Want to counter all the negative stereotypes and caricatures of Australian red wines as massive, over-the-top fruit bombs? Just taste one of these top Pinot Noirs.
While large parts of the country are too hot to grow Pinot Noir, these wines come from some of the continent’s coolest corners. Lapping on one hand against the ice shelves of Antarctica and the other against the shores of Australia, the frigid Great Southern Ocean moderates temperatures all along the southern fringes of the world’s driest inhabited continent.
Along this shoreline, temperate climates influenced by altitude and the Great Southern Ocean yield Pinot Noirs that feature surprising subtlety and finesse. While I’ve tasted one or two excellent examples from Western Australia’s Great Southern Region, down around the town of Denmark, the wines most widely available in the United States come from four regions further to the east.
Early European settlers identified the Yarra Valley as a prime vineyard location by the mid-19th century. The moderate climate and proximity to Melbourne led to a proliferation of wineries, many of which have since been resurrected, like St. Huberts, Yering Station and Yeringberg. By the turn of the 20th century, close to 1,000 acres of vines had been established.
But neo-prohibitionist sentiment and economic depression took their toll. By 1937, the last Yarra wineries shut their doors. For close to 40 years, the valley remained dormant, until a new generation of winery owners arrived.
For the most part, these were Melbourne doctors and lawyers, often educated in Europe, and exposed by travel and wealth to the finer things in life—including wine. The late 1960s and ’70s saw a revival of the wine industry in the Yarra Valley, with now-famous properties like Yarra Yering, Mount Mary and Warramate appearing on the scene.
Because of the moderate climate, focus was on cool-climate varieties like Pinot Noir pretty much from the start. Australian wine writer James Halliday joined the movement by founding Coldstream Hills (now part of Treasury Wine Estates) in 1985. Champagne house Moët et Chandon established an outpost (Domaine Chandon) in 1986.
Despite the relatively young age of the vineyards, many still are old enough to predate the Australian arrival of Burgundy’s Dijon clones, meaning they’re planted to a clone known as MV6. It’s said to have been sourced from the Clos Vougeot and brought to Australia in the 19th century.
Provenance notwithstanding, MV6 tends to yield earthy, plummy wines in the Yarra, with overtones of beets (greens and all) and sometimes other root vegetables or tomatoes. Younger plantings include Dijon clones, which avoid many of the herbal nuances. The best Yarra Pinots embrace their earthy roots, add cherries and spice, and wrap those notes in soft tannins.
Giant Steps 2014 Sexton Vineyard Pinot Noir (Yarra Valley); $42, 92 points. Phil Sexton’s wines under the Giant Steps label are becoming more consistent, and the 2014s may be his best yet. This is a medium- to full-bodied wine, with a supple, creamy texture and lingering notes of spring flowers and black cherries. Subtle oaking adds brown sugar and mocha shadings to the crisp finish. Drink now–2022. Old Bridge Cellars. Editors’ Choice.
Warramate 2012 Pinot Noir (Yarra Valley); $43, 91 points. One of Yarra’s first wave of modern-day wineries, Warramate was founded in 1970, which means this comes from Pinot Noir vines that can legitimately be called old. The style is resolutely traditional, with crisp acids and a wiry backbone the standout features. Cedary oak further frames tart cherry fruit, which finishes long and crisp. Drink 2018–2025. MHW, Ltd.
Robert Oatley 2013 Pinot Noir (Yarra Valley); $20, 90 points. Winemaker Larry Cherubino has crafted an excellent yet affordable Pinot Noir. Hints of cedar and vanilla accent the cherry fruit, while the texture is appropriately supple without being overripe. The oak is prominent, but the weight and texture hit the mark. Drink now. Pacific Highway Wines & Spirits. Editors’ Choice.
The Melbourne-based professionals who preferred surfing or sailing turned their eyes to the Mornington Peninsula instead of inland Yarra. Here, despite being less than a two-hour drive from the city, sand and water abound. The downside from a grape’s perspective is that there’s less protection from cold fronts that come off the ocean, making vintages here quite variable.
