Cool Climate Victorian Pinot Noir

by amantduvin

“Australia is a diverse country that can produce wines of finess and style equal to those of France. And we can.”1  Brian Croser

Tasting notes of Victorian cool climate wines often include comparative words such as “Chablis-like” and  “Burgundian style”, which could raise accusations of aspiration. But not if used by Old World journalists. As the UK-based writer Jamie Goode wrote, “De Bortoli Reserve Pinot Noir 2004 Yarra Valley: Quite a tight, focused Burgundian nose… Green Point Brut 1996 Yarra Valley: This is probably the best Champagne-style wine I’ve tasted from the New World.”2

Huon Hooke, Regional Chair of the Australia panel at the Decanter World Wine Awards 2009, advised to “keep an eye on… the improvements in Pinot Noir from the cooler climates of Victoria and Tasmania.” Fellow DWWA Regional Chair Antony Rose was absolutely right to observe that the “absence of Victoria was disappointing.”3

The state of Victoria suffers from extremes of weather that are reflected in the wines – the fortifieds and “stickies” of northern Victoria; the continental climates in central Victoria where ripe, rich reds are grown; and the cooler maritime styles surrounding Port Philip Bay. In the skies above these regions, cold southerly winds clash with hot northerlies. Temperatures can sore up or down quickly. 

The topic of my master’s degree thesis was the Australian Geographical Indication System, with a focus around the Macedon Ranges. Climatic data were analysed and comparisons made with fine wine growing appellations in France and Australian cool climate regions.

Five of those regions adorn what James Halliday has phrased the “cool climate dress circle” that surrounds Melbourne. Melbourne is a very European city – cultural, classic and contemporary. Cool climate wines are produced and accessible within an hour in every direction. Moving from the east coast to the west coast around Port Philip Bay, tempered by southern ocean surf beaches at each end, are the Mornington Peninsula; the Yarra Valley; the Macedon Ranges; Sunbury; and the Bellarine Peninsula.

World Class Victoria in London

The World Class Australia Tasting in London in March 2010 included established wines cool climate Victorian wines such as Schelmerdine; Stonier; Kooyong; Ten Minutes by Tractor; De Bortoli; Yering Station; Punt Road; and Green Point. It is exciting to see adventurous winemakers like Mac Forbes and William Downey join this elite group.

“I’m going to make a prediction: I reckon that before long Mac Forbes will be recognized as one of Australia’s greatest winemakers (I suppose he may already be…). His wines are fantastic, and they represent an important facet of Australia’s future fine wine dimension”, Jamie Goode.

With some of the other World Class Australia Victorians, Mac Forbes was recognised in the March 2010 Decanter Panel Tasting of Australian Cool Climate Pinot Noir. “Australian Pinot Noir from cool climate regions of Tasmania and Victoria, both states at the forefront of the varietal’s development in the new world (though far behind New Zealand in terms of exposure, of course). Result. A hatful of gems, with Victoria edging ahead.” Descriptions for the Victorian wines included “class”, “elegance”, “complexity”, “harmony”, “freshness”, and “great, balancing, mouth-watering acidity”. 4

The winemakers highlighted below all have in common a respect for their land, amplified during their experiences in Burgundy, and from working with producers such as Steve Webber of De Bortoli, James Halliday at Coldstream Hills and Phillip Jones of Bass Philip in Gippsland. Respectful grape growing and vineyard management combined with experimental and traditional winemaking practices add layers of understanding to the complexity of their regions. 

The Yarra Valley

Steve Webber, winemaker at De Bortoli Wines and also, with Stephen Shelmerdine at PHI in the Yarra Valley, says “Australian vignerons are now increasingly aware of the importance of single vineyard wines.” Matthew Jukes said, “the Lusatia Park vineyard should have won three slots this year (2007 PHI Pinot Noir is every bit good enough to be included in the Top 100) but we have only given two places away to allow another wine a chance.”

Mac Forbes says he “isn’t afraid to push the boundaries of cool climate viticulture and winemaking”. Mac’s philosophy is simple, focusing on terroir and seeking cooler sites. “We are the first producer to be paying reference to the various townships of the Yarra as the basis for sub-regional examination”, explains Forbes, working in six vineyards and focusing heavily on vineyard health and better natural balance. Vineyard yields vary from 25HL to 35HL per hectare, with fermentation in small open fermenters, with only small additions of sulphur dioxide.

This is the sound of Mac on his blog to start vintage 2010: “Feb 22 and we are marching to the beat of minimum sleep, hard work and great aromas as the ferments engulf the winery… So far we have picked all lower Yarra Pinot and the Woori Chard, which looks stunning. Still on the vine is Upper Yarra Pinot… We have had some great weather for ripening and envisage a busy couple of weeks ahead… We are picking today our 1-Tonne parcel off one acre of Woori Yallock. This will be our first chance to really evaluate low cropping on this vineyard so we are all dropping what we are doing to head out for a few hours to do a slow and selective pick”.5

William Downie’s intention is “to produce wines of purity and detail that reflect their place of origin. They are made in the most natural way possible, not pushed or shoved in any direction. They are not added to or subtracted from. Although each of the William Downie wines is made from Pinot Noir, the Yarra Valley, Mornington Peninsula and Gippsland are more different than they are similar.”6 Decanter magazine included William Downie Pinot Noir in the 2009 Christmas drinking wish list to go with ham and turkey sandwiches.

Sergio Carlei of Carlei Green Vineyards is another Yarra Valley producer managing specific Pinot Noir biodynamic sites. Carlei’s wines have received 5-star ratings from James Halliday. In 2003 I saw Sergio looking for some of the answers in Burgundy and then translate them into his wines during the 2004 and 2005 vintages at his Victorian winery.

