It seems surprising now, but a mere 30 or so years ago, pinot noir was still a bit of an upstart in this country. The new kid on the block. And it was getting ample attention. Shiraz drinkers were affronted, and the sometimes-simple expressions of pinot were paraded around to show how superior shiraz was. Naturally, that was missing the point. Pinot noir in this country now sits on the pedestal it deserves – even old-school shiraz diehards seem to have made room – with it now a leading variety in many cooler regions, and with increased vine age, better clones, a lot of new vineyards, better winemaking and understanding of sites, today’s makers are turning out expressions that square up with the best in the world.
Pinot noir has been in this country for a long time, but it never really got paid much attention until the 1930s in the Hunter Valley. Yes, the Hunter. That hot and humid region – home to age-worthy semillon and savoury shiraz – is hardly the place that most wine drinkers would nominate as the cradle of Australian pinot noir, but it is. In fact, it is where our own ‘heritage’ clone was preserved.
Pinot noir is a vine that readily mutates, with the best expressions, or clones, propagated for their particular properties – early or late ripening, flavour profile, disease resistance etc. There are over 200 acknowledged pinot clones, but likely thousands more unregistered, and that diversity of material is employed in vineyards to favour certain conditions but also to introduce complexity in the finished wines.
Our most prevalent clone, and one of the best, is called MV6 (Mother Vine 6), which was cultivated by the great Maurice O’Shea at the Hunter’s Mount Pleasant. That material was originally sourced from the ancestral home of the grape in Burgundy’s Clos de Vougeot Grand Cru vineyard in the 1830s. Pinot noir would have made it to our shores anyway, and a raft of clones subsequently has, but that historic material is a bit of a viticultural treasure.
“For value for money, Australian pinots destroy the French and many other countries.”
O’Shea made Mount Pleasant’s legendary pinot noir and shiraz blends from the 1930s through to his untimely death in 1959. But pinot noir didn’t really take flight until the 1970s when varietal bottlings from new vineyards started to emerge. That coincides with the beginning of a cool climate revolution that saw regions established, expanded and reborn, with pinot noir and chardonnay starting their journey to become major players in Australian wine.
That journey is still a work in progress, with new territories being explored and clonal material and farming methods constantly tweaked to best match site to vine. However, pinot noir has dropped its anchor deep, with it a leading grape in many regions, and easily the dominant red grape in Tasmania, Macedon, Yarra Valley, Mornington Peninsula, Adelaide Hills and Geelong.
Ben Mullen is a Barossa transplant, making pinot noir – amongst other varieties – in the Geelong region under his Mulline label. “My aim with pinot noir is to show exactly where the grapes come from,” says Mullen, noting that the region is far from homogenous. “Mulline has a suite of three single site pinots, so making them the best they can be from those sites is important, but I also want to showcase how our region is so diverse in the styles we can produce.”
As a region, Geelong staked a big claim with pinot noir in the 1980s and ’90s, chiefly led by Bannockburn and then winemaker Gary Farr, but it is still dwarfed by regions like the Yarra Valley for plantings with less than 20 per cent of its hectarage. And while it is comparaively sparsely planted, the Geelong region ranges over a large area, with the soils and localised conditions varying greatly, from overtly coastal to nestled deep inland.
Mullen’s aim is to highlight these differences, which is a mission that has been successfully pursued in the Yarra, for example, but is in its relative infancy in Geelong. It is, though, a direction that he sees as vital, and he believes that’s the way the industry is moving. “I have seen over the last few years consumers and trade moving to single region, single site wines and championing that on their lists and drinking,” says Mullen. “It’s an exciting time for the variety to showcase exactly what it can do in the site and region it is planted.”
“We have only recently started seeing a lot of pinot noir vineyards reach a more mature age – say 20 years plus. This, combined with better viticultural technique, is delivering exceptional fruit quality, ultimately reflected in the wines. Fruit quality allows creativity, giving winemakers more confidence to try and express their vineyards in different ways.”
