For all the discussion around pinot noir, this grape variety actually makes up a surprisingly small proportion of Australia’s annual crop – around 3% – with some of that used for sparkling base. Yet arguably, no other grape arouses quite the same level of excitement among wine consumers, both in Australia and New Zealand, as well as around the world.
Whether it is the ethereal perfume, the silky texture or the longevity of the greatest examples, pinot noir is and continues to be a crowd favourite.
The road for Australian pinot noir producers, however, has not been easy.
The country’s generally warm climate prohibits most wine regions from tackling this famously fickle variety, which demands a cool climate to show its complex best with any great success. Humidity and moisture also play their role, with winemakers needing to walk a tightrope between the associated risk of disease and the prized trademark pinot perfumes that come from higher levels of moisture, and that ensure a move away from mid-weight dry reds with little resemblance to their grape variety.
Despite its challenges, many winemakers confess pinot noir is their favourite grape variety. The rewards can be great, and there’s an opportunity to add their own signature to their wines. It truly is the winemakers’ wine.
It is generally only close to our southern coastline and its humid, maritime influence that pinot noir really shines. However, even there, the greater prevalence of hot vintages is making the crafting of quality pinot noir increasingly difficult in areas long considered home to some of the nation’s finest wines. Despite that backdrop of uncertainty, Australian pinot noir has never been better.
Climate challenges have forced winemakers further afield to the coolest places on the mainland and in Tasmania, some of which were long ignored or even scoffed at for pinot noir.
The Fleurieu Peninsula, Upper Yarra, Great Southern, frostier parts of the Macedon Ranges and even Ballarat are increasingly producing some of the country’s best – in some cases made from relatively young vines.
It’s exciting times as winemakers in each of these regions add new, sometimes non-traditional, styles to the repertoire of Aussie pinot. Their wines are worth hunting down.
The big mover, though, has been Tasmania. For decades the Apple Isle has promised – and sometimes delivered – exceptional wines in its particularly pristine and pure style. This is in some part due to the unique character of its local sunlight, its maritime climate and its proximity in the Southern Ocean to Antarctica. During the next decade we will no doubt see increased global recognition for Tasmanian wines as they compete with the best from around the world.
One of the most notable recent changes to local pinot noir has been the trend towards more savoury wines, in part the result of the move to make wines in cooler, more challenging regions where full ripeness is not always guaranteed. The use of whole-bunch picked fruit with stalks in the ferment is also assisting to create more earthy and ethereal wines. Tied in with this is a growing confidence from winemakers to create structural wines built for long-term appeal rather than youthful drinkability.
The shackles have well and truly come off Australian pinot noir with experimentation and pushing boundaries now the order of the day and promising a bright future ahead.
2019 Henschke Giles Pinot Noir, Adelaide Hills, A$55
Shy and pure, it opens with an array of aromas – spice, earth, juicy cranberry plus a touch of star anise. The understated palate follows with fleshy dark cherry fruits lifted by attractive complexity. Dried meat and spice with balanced oak in the background, leading to a long and silky finish.
2019 Wilimee Pinot Noir, Macedon Ranges, A$55
Low-intervention winemaking using natural ferments without fining and filtration has created a distinctive, brooding and captivating wine. It opens with dark cherry, ground spices and oak aromas with finer detail of tilled earth and roast meat slowly emerging. In the mouth it is at once bold and subtle. It will unwind beautifully over the next decade.
2019 Pooley Butcher’s Hill Pinot Noir, Tasmania, A$65
Bursting with raspberry and floral aromas plus subtle dried herbs that add savoury complexity. In the mouth the wine takes a different turn with forest floor, spice and dark cherry flavours on a supple palate with fresh acidity, and sinewy tannins on a long and youthful finish. Still quite closed, it needs 3-5 years to flesh out.
2018 Picardy Pinot Noir, Margaret River, $A40
A classically youthful style, all bound up and only hinting at what it has to offer. Dark cherry, forest floor, tobacco and spice aromas with French oak in the background. On the palate, the wine is sinewy in texture, the acid and tannin backbone beautifully balanced. Give it at least six years to show its best.