When I first met Kate McIntyre, MW, at her family’s winery, Moorooduc Estate, we tasted the 2010 and 2011 vintages, which showed clear differences. The 2011s seemed light and delicate next to the rich, savory 2010s. The 2012s now on the market (and soon to be ’13s) are the products of warm, ripe, concentrated years.
Most of the Peninsula’s wineries are small, with just basic cellar-door operations, but Port Philip Estate (the home of Kooyong) boasts a large dining room open for lunch and occasional dinners, with a tremendous view overlooking the bay. Despite its size, the quality of the Kooyong wines under longtime winemaker Sandro Mosele was excellent. Mosele left in July, so it remains to be seen if the Kooyong wines will continue to shine.Eldridge Estate lies at the opposite end of the size spectrum, boasting just eight acres of vines, but eight different Pinot Noir clones as well. Proprietor David Lloyd, a pharmacologist by training and tennis fanatic who jokingly called himself “the clone ranger,” does almost all of the work himself.
The wines are fragrant and silky, stylistically more Chambolle than Gevrey. “I was inspired by Burgundy,” Lloyd says. “But that’s not what I aspire to make.”
Tod Dexter, who used to work at Stonier Wines, one of the region’s first wineries (established 1978), has his own vineyard on the Peninsula, another source for high-quality Pinot Noir.
Overall, the Mornington wines stood out in my recent tastings for their completeness. These are balanced, fragrant wines that possess silky textures and irrefutable charm.
Eldridge Estate 2013 Pinot Noir (Mornington Peninsula); $50, 93 points. Only a portion of this postage-stamp property (8 acres) is planted to Pinot Noir, so quantities of this gem are tiny. That said, it epitomizes Mornington’s charm, offering floral scents, generous fruit and a supple, silky texture. Dried flowers, black cherries and hints of vanilla mingle easily, lingering through a long, fruit-driven finish. Drink now–2023. H. Mercer Wine & Spirit Imports. Editors’ Choice.
Kooyong 2012 Estate Pinot Noir (Mornington Peninsula); $55, 93 points. Like many Mornington producers, Kooyong has a relatively short track record (founded 1996). For much of that time, winemaking was under the guidance of Sandro Mosele, including this stunning 2012. It shows Burgundian levels of complexity in its array of smoke, leather, root vegetable and black cherry notes, then backs that all up with a firm-yet-supple texture and tremendous length. Drink now–2022. Negociants USA, Inc. Editors’ Choice.
Moorooduc 2012 Robinson Vineyard Pinot Noir (Mornington Peninsula); $55, 93 points. Worth the effort to find, this wine shows terrific balance in every respect. Subtle oak and spice frame ripe cherry fruit on the nose. Refreshing herb and spice elements add zest to cherry and cola flavors on the palate, where the wine is fleshy without being at all heavy. The ripe tannins on the finish are supple enough to make this approachable now, but it should also evolve gracefully for at least 5–8 years. Little Peacock Importers. Editors’ Choice.
Even further south than the Mornington Peninsula is the island of Tasmania. At approximately the same latitude as New Zealand’s famous wine regions of Marlborough and Martinborough, it’s one of the fastest growing and most profitable wine regions in Australia.
The reason is its cool climate, ideal for sparkling wine, but also for still Chardonnay, Riesling and, especially, Pinot Noir. The Champagne houses of Deutz and Roederer were brief investors in the region, but pulled out by the end of the 1990s.
Even though Pinot Noir is generally planted in relatively warm sites, this is genuinely cool-climate viticulture, meaning acid levels are high and vintages vary substantially. In a cool year, fruit can be lacking and tannins green unless crop yields are carefully controlled.
Thankfully, 2012 and 2013 were both excellent vintages, producing wines with ample color, ripeness and concentration. That’s not to suggest the wines are jammy or rich at all—they’re generally wiry rather than plush, crisp rather than heavy. If there is any downside to them, it’s that they tend to be expensive, starting around $30.
In addition to the wines featured here, you might also seek out Tolpuddle, a luxury project under the same ownership and management as Shaw + Smith in the Adelaide Hills.