That’s a theme that is being echoed around the country, with the expression of site the ultimate goal for most makers, as it is in the grape’s home of Burgundy. With a relatively short time in the ground, that sense of identity is stronger in some regions than others, but it is clear that our current Geographical Indications for wine regions is somewhat behind the game, with perhaps the most extreme example being Tasmania classed as one region.
Marco Lubiana is a fifth-generation vigneron, working on his family property, Stefano Lubiana, in the Derwent Valley. The Lubianas also farm one of Tasmania’s oldest vineyards in the Huon Valley (it is the Huon’s oldest vineyard), which is now called the Lucille Vineyard but prior was called Panorama. Lubiana has released only two vintages under his eponymous label from that site, but his connection to the land runs deep, and so does his commitment to the primacy of farming in his quest to make better and more site-reflective wines.
“If Domaine de la Romanée-Conti can make crazy-delicious pinot, why can’t I do it,” says Lubiana. “The only advantage they have had is time and experience. Their terroir is not that special – I believe every country has great terroir because earth is not biased! If you put the work in, eventually something special will come out; it just takes time.”
For Lubiana, that quest is centred on meticulous farming, with most of his time spent amongst the vines on both family vineyards. Both sites are certified biodynamic, with only one other Tasmanian vineyard having just received biodynamic certification in 2022. With the knowledge of the improvements in the soil, fruit and resultant wines, Lubiana has vowed to only ever work with biodynamic fruit, and it’s in that growing that he believes will elevate Australian pinot noir to the greatest heights.
“I am already a strong believer that Australian winemakers are better than French winemakers, but the French are still a bit better at growing fruit,” says Lubiana. “Close planted vineyards are also becoming more popular, which is another aspect that shows how dedicated we are to replicating the quality of French viticulture. The gap in fruit quality is closing, and the wines in Australia can only get better as we wait for the new vineyards to grow and new soil types to be discovered.”
That focus on farming is shared by Anim’s Max Marriott, who is based in Tasmania’s Coal River Valley. “I may not win any popularity contests with my colleagues here, but I still think we have a way to go with pinot in Australia,” he says. “Yes, the approach is changing, but instead of having debates about clones, suitable reduction or whole bunch percentage, how about we talk about the farming and having those people farming pinot contributing to the conversation and dialogue about style and final destination in bottle. The more that we can bridge vineyard and winery, the greater the outlook and the results.”
In the Yarra Valley, Natillie Johnston has also built her Tillie J brand on a foundation of farming, taking on the lease of a block of mature pinot noir from her second vintage. Her methodology has been honed at her day job at Giant Steps, where that ground-up philosophy is central. It’s an approach that sees winemaking take a backseat.
“I’m definitely after freshness,” says Johnston. “It’s important to capture the expression of place and allow it to shine through. Gentle extraction, neutral oak and early bottling are just a few techniques I apply to achieve this.” And while these techniques are critical, she notes that this gentle framing is only possible when you have achieved pinpoint ripeness and flavour development in the vineyard.
Johnston notes that this philosophy is one that is more and more pervasive in the making of pinot noir in Australia, where the fruit and site shine through careful, subtle winemaking decisions. “Minimum intervention yet maximum attention,” she days. “Carbonic and whole bunch fermentation, less influence from new oak and earlier bottling to capture bright flavours and crisp acidity. The result are wines that have a great personality and that will evolve in the glass over time, giving more and more with every sip.”
Not for from the Yarra Valley, in the coastal region of Mornington Peninsula, Tom McCarthy is the winemaker at his family’s business, Quealy Winemakers, while he also produces a suite of pinot noirs under his Kerri Green label with Lucas Blanck, which is also the Quealy vineyard manager. He believes that the move to the ‘minimum intervention’ – or lighter handed and more transparent making as some may describe it – is as much about changing tastes than wine quality, but he firmly believes that the increases in fruit quality gives makers more options.
