In relatively short time, pinot noir has become a major player in Australian wine. Not that the volume is any threat to shiraz and cabernet sauvignon. In fact, there’s a lot more merlot planted than pinot, but pinot has risen to heights of quality across multiple regions, and it has helped spearhead a cool climate revolution that has seen places such as Tasmania, the Mornington Peninsula, Macedon, Adelaide Hills and Orange develop into some of our premier wine regions.
“Before I’d switched careers to winemaking, I ran regular wine tastings in Brisbane, and Dave Cush [City Winery] once put together a selection of Tassie pinot noirs,” says Rivulet’s Keira O’Brien. “One of those wines brought everything into focus for me. It made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. It had no label, just a vintage and name scrawled on the bottle in chalk paint. It was from Sailor Seeks Horse in Tasmania’s Huon Valley – an electric expression of place, completely distinct and both fragile and powerful at the same time.”
Pinot on the rise
The rise of pinot noir has been relatively recent, but that’s not to say that it hasn’t been present in this country for some time. In fact, it arrived in the Busby collection in the 1830s, and likely prior, but it never really established much of a foothold. The notable records of pinot point to the Hunter Valley where Maurice O’Shea used it as a blending component with shiraz, making a classically Australian blend, but one that was not widely adopted and has only recently resurfaced.
It is the Hunter Valley, though, that lays claim to much of the development of the variety in this country. O’Shea’s plantings ended up spawning the MV6 (mother vine six) clone – via a propagation project by the CSIRO in the 1970s – that is arguably our most important pinot vine material. It is an Australian heritage clone, though via Burgundy originally, of course, and purportedly from Clos Vougeot, a Grand Cru vineyard in the Côte de Nuits.
“Who knows what the ceiling is for pinot from vineyards that haven't been established yet and those only just touching maturity – it's bloody exciting.”
While there were pinot noir afficionados that were enchanted by Burgundy who planted early on in regions like Gippsland, Macedon, Tasmania, the Adelaide Hills and the Yarra Valley, for example, but many of our top pinot regions took a little time to really get going. For example, both Tasmania and the Mornington Peninsula were pushed as being suited to the Bordeaux varieties – cabernet sauvignon et al – but it wasn’t terribly long before those ships were steered in the right direction.
Today, the Mornington Peninsula has over half its yield dedicated to pinot noir, nearly doubling the chardonnay production, with pinot gris (a mutation of pinot noir) in a very distant third. “The Peninsula is an amazing place to grow grapes and make wine,” says Foxeys Hangout’s Chris Strickland. “It contains so many highly distinct subregions, making the journey that much more exciting and enriching as a vigneron.
“From the relatively warm northern areas of Tuerong and Merricks North, crafting muscular, brooding pinots, all the way up the hill to the cooler, higher elevation sites of Red Hill, Main Ridge and Arthurs Seat, which express themselves with such grace and elegance, there is so much variety. At Foxeys, I have the absolute pleasure of having access to sites from across the Peninsula from which to grow grapes and make wine.”
That variation is also a major feature of Tasmania. That’s likely unsurprising given that the state is classed as one region, but nonetheless, the number of high-quality sites across the island that are ideal for pinot noir and also express the grape in distinct ways is staggering. “The seemingly endless diversity of expression of pinot noir is in large part what drew me to Tasmania and led me to setting my sights on the goal of living and working there as a winemaker – a fantastical dream at first, but one which is now thrillingly real,” says O’Brien.
It’s a dream that also saw Cave Wine’s Justin Folloso go all in to make wine in Tasmania, with a keen focus on pinot noir. And, like O’Brien, it was a bottle of Sailor Seeks Horse that inspired him. However, this was not entirely new territory, rather he was embracing the possibilities of his home state through a new lens that had snapped into sharp focus at a Melbourne tasting.
The soils are very varied across Tasmania, says Folloso, and that’s a big part of the excitement. “Who knows what the ceiling is for pinot from vineyards that haven’t been established yet and those only just touching maturity – it’s bloody exciting. …That pinot from good producers can still hold balance with nice fruit expression from sites with lighter, sandier soils just goes to show that this island has the climate and microclimates made for pinot. Let alone what’s coming from the shallow clay over limestone of the Derwent Valley, the iron rich-soils of Pipers Brook or the mineral-driven ‘Cygnet cement’ of the Huon.”