Tom Carson has been working as a winemaker in the Yarra Valley since 1992, first at Coldstream Hills with James Halliday, then at Yering Station from 1996 to 2008, winning international trophies. Tom is Chairman of the Canberra national wine show and General Manager and Chief Winemaker of Yabby Lake on the Mornington Peninsula.

Tom adds modestly, “I have a vineyard at home too! It is called Serrat, which is close planted (8,800 vines per hectare) and was planted in 2001. We make a tiny amount of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay (in the Yarra Valley).” The tiny amount of Pinot Noir 2008 excelled at the 2009 Yarra Valley Wine Show, winning Top Gold in its class, and Trophies for Best Pinot Noir, Best Red Wine, and Champion Wine of Show in all classes.

Mornington Peninsula

The Mornington Peninsula has a maritime cool climate and slow ripening that suits Pinot Noir. Sandro Moselle, winemaker at Kooyong, has been instrumental in establishing microclimate site plantings, clonal selection and viticultural practices for superior quality fruit. For Moselle “it’s about philosophy, plantings and place… All of our wines are made to strongly reflect their vineyard site attributes. Pinot Noir amplifies small differences in site into significant differences in the wine… Echoing Burgundian tradition, the low yielding vines produce small berries with high flavour and colour intensity.”8

Yabby Lake is a specialist Pinot Noir and Chardonnay producer on the Peninsula. The website states: “Modern. Pristine. Poised.”9The Yabby Lake 2007 Pinot Noir was included in the Matthew Jukes Top 100 Australia in 2009. Jukes said, “there is an elemental energy to this wine that signals the arrival of a Pinot with a true sense of terroir… Yabby is one of the hottest properties in Australia right now!” Tom Carson is the winemaker and Keith Harris the viticulturalist. Harris is also organises the biannual Mornington Peninsula Pinot Noir Celebration, attracting international guests such as Alan Meadows (aka “Burghound”), Jancis Robinson MW, and Aubert de Villaine of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti.

Macedon Ranges

Bindi is a wine with a small production of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and sparkling wines made by Michael Dhillon. James Halliday nominates Bindi as “one of the icons of Macedon. The Chardonnay is top shelf, the Pinot Noir as remarkable (albeit in a very different idiom) as Bass Phillip, Giaconda or any of the other tiny production icon wines”10 – which is not surprising, as Michael has experience working for both Rick Kinzbrunner at Giaconda in Beechworth and Phillip Jones at Bass Philip in Gippsland.

Bindi is at 500 metres altitude on quartz dominant soils. Biodynamic principles and low yields of 3.5 to 5 tonnes per hectare produce between 1,800-3,000 dozen bottles each vintage. Dhillon explains “Typical hand management regimes of fastidious small vineyard philosophies are maintained … Our winemaking incorporates high percentages of natural yeast ferments, gently worked, delicate pressing, long lees ageing in French barrels and minimal racking. No fining and restricted filtration regimes are followed”.11

Curly Flat is also in conversion to biodynamics and follows a similar winemaking regime. Curly Flat has received a 5 Red Star Rating from James Halliday and was included in the Gourmet Traveller Wine Top 10 Australian Chardonnay Producers. Jancis Robinson MW described Curly Flat as “producer of some of the finest Australian Pinot Noir I have encountered” and awarded it a score of 18/20. Curly Flat has won a succession of awards at the Macedon Ranges Wine Exhibition, including two Gold medals in 2009 – one for the 2006 Pinot Noir, of which Campbell Mattinson wrote, “(it) has been on a steady rise, but this one is out of the box”12, and the other for the 2005 Pinot Noir, which had already won the Trophy for Best Pinot Noir at the 2008 show. The judges commented, The Gold medal would not be out of place in a tasting of good Burgundies.”13

I will finish with the note of the last wine that I tasted in Victoria a few days before the fires in February 2009, just ahead of flying to London for a Decanter New World Sparkling Wine Panel tasting. It was a melting 43 degrees Celsius in the Yarra Valley, yet surprisingly green. It was a day such as Hugh Johnson described: “When James and I sweltered out to Coldstream from Melbourne in March 1987, the respected secret of its delicate wines, its cool climate, was not especially evident.”14 Steve Webber offered a few tank samples to taste, both of us happy to be in the cooler cellars. I made this note: “De Bortoli Reserve Pinot Noir 2008, smooth, reserved, well handled use of oak, complex, layered Burgundian style, concentrated yet elegant and linear fruit. Wonderful texture and flavour.” Even through that heat it echoed Jamie Goode’s tasting note, by chance, of the same wine (though of the 2004 vintage) quoted at the beginning of this article.

But it was so hot that Mac Forbes and I cancelled our meeting. Hugh Johnson also wrote, “But later that night, when we gathered on the balcony of the house for a barbie, I heard the cry I have heard after supper in great vineyards round the world. Darling fetch me a shawl.”

Mac Forbes sounds cooler this year and has left his blog to make vintage 2010: “Enjoy Autumn everyone. And when I get back on here we will hopefully be reporting that all Pinot and Chardonnay is in and looking good.”

April 2010

Related links:

Tim Atkin MW talking about Victorian Wine and the Royal Melbourne Wine Show


1 (Ken Garrett, “Headed for Big Things Once More” Australia:Strategy 2010, p.41)
3 DWWA magazine, October 2009, Vol 35 No. 1 pp. 68-69.)
10 James Halliday, Wine Companion, 2009 Edition
13 Declaration: my brother Matt Regan has been winemaker at Curly Flat since vintage 2008
14 Hugh Johnson, A life Uncorked, p. 41