Pinot Noir in Australia – Wild Fire Wines

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Pinot Noir in Australia

Pinot Noir is one of the most celebrated wine styles in the world. From its humble beginnings in medieval France, you can now find some of the most expensive wine in the world under its banner. Its aromas assault your senses, but its delicate flavours compared to the bolder Shiraz and Cabernet varieties make it suitable for pairing with many different dishes. Seasonal dependence, viticulture technique, terroir, vinification and clones all compete for influence.

At its greatest, the Pinot of Vosne Romanee, a tiny patch of land north-east of the village of Beaune in France, produces wine of extraordinary energy, perfume, silkiness and intensity. At the very summit lies the vineyard of "La Romanee", which produces a wine of the same name that currently sells for around $US 20,000 per bottle of the current vintage. Applications accepted from billionaires only. This wine, which I have had once, was an almost religious experience to drink. It was impossible to believe that the product of grapes could produce such delight. The sensory explosion of that tasting, so many years ago, stays with me to this day. I can still visualize the glowing colour and sparkle of the deep rose wine in the bottom of my glass.

At its worst, some Pinot Noir in Australia grown in hot climates on indifferent soil with the wrong handling produces wine that is bland, dull, characterless and completely without appeal. I don’t think any other variety produces such a wide spectrum of quality.

God made Cabernet Sauvignon whereas the devil made Pinot Noir" - Andre Tchelistcheff--- America's most influential post-Prohibition winemaker.

History of Pinot Noir

Pinot Noir is a most ancient variety that may be only one or two generations removed from wild vitis sylvestris vines. Pinot Noir is ancient: in fact, it’s 1,000 years older than Cabernet Sauvignon.

The prototypical Pinot Noir is from Burgundy, France, where it has been grown for centuries. This is some of the most expensive agricultural land in the world, so you will often find prices to match. For example, the Grand Cru of Domaine de la Romanee-Conti and Leflaive: exquisite by nature and reputation, but far beyond most pockets!

Now you can find Pinot Noir all over the world, including, of course, Australia.

Pinot Noir in Australia

There are some reports of a clone of Pinot Noir coming to Australia in 1788, on the First Fleet. That has never been verified, but what we do know is that when James Busby started his winery in the Hunter Valley in the early 1800s, Pinot Noir was part of the vines he planted.

Not much is known about the early history of Pinot in Australia. The CSIRO, which then had a program for assisting the development of seed and rootstocks for a variety of Australian agricultural products, released a Pinot vinestock in 1971 developed from cuttings from the Hunter Valley vineyard of Maurice O’Shea’s Mt Pleasant taken in the 1920s. The origin of the Mt Pleasant vines is said to have been from the vineyard of Clos de Vougeot, to the west of Beaune and source of some of the finest Burgundies. This CSIRO product was called “Mothervine 6” or "MV6" and has become a widely used staple in Australian Pinot vineyards. The other principal clones now in use in Australia were developed in Dijon in Burgundy and were introduced into our vineyards in the mid-1990s.

Being a cool climate wine, you will find the best Pinot Noir created from fruit in Tasmania, and of course right here in the Yarra Valley. In many ways, the strength of Yarra Valley vineyards is on the back of their excellent Pinot Noir.

These days, you will find Pinot Noir on the table from regions as far away as Western Australia. For those who might not want a big Shiraz or Cabernet, Australian Pinot Noir is the more delicate option. Try these instead of mediocre burgundies acquired and tasted for their French cachet: not worth the experience or expense!

Australian Pinot Noir Characteristics

So, how do Australian Pinots compare with their French and North American counterparts?

Generalization is impossible, but without question the best Australian Pinots compare well. On the whole, I would say that Aussie Pinots, perhaps because of the predominance of MV6, are more subdued and a little less energetic than their old world counterparts, but this is changing. They lose nothing to Burgundy when it comes to colour, elegance, complexity and perfume. I would also say that our Pinots take more time to reveal themselves. A minimum of three years of maturation is desirable. We are also finding that our quality Pinots have longer lives - up to 15 years and beyond - than we believed was possible, all down to better viticulture and vinification.

A fine Australian Pinot is not only delicious, but there is a broader range of foods with which it can be matched; its qualities are more subtle and intriguing; it is usually lighter and easier to drink, and maybe easier to recover from as well. And, because Pinot vines respond more directly than any other variety to their location, soil-type, climate, aspect and management, the depth and breadth of the Pinot universe is exceptional, matching or exceeding any other variety.

Where will you find your Pinot holy grail? Perhaps the best we can offer are from northern Tasmania, Gippsland and the Upper Yarra Valley. I have been in blind tastings often where both new and old world wines have been shown, and I have identified a Mersault, for example, as from Beechworth without reservation. Ten years ago this would rarely have happened, and thirty years ago it would have been impossible. I believe we have much to be proud about. In time, we may begin producing competition for the wines of Vosne. The only question I have is with price! Aussie pinots are very hard to grow well, and of course they are "speciality" products and deserve their price point. Compare the prices for Premier Cru and better French Burgundies and the Aussie market will seem much more attractive.

