Mornington Peninsula Vineyards.

Pinot Noir producers are notoriously driven, eccentric, zealously passionate and committed to riding the seasonal merry-go-round come what may. They’re a special bunch. The work and attention to detail in the vineyard is key to the quality of the outcome, and you’ve all heard the expression great pinot is “made in the vineyard”. Winemaking is often equated to the act of not ruining the great grapes that are in the winery, rather than making it all happen.

The producer is paramount, none more so than in Burgundy for example, but a great pinot noir vineyard is iconic for its ability to deliver high quality and consistency. Enter the Mornington Peninsula Pinot Noir Project, a collaborative experiment designed to map out the characteristics of site across five different vineyards, across multiple years. The aim is simple: to remove as many of the variables as possible to bring site-driven character to the fore and begin to gain a deeper understanding of what Mornington Peninsula pinot noir is all about.

The five vineyards chosen are all planted to the same clone (MV6) and all have a north-facing aspect, all have rows oriented north-south, all pruned as similarly as possible and are all harvested at a similar ripeness. They are then sent to Moorooduc Estate winemaker and proprietor, Richard McIntyre, who delivers a standardised vinification process (de-stemmed, no added yeast, similar time on skins, all basket pressed, aged in similar oak and bottled at the same time).

I recently tasted four vintages of the five wines and it was a fascinating display of the consistent character of site as well as the undeniable influence that is delivered by the style of the season, or vintage.

The five vineyards are all, as you’d expect, of some considerable pedigree. The Robinson Vineyard (Hugh Robinson is a long-time vineyard manager on the Mornington), Moorooduc Estate (Richard McIntyre’s own), Paradigm Hill (George Mihaly’s vineyard), Paringa Estate (home of the wizard himself, Lindsay McCall) and Eldridge Estate (David Lloyd).

Pinot noir in barrel

Pinot noir in barrel.

These five vineyards are across three distinct areas. The first two, Robinson and Moorooduc, represent the lower and more northerly part of the Mornington Peninsula, affectionately referred to as “down the hill”. The Paradigm Hill Vineyard represents the eastern section of the region which is influenced by the tidal inlet of Western Port, and then you have the pair of vineyards Paringa Estate and Eldridge Estate representing the higher altitude part of the region, or the mob from “up the hill”.

These are all within 15-20 minutes drive of each other so we are talking a relatively small area. The soils of the Robinson Vineyard (elevation 55 metres) and Moorooduc Estate (elevation 90 metres) consist of sedimentary, ancient seabeds. These vineyards sit in the rain shadow of the Otway Ranges which lie to the west, so their climate is also a little drier and warmer in the scheme of the region. The soils of Paringa Estate (elevation 160 metres) and Eldridge Estate (elevation 225 metres) up the hill are volcanic, while those of Paradigm Hill (elevation 60 metres) are red basaltic soils.

I asked McIntyre what he thinks about winemakers growing, harvesting and sending off their valuable pinot noir grapes to another winery and winemaker to make, and what that all must mean. “Sometimes I think, ‘Why the hell did I do this?’” he quips. “It’s madness to send your precious grapes off to another winemaker, but you’ve got to be really crazy to agree to be the bloke who receives everyone’s fruit and is responsible for making it into wine!” It’s a good point, but McIntyre is a great man for the job, having made wine for many years and known as a respected and much-admired pillar of the region.

It also sheds light on the fact that this is a place where collaboration is keenly pursued by most winemakers and grape growers. Pinot Celebration Australia (formerly Mornington Peninsula International Pinot Noir Celebration) is on the calendar thanks, largely, to the willingness of the region’s winemakers to work together across all aspects of the business of making and promoting interest in great pinot noir.

Pinot noir

“We want to better define the characteristics of the various areas,” McIntyre adds. “One of the features of this region is the diversity of climate and altitude and we are curious to explore this more precisely. It’s much harder than you think. We want people to know there are common threads to Mornington Peninsula pinot noir and that there are very different characters that are driven by the influence of site.”

It is a fascinating tasting and one that is really designed as an internal exercise for winemakers to better understand the place in which they are working. But for those interested, the 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2018 Pinot Project wines are being showcased in a rare public outing as part of the 2019 Pinot Celebration Australia on 8 & 9 February 2019 at RACV Cape Schanck in Mornington Peninsula.

For bookings and more information head to mpva.com.au/events/detail/Pinot-Noir-Celebration

The Vintages

2014: Poor fruit set delivered tiny yields of variable berry size that produced very
concentrated, cooler-character wines. The cooler more moderate weather resulted in a less consistent vintage. Great to have an atypical year as this tests the idea that site driven characters will prevail.

2015: Beautiful mild year, sunny and even. Picking was well spaced. There was great fruit clarity and purity and good natural acid balance. Fine silky tannins. Concentrated wines with good perfume and depth.

2016: A warmer and drier vintage than 2015 with good fruit set and good yields. The wines were ripe with plenty of tannin to support generous fruit. Overall a bold vintage.

No 2017: Very poor fruit set. Two of the five vineyard sites didn’t have enough fruit to make even a barrel of wine and decided they didn’t need another unusual vintage in the project after 2014.

2018: Tasted from barrel. A strong vintage with good yields of unusually large bunches. There was a long period of warm and dry weather leading into the vintage that was essential to save the day. The wines are showing great promise.

2019 is planned as the fifth and final vintage to be included in the project