Dalrymple 2013 Pipers River Pinot Noir (Tasmania); $35, 91 points. This may be a touch more elegant than the 2012, but otherwise, it’s remarkably consistent. It’s medium bodied, with supple tannins framing cherry fruit underlain by hints of beetroot and ground spices—clove, nutmeg and cinnamon. Drink now–2024. Negociants USA, Inc. Editors’ Choice.
Josef Chromy 2013 Pinot Noir (Tasmania); $39, 91 points. Some whole-bunch fermentation is reflected in a vegetal hint on the nose, but otherwise this is a fruit-driven youngster, bursting with lively red berries. Hints of toasted coconut, vanilla and mocha from French oak add complexity to this medium-bodied, supple wine. The tannins firm up on the finish, suggesting mid-term cellaring; drink 2017–2023. American Estates Wines.
Glaetzer-Dixon 2013 Avancé Pinot Noir (Tasmania); $38, 90 points. Fleeting hints of rose petals add allure to this wine’s aromas of black cherries, cola and spice. Unlike some Tasmanian Pinots, it’s generous and round in the mouth, with warm spice notes combining with plum and cola on the finish. Drink now. Epicurean Wines.
Although Shaw + Smith continues to make wine in the Adelaide Hills, much of the firm’s Pinot Noir focus has shifted to Tasmania. But there’s still plenty of Pinot Noir planted in the Adelaide Hills, just 20 minutes by car inland from the city of Adelaide in South Australia.
Here, gradually rising altitude is largely responsible for the climate being cool enough to grow Pinot Noir. Once known for its orchards, since the 1970s, grapevines have supplanted apple trees in many instances. Among others, Henschke grows its Pinot Noir here, where chilly summer nights result in the grapes retaining acidity.
Although Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay are the most widely planted varieties in the expanses of the Hills, Pinot Noir ranks third, meaning there’s enough grown to keep prices and availability reasonable. If these wines lack the racy drama of Tasmanian versions or the silky texture of Mornington examples, they have the benefit of being affordable.
Even the 2013 Jacob’s Creek Reserve (not pictured) is a solid wine, available for only $13. Better examples, like Sidewood’s 2013, Wakefield’s 2013 or Riposte’s 2014, may retail for up to $20, but that’s still good value in the pricey world of Pinot Noir.
Riposte 2014 The Dagger Pinot Noir (Adelaide Hills); $20, 90 points. Tim Knappstein’s decision to focus on the Adelaide Hills bears fruit in this terrific-value Pinot Noir. The aromas and flavors are a colorful mélange of beets, black cherries and purple heirloom tomatoes, backed by a rich texture and a long, velvety finish. Drink now–2020. Little Peacock Importers. Editors’ Choice.
Wakefield Estate 2014 Pinot Noir (Adelaide Hills); $17, 89 points. This is a toasty, oaky version of Pinot Noir, loaded with cedar, vanilla and wood-derived tannins. Yet there’s enough cherry fruit to provide ample support, and delicate herbal shadings peer through on the bright, concentrated finish. Drink now–2020. AWDirect (The Wine Trees Portfolio).
Sidewood 2013 Pinot Noir (Adelaide Hills); $20, 87 points. Cedar and vanilla notes mark the nose of this wine, which boasts ample weight, modest fruit and a soft, open-knit texture. It’s appealing for its oaky charm. USA Wine West.
Pinot Noir makes crisp, racy wines in Tasmania, among them some of the New World’s best sparklers. The most widely available in the States are from Clover Hill and Jansz, but expect a new luxury sparkler, Apogee, from pioneer Andrew Pirie to debut in the U.S. around press time.
Beyond the Big 4
Every now and then, Australian Pinot Noirs surface from other parts of the country. I’ve had excellent examples from Great Southern and Margaret River in Western Australia and Geelong and Beechworth in Victoria. One current release worth seeking out comes from Fowles Wine in the Strathbogie Ranges of central Victoria. Its 2013 bottling of 490 Metres Pinot Noir (named for the altitude of the vineyard) is a crisp, edgy number, with bright fruit and a long finish.