“I think at a simple level, most cool climate regions in Australia are still relatively young,” says McCarthy. “So, we have only recently started seeing a lot of pinot noir vineyards reach a more mature age – say 20 years plus. This, combined with better viticultural technique, is delivering exceptional fruit quality, ultimately reflected in the wines. Fruit quality allows creativity, giving winemakers more confidence to try and express their vineyards in different ways.”
While the relative wealth of mature vines in areas like the Yarra Valley and the Mornington Peninsula is showing clear dividends, other areas of vast potential are only beginning to reveal their promise.
Nadja Wallington and Steve Mobbs bought an established vineyard in the Orange region in 2020. No strangers to the area, the pair are focusing on the grapes they believe perform best in the cool, elevated climate, with chardonnay, riesling, shiraz and pinot noir the key drivers. Interestingly, although Orange is one of the coldest regions in Australia, pinot noir does not feature heavily in vineyards, not even breaking into the top five varieties, with merlot, cabernet sauvignon and shiraz all planted in substantially larger quantities.
However, Wallington believes that pinot in the region is finding its voice. “With improved clonal diversity, maturity of plantings and greater experience of vignerons, the calibre of pinot noir from Orange is really starting to show,” she says. “Our site is 900 metres, and so it is quite cool. The soil is pretty bony; it’s an Ordovician soil with a fair smattering of granite. It performs well with pinot across warm to cool years with good natural acidity and maturity at lower Baume, which suits our style.”
Winemaking has also improved since Wallington’s first vintage working in Orange in 2014, she says, with “more bunch… less oak… more detail. I think the cooler sites have what it takes to produce world class pinot noir. Orange is a relatively young region with so much opportunity. As much as anything I think experience with growing and making is the key to better and better wines across the board.”
There is no doubt that pinot noir has not only firmly entrenched itself in the Australian wine drinking psyche, but it is also starting to build distinct regional and sub-regional identities guided by the hands of confident makers. Those results are seeing pinot highly valued as a crop, with fruit costs in places such as Tasmania and the Yarra Valley some of the highest in the country for any variety. Lubiana believes that the acceptance of Australian pinot noir as a premium option for wine drinkers has advanced the cause for the grape, and it will continue to. Closer planting, meticulous trials around clonal diversity and drastically reduced yields have elevated quality significantly, but all these practices come at a cost.
“Pinot noir in Australia is getting seriously good at the moment, with 15–20-year-old vines on good soil types starting to produce very good wines at $100 plus,” Lubiana says. “We all use the best French oak and have very few wine faults when compared to France. For value for money, Australian pinots destroy the French and many other countries in my opinion.”
And that’s a sentiment that is echoed by Johnston. “The sky is the limit for Australian pinot,” she declares. “We have so many clones available and expressions of these that vary with soil type, elevation and aspect. The Yarra Valley – and Australia in general – is making some amazing pinot noir. They are wines that are distinctly identifiable in a line-up with some of the best pinot from around the world – Burgundy included. We’re up there with the best!”
This is engagingly fragrant and bright, but it’s savoury with it, with wild forest fruits and sour cherries laced with crushed autumn leaves, spices and a brush of bracken. This is fine and lithe, with the flavourful but elegant fruit running along rails of zippy acidity and cool tannins, the perfume filling the mouth long after the wine has been swallowed.
2021 Tillie J Pinot Noir
Yarra Valley, 13% ABV, $42
There’s a lift of bright red fruits here, with pomegranate, raspberry, red cherry and the like mingling with toasty, caramelised notes, a hint of just-baked berry Danish providing an alluring overlay. There are also graphite and struck flint notes on the palate that mesh neatly into the fruit, with those cherry and berry notes bright and poised, a subtly fine play of tannin and zip of acidity underlining the essential elegance of the wine.
