The sale of Bass Phillip to a consortium of offshore investors marks the end of a very illustrious chapter in Australian pinot noir history. Phillip Jones has exited the building at his South Gippsland winery and highly reputed Burgundian winemaker Jean-Marie Fourrier (Domaine Fourrier) takes the reins on behalf of a three-way consortium that also includes Singaporean wine identity Soo Hoo Khoon Peng and Hong Kong-based investor Kent Ho.
Jones has played such a pivotal role in seeing Australian pinot noir develop stylistically and also seeing the reputation develop to become a respected player on the world stage. The sale to such highly credentialed buyers only asserts the significance of his contribution. He is ready to step back and take some time. “I still love doing it,” he says, “but I am getting too bloody tired.”
Oddly enough Phillip Jones didn’t initially choose pinot noir, it chose him.
“I looked around for a few years for the right place to make a great St Julien,” Jones laughs, “and I planted a vineyard to Bordeaux grapes in South Gippsland in 1979. The three rows of pinot noir just stood up and said this is it, and the rest is history.”
Jones leaves on a high note with an exceptional 2017 vintage release and a very strong set of 2018 wines following him out the door. The project has been so unique in so many ways. He bottled the first wines from 1984 and burst onto the stage at the Exhibition of Victorian Winemakers roadshows in 1991. He offered all the wines he had made from 1984 to 1989 to high praise and really didn’t look back.
Jones was involved in the 2020 harvest and his old friend, winemaker John Durham, assisted through the transition. “My hope is that getting Jean-Marie Fourrier involved will improve the quality of the wines and enhance the image of Bass Phillip, particularly in export markets,” Jones says.
On the back of an exceptional 2019 harvest, the Adelaide Hills can lay claim to full bragging rights as one of Australia’s best current sources of great pinot noir. The region has come late to the pinot party in comparison to the suite of established Victorian regions, like the Mornington Peninsula and Yarra Valley, and has more recently been outgunned by the pocket-sized powerhouse of Tasmania. But it has arrived.
The depth of quality delivered in the 2019 harvest shows that the region has reached new heights and this really crowns an ascent that has been building since 2015. The region’s established leader, Ashton Hills, has always excelled and delivered a bold, concentrated dark fruit style of pinot that undeniably works. But others had struggled to match it.
Even brands as esteemed as Shaw + Smith came later to pinot in their own evolution, but they have certainly invested and made strong inroads for these past five vintages. But it is the rising tide of the new, the small, the naturally inspired and the ambitiously driven producers that are coming of age and stepping up their style and quality game.
Producers like Gentle Folk and Commune of Buttons have honed their repertoire and the wines have taken shape in convincing fashion.
Ask anyone who makes pinot and you’ll learn that it is a difficult puzzle to solve. It is hard to grow great pinot in an Australian climate and the Adelaide Hills has taken longer to arrive at the understanding that much of the region is just too warm for pinot to reach a high of grade of quality. And if growing top pinot is tricky, making the stuff is another riddle again.
Murdoch Hill has been on a steady ascent since the debut of their Phaeton Pinot Noir in 2012. A wine that debuted as just two barrels, fermented as whole bunches, has now transformed to become one of the leading pinots in the region with an outstanding 2019 release.
Taras Ochota’s 2019 Impeccable Disorder bottling is by far the best release of this small make of Ochota Barrels’ finest pinot noir and a wine that bolsters the region’s credentials in very convincing style.
Jane Eyre’s dual pinot citizenship of Burgundy and Victoria is a big one to balance. The depth of experience and intense focus that her time spent in the vineyards and cellars in Burgundy offers can only benefit the work with pinot on Australian soil and the pair of 2019 wines are quite simply stunning.
The two wines released from 2019, Mornington Peninsula and Yarra Valley, show very faithful regional character as well as strong family ties. The Yarra Valley lighter, more lacy and strawberry fruit-focused, while the Mornington Peninsula wine is bolder, more exuberant and more muscular. Both wines carry impressive structural depth and the delivery of tannin is so well judged. These are easily Eyre’s best Australian wines and make a fascinating study of Australian pinot seen through the lens of both near and afar.
Kevin Bell and Tricia Byrnes have held such impressive and admirable focus with their Hurley Vineyard project and the four 2018 vintage wines just released stand in the established stylistic formation. These are wines of nuance and of highly refined, specific character.
The 2018 Estate Pinot Noir is a blend of their three single parcels and represents a light and lacy edition with red cherry and raspberry fruit aromas ahead of a tight-wound palate that sweeps open with air in the glass. Impressive. The trio of single parcel bottling are highly grouped in terms of quality. My pick is the 2018 Garamond as it offers the most striking complexity with such fine, yet powerful, tannins.
The 2018 Lodestone is the most ethereal with a floral stance on the nose, and lighter strawberry, pomegranate and cherry fruits delivered in a focused, precise mode. The 2018 Hommage sits somewhere between the two, with expressive cherry and pomegranate fruits and a palate that creates exquisite tension between power and restraint. It will develop extremely well over the next decade.