Pinot meunier plantings at Barwon Ridge

One chilly morning in spring last year, a dozen winemakers from around Geelong gathered on a gentle slope in the Barrabool Hills, west of the city, to help plant a small vineyard.

It was an historic day. The 450 vines the group planted were cuttings that had been taken from the oldest pinot meunier block at Best’s Great Western vineyard – which was planted 150 years ago using cuttings from the Barrabool Hills. Full circle.

“We have records of Great Western vignerons buying cuttings from around here at that time,” said Calum Townsend, one of a small team from Best’s who had come across to participate in the historic planting. “Henry Best either got those cuttings direct from a vineyard in the Barrabool Hills, or from ‘the Frenchies’, pioneer Great Western vignerons Trouette and Blampied, who we know got many of their cuttings from Geelong. So, these pinot meunier vines are literally coming back home.”

The foundation of the meunier plantings on display at Geelong Cellar Door
The foundation of the meunier plantings on display at Geelong Cellar Door

The hillside where the vines have been replanted belongs to Geoff and Joan Anson, who established their Barwon Ridge vineyard here in 1999. Geoff has extensively researched the 19th century history of the Geelong wine region, and while his colleagues were busy on their hands and knees poking vine sticks into the damp earth, he took me up to the top of the hill to paint a picture of how this area was once home to extensive vineyards and wine cellars.

“The first vines were planted here by Swiss settlers in the 1840s,” he said. “They’d come from Neuchatel and were experienced farmers. Some of them brought cuttings with them, including pinot meunier. They planted on the slopes: vines and orchards. Our place used to be a cherry orchard back then. The story goes that they’d sometimes put dried cherries in the wine for more colour.”

Plantings at Barwon Ridge
Plantings at Barwon Ridge

Geoff says by the 1860s, the Barrabool Hills wineries were producing 75,000 litres of wine. But the vine louse, phylloxera, first discovered in Australia in a Geelong vineyard in 1877, soon put a stop to that: by the 1890s, almost all of the region’s vineyards had been pulled out, including those original plantings of meunier.But the cuttings at Best’s vineyard survived and now, 150 years later, the same genetic vine material has returned to Geelong, ensuring the continuation of a 19th-century Victorian wine legacy.

This wonderful project came about after wine retailer Jon Helmer opened his Geelong Cellar Door wine bar in the heart of the city in 2016. “I wanted a gnarly old vine to put in the shop, as decoration over the fireplace,” said Helmer. “I was speaking to Calum at Best’s about it because I knew they had those old meunier vines: I thought perhaps they might have one that had died that they could let me have. And he said how good it would be to perhaps plant meunier back here in Geelong, on the 150th anniversary of the vine material travelling the other way.”

When he heard about the idea, Geoff Anson offered some of his land to plant the vines. It also caught the imagination of Wine Geelong, the regional association, who has subsequently forged links with the present-day wine industry in Switzerland, particularly around Neuchatel, and is hoping to establish ongoing initiatives such as a young winemaker exchange program.

Best’s celebrates more than 150 years of winemaking

After the morning’s planting, the Geelong and Great Western winemakers assembled for a tasting of Australian pinot meuniers alongside some Swiss examples of the grape.

The tasting venue was one of the Barrabool Hills’ original 19th century wineries. Now known as Neuchatel but originally called The Suisse Vineyard, vines were first planted here by Frederick Breguet, one of the first Swiss settlers, in 1854. The original house and roomy cellar are in remarkable condition; a single ancient chasselas vine – an improbable survivor of phylloxera – still grows over the doorway to the coach house and stables.

In 1864 journalist Ebenezer Ward visited the Barrabool Hills and wrote about Suisse, describing Breguet’s “excellent cellar”, and his three-hectare vineyard planted to a number of different red and white grapes, including “Miller’s Burgundy” – the 19th-century name given to pinot meunier, due to the flour-like dusting of hairs on the variety’s leaves (“meunier” is “miller” in French).

As we stood in that same cellar and sipped red wines made from Victorian and Swiss pinot meunier, Geoff Anson thanked everyone for coming to lend a hand with what one of the local winemakers described as a viticultural historical version of a barn-raising.“

In a few years’ time, we’ll get to taste the fruits of our labour today,” he said. “Pinot meunier arrived here in the 1840s and then 50 years later, disappeared. To bring those same vines back here is something really special.”  

The Red Meunier Revival

The red pinot meunier grape is most commonly associated with Champagne and other top sparkling wines: its clear juice brings a rich, round approachability to fizz when blended with pinot noir and chardonnay. But historically in Switzerland – and in 19th-century Victoria – there is a tradition of using it to make lighter-bodied, often quite earthy red wines. In Australia, Best’s has produced a dry red meunier since the late 1960s but until recently they were almost the only ones doing so. Now, a growing number of Australian winemakers are rediscovering the charms of the variety and are making pinot meunier as a red wine, both on its own and blended with pinot noir and other grapes.

2018 Oakridge Meunier, Yarra Valley, A$28
Made in a very approachable, light, slurpable style, this gorgeously red-cherry-juicy expression of the grape is best drunk slightly chilled, outside, on a warm day. The label evokes the flour-like dusting that distinguishes meunier’s leaves.

2018 Stargazer Rada, Tasmania, A$35
A blend of pinot meunier and pinot noir from vineyards in Pipers Brook and Coal River at opposite ends of Tassie, this has both juicy, snappy, thirst-quenching red berry fruit flavours and also a nicely savoury, sinewy undertow.

2017 Best’s Great Western Old Vine Pinot Meunier, Grampians, A$100
Don’t be deceived by the pretty translucent purple colour or gentle perfume of black cherry or fine, lightweight presence on the tongue: this is a cellarworthy, tightly-wound, superbly harmonious Australian classic that’ll live for decades.