O’Brien makes wine under her own Rivulet label, currently sourcing pinot noir fruit from Saint Helens and the Coal River Valley. She is also the winemaker at the legendary Freycinet in Bicheno on the East Coast, which was first planted in 1979. That’s a fair survey across the island, but her prior role was working with Tasmania’s largest contract facility, which gave her deep insight to the island’s diversity.
“Ten years later, I consider it an incredible privilege to have worked with pinot noir from so many special places from around Tasmania, seeing time and again its ability to offer a conduit to place and time,” says O’Brien. “I don’t seek to force my wines to be some kind of show-winning ideal of pinot noir, but rather I embrace the indelible character the vineyard and the season imparts.”
That’s also an ideal that Nadja Wallington of ChaLou chases. “Our style of pinot noir is fine-boned and elegant,” she says. “The wines are wild fermented using whole berry and some whole bunch. We don’t use a lot of new oak, less than 10 per cent, as we are chasings a clear expression of the variety that is not muddied by oak impact. At maturity the fruit is fragrant and perfumed with fresh cherry and red berry fruits.”
O’Brien acknowledges that the old line that great wines are made in the vineyard is certainly true, but it requires this kind of sensitivity from winemakers to truly showcase pinot noir as a grape and an expression of place. “It takes restraint to get out of the way of the wine and keep your ego in check, resisting the urge to squeeze the wine this way and that. I jokingly say, plenty of winemakers think they are God, but I’m happiest being the midwife. Guiding the wine to life with a supportive, gentle hand.”
Wallington works alongside her husband Steve Mobbs in the vineyard in Orange, NSW, that they purchased in 2020. “The Orange region is cool through altitude, which is important for sites suitable for growing pinot noir. While the region starts at 600 metres, the best pinot noir sites really sit above 800 metres,” says Wallington, with their vineyard at a lofty 900 metres.
Although the potential for Orange to make top-flight pinot has been long touted, chardonnay has been far more regarded as a regional star, but Wallington thinks that is slowly changing. “Since arriving in Orange to make wine in 2014, I have seen enormous growth in the pinot noirs from the region. Then, the pinots were not something to write home about, but now it is arguably the best performing red variety in the region. I see this as a result of a number of factors: better clonal material, maturity of vines, gained knowledge of growing pinot as well as improved winemaking.”
That clonal material was originally largely MV6, which is a powerhouse vine for many regions, but that doesn’t make it best suited to all. “With the later plantings there is more 777, 667, 114 and 115, and even a bit of Abel here and there,” notes Wallington.
Pinot noir is very prone to mutation, so many clones have been isolated, with each having their own properties in respect to flavour, intensity, tannin profile and how they perform in the vineyard, whether ripening early or late or being resistant to disease or not.
This variability is critical in matching vine material to site. Early ripening clones like 777 and 667 might be ideal for Orange but say in the relative warmth of the Yarra Valley’s floor, they will likely ripen too quickly. Abel – or the gumboot clone – is one that was illicitly imported into New Zealand (in a gumboot, apparently) but thankfully put through quarantine by a customs officer and propagated. It is a star in NZ, and can be here, too, but certainly not in all sites.
Getting that suitability right takes time. And even with that established, farming the grape certainly needs to be a labour of love. “Pinot noir is a fickle beast,” says Strickland. “It’s hard to grow in a good season and a downright terror in tough seasons. But in this tribulation the quintessence of great grapes is found, and the pinnacle of winemaking comes from great grapes.”
Strickland says that his ethos is holistic, with the Foxeys home vineyard certified biodynamic. “Being biodynamic, every action of grape growing is equally important, and every site demands respect for their individuality… Having spent over a decade in a few of these vineyards, I’ve grown to respect the natural equilibrium, and that has flowed through to my winemaking, being on the minimal intervention end of the spectrum, with a few exceptions where the grapes allow it.”
