that they have a few vines that are half pinot noir and half pinot meunier – a phenomenon that he is at a loss to explain. And while this link between the two varieties is inescapable, they have their own distinct identities.

Pinot meunier is a little bit more of a delicate variety in some regards to pinot noir. It doesn’t have the tannin structure of pinot noir. But it has a lot of extract, and it has a lot of flavour that gives it a lot of persistence, and I think that helps with age-ability, and that’s why it remains vibrant as it gets older.”

Best’s only make an ‘Old Vine’ bottling in exceptional vintages, with the knowledge that the finest examples will happily last for 20 years, and longer. Purser has bottled 2012, ’16 and ’17 under his watch, and he brought the ’12 and the ’17 to Melbourne, along with the ’08, ’94, ’89 and the ’76, to illustrate the passage and the potential of this under-appreciated grape.

The tasting notes

Tasting notes provided by Loic Avril, Wine Director at Dinner by Heston:

Best’s ‘Old Vine’ Pinot Meunier 1976

Made by Viv Thompson and Trevor Mast. 1976 was regarded as one of the best vintages of the 20th century. Purser guesses the alcohol to be around 12%, though no records exist. This proved to be quite a revelation, with some initial musty notes clearing to reveal a poised and elegant expression, showing plenty of tertiary undergrowth characters, but underpinned by vibrant fruit and a lively linear palate. On the evidence, of this bottle at least, the ’76 still has many years left in it.

Loic Avril: “Colour is bright and still youthful. Forest floor, undergrowth, old Leather. Great tannic structure. Sandstone mineral touch. Sour red fruits, game, wood oil and some Asians spices. Well balanced, great layers of complexity. Almost Bordeaux from the 60s and 70s.”

Best’s ‘Old Vine’ Pinot Meunier 1989

Made by Simon Clayfield. The vintage was on the cooler side, with 11.7% alcohol in the finished wine. Although a cool year, there was an openness to this, with more giving, loose-knit fruit and the suggestion of some oak. Like the ’76, tertiary notes were matched by vibrant fruit and the promise of continued positive development.

Loic Avril: “Bourbon notes which suggest some American oak influence. Dried figs, prunes, sultanas. More new oak, which adds some intensity of oak spices. Generous wine, robust and powerful. After a few minutes, fennel, black cardamom and pepper leaf.”

Best’s ‘Old Vine’ Pinot Meunier 1994

Made by Simon Clayfield. A hot January eased into more moderate conditions through to harvest. A good, if not great season. 13% alcohol. This felt like it came from the warmest season of the bracket, with some relatively brooding fruits and an assertive tannic structure. Again, this was still vibrant and youthful.

Loic Avril: “Great complexity, charcoal, caramelised meat flavours. Then, lovely perfume of cedar, mulberry, tonka bean and mocha. Full-bodied wine, which delivers a darker fruit spectrum. Plenty of time to go.”

Best’s ‘Old Vine’ Pinot Meunier 2008

Made by Adam Wadewitz. A warmer vintage, with 12.1% alcohol in the finished wine. Purser speculates 25-30% whole bunches. While the variety shone through, you can feel a different winemaker working here. This was more perfumed with pristine fruits and some whole-bunch complexity. The palate was textural with complex grip from both extraction and what felt like a lack of filtration. Some bottle development was adding detail, but it’s early days for this wine.

Loic Avril: “Brighter style. Almost pinot noir from Germany. Great level of acidity, morello cherries, some whole cluster results in savoury notes. On the palate, deeper structure, ripe dark plums and kernel. Lovely balance and delicate rolling tannins.”

Best’s ‘Old Vine’ Pinot Meunier 2012

Justin Purser’s first full vintage. The season was characterised by cool nights and warm days. A portion of whole bunches and the rest whole berries. 12.5% alcohol. Bottle development was just chiming in on layers of pretty red fruits and lilting florals. This was poised and elegantly expressed, with a whisper of oak char in the background.

Loic Avril: “Crunchy berries, floral, amaro and herbs. Lighter and fresher wine, with great layers of red apples, raspberry and strawberries. Good balance. This wine is outstanding and with great potential for ageing too.”

Best’s ‘Old Vine’ Pinot Meunier 2017

Made by Justin Purser. Mild and even season allowing long slow ripening. A portion of whole bunches and the rest whole berries. 12.5% alcohol. This was classically vintage driven with a blend of pretty red fruits and floral aromatics matched with underlying concentration – cool and delicate, but intense. Whole bunch added complexity, while the long, slow ripening contributed deceptive textural weight. This has many, many years ahead of it.

Loic Avril: “Linear wine. Damson and berries. Floral blossom of grenadine, rooibos tea. Mineral wine showing iron notes. There is a pure sense of place with this younger vintage of pinot meunier.”

Liebherr is a partner of the Young Gun of Wine Awards.

Filmed at The Recreation, North Fitzroy (Melbourne), with Justin Purser (Best’s), Sarah Andrew (WSET), Loic Avril (Dinner by Heston), Mark Protheroe (The Recreation), Carlos Simeos Santos (Vue de Monde), and Penny Vine (Cutler & Co).

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