Investigating Victoria Pinot Noir
looking across the Golden Plain, Geelong region
Victoria has reinspired my faith in Pinot Noir. Drinking Burgundy was the first experience to enliven my relationship with wine, Willamette Valley the first U.S. wine region to pull my heart strings. So, I carry a love for Pinot Noir. But it’s also a grape almost everyone makes. Unlike other varieties, where middlin versions can rest in being drinkable if not exciting, something about Pinot Noir makes okay-only versions less drinkable. Well made Pinot wants delicacy but it also wants risk. Unlike Syrah that can keep interest grown in a range of warm to cool climates (though I vastly prefer cool), Pinot’s structure often falls to squishy grown in the wrong locale. Truth? I’d grown tired from it.
Timo Mayer on his Bloody Hill
Timo Mayer grows his own grapes on a steep slope he has named “Bloody Hill,” actually carving that name into the wild grass of the hillside below his house where it’s too steep to easily put vineyard. Describing the choice as art, he laughs, explaining the grass acts like a painting viewed in the right light–when the sun is high the words shimmer. His not-yet-released 2012s are sexy carrying the curved hips of a finely dressed woman when destemmed, and a lean Zorro debonair flair when whole cluster. Both versions drink taut and poised.
Mac Forbes showing Mike Bennie the Worri Yallock Pinot Vineyard
Also, in the Yarra Valley, Mac Forbes cuts what Mike Bennie aptly describes as “fine boned” wines. The lines are lean while fleshed, with the pointed toe grace of a ballet dancer outside performance. Forbes strengthens his intended longevity with annual experimental batches he aptly names EB followed by a number. Each EB represents the testing of a hypothesis Forbes wants to consider in his overall program. The resulting development shows with the wines carrying a consistency of character while also becoming more focused in current vintages.
Ian and June Marks standing at the top of Gembrook Hill
Ian and June Marks, of Gembrook Hill, shared a 2002 Pinot Noir, made by Mayer, from the Marks own vineyard. They planted the site themselves more than 30-years ago, as part of the second wave of vineyard owners moving into the Yarra, establishing the furthest south site for the Upper Yarra sub-region.
The eleven year old bottling shows how well their wine ages, generating plush while directed midlines that deepen into earthy, cigar box, meaty characteristics on a juicy light, still lively frame.
With such experience, Marks offers insight into the particularity of the variety. “I reckon the grapes tell you everything.” Ian Marks described to us how he encouraged Mayer, and the Marks’ son Andrew, now also winemaker, to push the envelope on their wines. “I told them, go for it. You have to go right to the edge and produce what the vineyard is capable of producing.”
Such edginess can be found too on the other side of Victoria.
tiny bunches at Lethbridge Vineyards
Ray Nadeson and Maree Collis, of Lethbridge Wine, grow grapes at the edge of possibility, the Geelong region consistently harvesting last among the mainland appellations. Their Mietta Pinot Noir is home planted on a cool climate vineyard dominated by dry seasons over shallow, dark basalt soils poured on limestone, creating tiny berried small clusters with outrageously low yields.
Thanks to the site’s conditions, the wines are nervy, meant to age, with Lethbridge holding their wines at least three years in bottle before release. In this way, Lethbridge speaks to a French style with a slightly bigger frame. Mietta showcases the couple’s top tier Pinot, while their entry level Menage a Noir Pinot Noir is meant to drink more immediately upon purchase. Menage drinks juicy and fresh, while still offering an energized structure.
Ray Nadeson, Maree Collis, Alex Byrne at Lethbridge Winery
The newer label, Bryne Wines, from Alex Bryne (also winemaker at Lethbridge alongside Nadeson and Collis), showcases the fruit of cool climate Ballarat, near the Geelong region. Bryne was forced to declassify his 2011 Pinot after a hard working season due to the extreme weather conditions of that year. (Many people lost fruit thanks to weeks of non-stop rain.) But his soon to be released 2012, and his previous 2010 both offer a sensual youthfulness, giving fruit without sweetness, and a pleasing texture.
Looking into the Yarra Valley, in the Woori Yallock area
What excites me about Victoria Pinot Noir comes partially from the cool nights common throughout the region. (Even the warmer Continental climate of Great Western offers a diurnal shift that helps retain wines’ acidity.) The other piece comes from the soils.
Victoria is spotted by iron stone that translates into a ferric finish in many wines. Some locations also generate a slight saltiness. Together the result is a reverberation effect in the throat, with flavors coupled by an echo that generates palpable multi-dimensionality, and longer finish.
Thank you to David Fesq, Ray Nadeson, Maree Collis, Alex Byrne, Jonathan Mogg. Thank you to Mike Bennie, Mac Forbes, Timo Mayer, Ian and June Marks.
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