This clocks in at a pretty low alcohol, and it’s all whole bunch fermented, but there’s amply generous flavour, with wild red and dark berries, some macerated cherries and plenty of spice. Bitter orange peel, smoky notes, white pepper and graphite add depth and complexity. That whole bunch knits in neatly, with a supple play of fine tannin giving the silky palate tension, while those bunch-derived spice notes play out subtly through the finish.
This has a briary nose, with notes of dried cherries, blood plum skin and graphite across a cool-fruited but ripe nose that plays down a savoury line. The palate follows that theme, with gentle herbal elements suggesting whole bunch is playing along. There’s no obvious sweet spot of fruit here, with a gentle weight carrying the flavours with a dusting of white pepper, finishing dryly grippy and elegant.
2021 Travail Pinot Noir Piquette
Macedon Ranges, 5.5% ABV, $27
Made from refermented grape pomace – the skins, seeds etc. left after wine has been pressed off – with water added to liberate any sugar and yeast to produce a low alcohol-lightly sparkling wine, this is full of red fruits, from cranberry, wild raspberry, tart mulberry and a skinsy graphite note. It’s light, bright and chewy, with a cloudy, magenta appearance in the glass. A park wine, if ever there was one.
On the nose, aromas of wild red forest berries, pomegranate, red cherry juice, clove-studded orange and a background of bracken and crushed autumn leaves. For a wine at the lighter end of alcohol ripeness, this has a big hit of flavour, a silky mouth-filling texture and a caress of fine tannin and acid carrying through the finish.
2021 Dazma Wine Co. Pinot Noir
King Valley, 12% ABV, $30
On the nose, sour red and black cherries, tart Japanese plums and forest berries, accented with less classic pinot notes of ripe red apples and blanched almonds, making for an exuberant and slightly wild nose, with a tangle of bracken adding mildly herbal complexity. Though the alcohol is low, there’s plenty of brightness of fruit flavour and depth, a tart cider apple play of tannin and acidity grappling the fruit into a tangy finish.
2020 Marco Lubiana Pinot Noir
Huon Valley, 13.5% ABV, $50
There’s an engaging complexity here of macerated forest berries, wild dark cherries, rhubarb and beetroot juice, with bracken and spice notes accenting, a gentle gloss of oak and charming smoky reduction filling out the picture. This is pitched to the more midweight end, pretty, mildly edgy in spice and racy drive, but with enough flex in flavour and feel to be engaging on a base pleasure-giving level.
A community minded wine concept engaging Hobart hospitality during the COVID lockdown period, involving 27 people helping to hand snip 27 buckets worth of individual berries from the stalks (from their homes because of the blanket isolation rules), all adding up to make a single barrel of wine. An intense nose, but still an elegant expression, with saturated notes of macerated black and red berries, cherries and rhubarb, with gentle spice notes accenting. This is supple and flavourful on the palate, with a web of succulently fine grape tannins drawing tension through the long finish.
On the nose, notes of red cherries, blood plum, rhubarb and warm spices, with a gently savoury autumnal note in the background. The palate has some zip, with sour red berries chiming in on both flavour and acidity, but there’s a silky purr there, too, with super-fine tannins driving long, carrying a raft of flavour that unlocks more and more with air.
2020 Anim ‘Clarence’ Pinot Noir
Huon Valley, Tasmania, $50
This is bright fruited and fragrant, with wild forest berries, cranberries and red cherries, with red florals, bitter orange and warm spices adding detail. There’s a real brightness of flavour and freshness here, along with a zip to the palate, but this sits with an almost sumptuous fruitfulness and supple texture, both sitting in pristine harmony.
Today’s broad stylistic diversity of shiraz (or, syrah) in Australia is increasing at a rapid rate. The 2021 YGOW Awards Top 50 features Charlotte Dalton Wines, Minimum, White Gate Wine Co., The Stoke, Silent Noise, Weathercraft, Made by Monks, Dirt Candy and Wangolina, who are all championing new expressions of shiraz. Tasting notes appear at the end of the article.
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