Making Australian Pinot Noir

Pinot Noir is a demanding wine: it will only develop acceptable flavour intensity in a cool to temperate climate. However, it’s very susceptible to frost as it is an early bursting variety. It has tight bunches, with grapes clustered closely together, making the fruit susceptible to bunch rot. It needs careful canopy management to reduce this problem yet, it doesn’t like too much sun exposure on the fruit.

In Australia, it became clear early on in our viticulture that temperate climates were needed, with cooling influences like altitude or prevailing southerly winds. The grape skins are thin compared to other varieties, making Pinot Noir extremely susceptible to mildew diseases which are more prevalent in cool regions. Of course, not all Pinot fruit is used in table wine - a significant proportion is used in Pinot Rose and also in Blanc-de-noir sparklings.

The vinification of Pinot has also required careful adaptation for Australian winemakers. Picking time needs to be late in the season to coax the maximum phenolics from the berries for richness, complexity and depth of flavour. Fermentation temperatures have been a challenge. Many Pinot makers began by using strict temperature controls to ensure maximum delicacy and to restrict tannin extraction. They now know, from their observation of traditional Burgundian technique and experience, that the best Pinots are made with ferment temperatures in the low 30s rather than the mid-20s. Our makers have also improved their results by experimenting with the use of pre-ferment soaks and some whole bunch addition, as well as maturation in finer and less aromatic oak.

The willingness of many French wine producers to employ Australian winemakers in Burgundy has greatly added to our store of knowledge and to the improvement of our results.

Once in the winery, you have to take a variety that is not known for its colour and tannin extraction rates and turn it into something outstanding. The main rule for making Pinot Noir into wine is to take a careful and considered approach, with gentle handling, at every stage.

There are many decisions to be made once the fruit is in the winery:

  • Do you add the stems to assist with tannin intensity, at the risk of unpleasant vegetation characters?
  • Do you cold soak it to help with colour and tannin extraction?
  • Warm or cold ferment for capturing aromatic compounds?
  • Oak barrel selection?
  • Wild yeast for complexity or the safety of cultivated yeast?

"The huge variety in colour, aroma and flavour from winery to winery, vineyard to vineyard (even within the same region) is not so difficult to understand when you add up all the components that affect a bottle of Pinot Noir. It is no wonder ‘its makers are lunatic-fringe, questers after the holy grail…'" -Marc de Villiers, wine writer.

In a world saturated with imitation or innovation, it is exciting to grow, make, and drink wine from a variety that is so close to an ancient plant that existed eons ago.

Pairing Pinot Noir with Food

One immediate qualification: the Pinot needs to be excellent, and if it is, the pairing opportunities are endless.

A basic guide, however.

Pinot will fit well with terrines, rillettes and pates of most kinds. It tends not to like vinegary or bitter foods like pickles and stronger varieties of asparagus, swedes and turnips.

It fits wonderfully well with pastas, especially those that are cheese, herb or egg-based. It also adores fungi-anything mushroom is a delight. I once had a simple home-made spaghetti with oil, parmesan and lemon thyme in a small restaurant in Northern Italy, with a bottle of local Pinot, and I couldn’t believe my luck.

Very rich ragouts and stews, venison and slow-cooked beef may not prosper, but it depends on the dish. Pinot and truffle does wonderfully well; Pinot loves most paler meats like pork and veal; try it with vitello tonnato. A fine cheese souffle and pinot match well, although duck in most of its forms and Pinot is the best expression of gastronomic harmony.

At Taste Yarra Valley, we pair our Pinot Noir with a selection gouda or fetta cheese from Mill St Dairy. Delicious!

Our Pinot Noir paired with some tasty local cheese at Taste Yarra Valley in Warburton.

I leave the rest to your imagination!

Wild Fire Wines and Pinot Noir

Here at Wild Fire Wines, we have many years of experience making Pinot Noir that is true to terroir. We have taken great pride in producing excellent Pinot Noir over the years, blending clones such as 777/114/115/D4V5/MV6 which add complexity, nuance and structure.

Our 2018 Upper Yarra Valley Pinot Noir is made from the "Iona" vineyard near Warburton in the Upper Yarra Valley, the home of Wild Fire Wines. The site is at an altitude of 300 metres on the lower slopes of Mount Victoria, on red mountain soil over a clay base. It is naturally fermented, has medium weight and excellent magenta colour, fine tannins and perfect acidity with strawberry/truffle/spice aromas and a long finish.

The 2019 vintage was of high quality, and was described by Robert Paul, The National Cool Climate Wine Show chief judge and Victorian Wine Show Director, as "gold medal standard" - scoring it as 95 points out of 100. After a wet and cold December, rain in the Valley virtually stopped, and the months of January, February and March were hot and dry, with perfect maturing conditions.

This Pinot has lifted, classic Burgundian aromas of cherry, raspberry and violets, with a complex flavour mix of berries, spice, truffles and flowers. It has a deep and translucent appearance, fine soft tannins and length, balance and complexity.

We hope that an exploration of the world of Pinot Noir brings you as much joy as it has to us. Explore our Pinot Noir range today.

— John Harry and Peter Newman, Wild Fire Wines