Australian Pinot Noir is not a wine that, frankly, I have ever ordered outside of Australia. You don't see it much in the US. It's not that I have something against it; I just never think about it.
Thus, I was surprised late last year when I asked Wine Australia to send me some cool-climate wines to try. I wanted to write a story to help out Australian wineries after China, which was buying 40 percent of Australia's wine exports, abruptly imposed punitive tariffs in an attempt to control Australian media coverage of China.
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I thought I would write about cool-climate Shiraz or Cabernet, and I still might. What surprised me was the Pinots Noir. The best wines I got (recommended below) in an admittedly non-random sample were Pinots. More to the point, all of the Pinots were drinkable with a style I did not expect at all.
Light and elegant is in for Australian Pinot Noir. This won't be news if you're reading it Down Under, but it was news to me. Moreover, terroir is also in. This might seem like a no-brainer for Pinot, but that hasn't always been the case.
Longtime California wine retailer Chuck Hayward says Australia's wine community has always been a trend follower, and has spent years getting to the point with Pinot where it is now.
Hayward said his first experience with Australian Pinots was in the early 1990s. Pinot had been around beforehand, especially in Hunter Valley where they called it Hunter Burgundy, but terroir-driven Pinot wasn't a big part of Australia's wine portfolio in the era of its greatest success.
"When Pinot was made early days they were full-bodied in style, because they were trying it out," Hayward told Wine-Searcher. "I think we did that here in California too. It's a natural thing. The Pinot geeks would insult that style. They'd call it a 'dry red'. They'd say: 'It's not delicate enough. It doesn't have the nuance of Burgundy.' A lot of winemakers traveled to Burgundy to try to figure out how to make a wine with more finesse and elegance. They came back and the style started to change, right at the beginning of the 2000s. The styles lightened up and you had a younger generation of people saying, this is good, it's more like Burgundy, it's fresher."
In fact, Hayward said that the flaw he sees now is that some of them are too light. It sounds odd but it's true; the ones I tried but am not recommending could all be described that way.
"I went to a tasting at Mornington Peninsula and there was no color, no body. They were too delicate," Hayward said. "Australia is very trendy. They did the same thing with Chardonnay. The Chardonnays were too big, and then they were too thin, too acidic. That was all in response to changes by journalists and critics. There was this anti-Parker and Spectator thing. That's how Australia is: They tend to go too far, and then come back."
A big factor behind the relative youth of Australian Pinot Noir, in a country that has been making wine for more than 150 years, is that until fairly recently it wasn't planted in cool enough places. The wine industry was concentrated in warm regions like Barossa Valley. Tasmania's first non-failed wine project was in the 1950s but the island's plantings grew slowly until the 1970s (and they're still not huge.) Yarra Valley, now a major source of Pinot Noir, didn't see its first post-phylloxera plantings of anything until the 1960s.
"I was born here in the Yarra Valley, in Coldstream," winemaker Mac Forbes told Wine-Searcher. "I didn't know what it meant to be Australian on these soils. We had this sense of inferiority. That we wouldn't measure up. The biggest compliment was that the wines might resemble wines from somewhere else. It's all the old convict mentality. We can play it off with a joke, but there's an inferiority complex."
Forbes spoke to me the day after attending a meeting between local indigenous farmers and restaurant chefs, who are hoping to find native plants that the indigenous people can grow commercially.
"A lot of our [grape] farming is moving back to unirrigated dry farming," Forbes said. "In talking to the indigenous community, we learned adaptation is what we need to focus on. In a hot year, we need plants that are more adapted to their place.
"There's a number of things we're doing that go towards letting the fruit speak. Our lifeblood is why we don't use new oak. Pinot definitely has a place in Yarra Valley in the cooler places. But it makes us feel uncomfortable at times. You feel out of your depth with some of these sites. We have these sites that are so startlingly different from anything else. That's what we want to talk about: the mountains, the winds. If I could get to the end of my life and say I've got a better understanding of what impact all of these elements have, that would be my contribution to Yarra Valley."
As exciting as Australian Pinots are these days, a huge problem is that the Aussies drink many of them.
"I have had Australians tell me, in my own restaurant, we keep all the good ones to ourselves," said Paul Grieco, owner of Terroir wine bar in New York. "Well, fuck you, we're New York, we drink what we want."
But Grieco said the main culprit for the absence of Aussie Pinot Noir in the US is not consumers – Grieco thinks Pinot Noir fans will try Pinots from anywhere – but the wine trade gatekeepers, sommeliers and restaurant wine buyers.
"We as somms have had points at the beginning of our career where we say about Aussie wine: 'They all taste the same'," Grieco told Wine-Searcher.
"We apply that broad brush to all of Australian wine. It just shows that we have no clue what's really going on in Australia. What I have tasted over these last five years tells me that Australia is just as exciting a wine country as France, the USA, Germany, on and on. Specifically when we get to Pinot Noir, there are kick-ass wines going on down there. My criteria for yumminess in wine is a snap of acidity and a brightness of fruit. Those wine areas have the possibility to produce wines like that.They went through the too much fruit, too much oak, too much size and mass. They're retreating like all wine regions are retreating. Now we're just getting pure yumminess."
I cannot and will not pretend that the following are the best Australian Pinot Noirs you can buy in the US, but I liked them and recommend them. And don't forget the main purpose: Australia is a steadfast US ally and its government and wine industry are facing serious pressure from China. You can help.
2015 Ocean Eight Mornington Peninsula Pinot Noir Smells a little rustic, with aromas of red berries and soy sauce. The first taste is savory, followed by berry fruit. Long and graceful finish. This was also one of the rare wines that was even better the second day.
2016 Mac Forbes Coldstream Yarra Valley Pinot Noir Close to the ideal style of Pinot Noir: light but concentrated, with good intensity of flavor on a lean frame. Juicy, fresh red berry character. Long finish. I was surprised to learn this was from the warmest single-vineyard site Forbes farms (look at that alcohol percentage – 12 percent), and hope to have the chance to try some of the others.
2017 Mac Forbes Yarra Valley Pinot Noir Not as profound as the single-vineyard wine, but good balance and length. A lean, savory, barely ripe red plum opening that finishes with barely ripe cherry.
2019 Ben Haines Yarra Valley Pinot Noir Savory, lean wine with good balance and body. Reveals more juicy cherry fruit as it takes on air. Food-friendly.
2015 Shaw & Smith Adelaide Hills Pinot Noir A pretty, light wine with dried cherry and cranberry character. Easy to drink.
2017 Maison L'Envoyé Tasmania Pinot Noir An appealing, fruit-driven Pinot with a light body, nice cherry/cranberry fruit and a hint of wild herbs. This is an interesting project put together by the Australian wine importers behind Napa's Old Bridge Cellars; they also make Maison L'Envoye wines from Oregon and Burgundy. Gavin Speight, who oversees the project, says Tasmanian Pinots have the potential to be very fragrant and that's the case with this one. "We worked with Yarra Valley a lot, but I was always interested in what was going on in Tasmania," Speight says. "It's the next frontier. Tasmania as a growing area is small. You can go from one side to the other in a couple hours. I like what Tasmania can be. I don't think it's hit its absolute stride yet."