Biodynamic and organic farming is often regarded as being somewhat trickier in disease pressure years, but the advantages outweigh the challenges, Strickland says. “We’ve had a rough run of vintages, 2020 through to 2023 all being colder and wetter than many care to remember – though 2021 was a stellar vintage. But I see a groundswell of operators looking to improve how they are farming, going down the organic and biodynamic path. I do see the stable of wines coming out of the region improving out of a necessity to survive – if you can’t make more wine then you need to make better wine.”
That’s an idea echoed by Folloso, who works organically on his leased site and holds down a day job at biodynamically certified Stefano Lubiana. “We as humans feed off our environment,” says Folloso. “We are trying to make wine that is reflective of this beautiful, wild state. With pinot and its delicate intricacies, it means that the decisions we make outside really have impact. Pruning decisions, bud rubbing, canopy health, leaf plucking – they’re the tools we’ve got to hopefully achieve balanced and concentrated fruit to translate that beauty. Then, hopefully, you have this fruit that will take a gentle but tangible touch.”
And that’s a key feature of today’s pinot noir landscape, with quality over quantity the driving force. Pinot noir may not have the acreage of shiraz or cabernet sauvignon, and it may be significantly overshadowed in plantings by even merlot, but its profile and the sheer quantity of high-quality bottlings make it an absolute star of the Australian wine landscape. And with makers constantly striving to make better wine from fruit that is grown in the right place, from vine material suited to site and farmed in a best-practice way, the future is an incredibly bright one.
2021 Cave Wines Coal River Valley Pinot Noir
Tasmania, 13%, $39
This is a relatively elegant expression of the Coal River Valley, but it’s got plenty of drive and intensity, with a brambly mix of red berries, ripe redcurrants, dark spices, rhubarb and crushed autumn leaves. The red-fruited profile continues on the palate, but there’s a brooding quality to it, a spice and mineral-flecked complexity backed up by an assertive play of tannin paired with a suppleness of texture and fine natural acidity.
This is an elegant and vibrantly fruited affair, with notes of redcurrant, pomegranate and sour cherry, a sprinkling of spice, undergrowth and bracken adding savoury complexity. There’s a sweet-fruited brightness on the palate as well, but it’s also equally matched with the same savoury detail that meshes seamlessly in, a quietly insistent framework of tannins and spritely acid giving ample tension.
This is engagingly aromatic, with a quite seductive display of cherry-scented fruit, forest floor earthy notes, dried porcini and savoury spices, a lick of quality oak layering in. The palate neatly follows the nose, with a luxurious suppleness that is neither big or overdone, but just very pleasing, while losing none of the refined detail of serious pinot noir, the finish open and silky but channelled into shape with fine tannins and a pleasing light bitterness echoing the suggestion of whole bunch on the nose.
This is marked by red fruits, forest berries and cherry but there’s a strong savoury backbone with forest floor and autumnal notes – an elegant feel but with a degree of restrained generosity. The palate is supple and gently textural, with vibrant acidity, hints of white pepper and an arresting tannic grip.
This is at the cool and crunchy end of the spectrum, with notes of tart strawberries, cranberries, cherries and white pepper, hints of forest floor and pine, and a strike of flinty smokiness adding more complexity. That tautness carries on the palate, with pleasingly sour fruits, some subtle rose petal and musk, and a brisk line of cool tannins and acidity keeping things tight, but with flavour fanning through the finish.
The Limestone Coast captures half a dozen wine regions at the southern tip of South Australia with ancient seabeds that generated the limestone underpinnings. It’s a zone of diversity, from maritime to continental climates, and from classic regions – like Coonawarra – to those that are just beginning to find their identity amongst wine drinkers – like Mount Gambier. The 2022 Young Gun of Wine Awards features Aunt Alice, Wangolina, Patrick of Coonawarra.
The Yarra Valley is arguably Victoria’s marquee winegrowing region, and especially for chardonnay and pinot noir, with many of this country’s most iconic makers located there. It is also a region that sees considerable celebration for the Bordeaux varieties and shiraz – although the commercial reality of those grapes is less robust than their reputation. With established names abounding, there are also newer producers making their mark, adding layers to what is already a rich story. Wheeler Wines, Tillie J, Honkey Chateau and Pacha Mama are all flying the flag for younger makers in the Yarra.