Pinot Noir: The mother of all Hunter grapes
(This article is a rewritten version of a piece written for Hunter Valley Breathe Magazine earlier this year. Hunter Pinot deserves more attention, if only as a blending agent. That old O’Shea demands it)
What is the first red grape that comes to mind when you think of the Hunter Valley?
For most people the answer is a simple one – Shiraz. Maybe a handful of answers for Merlot. Oh and Cabernet Sauvignon for the Lake’s Folly drinkers. Yet nobody mentions the one grape that, according to Hunter River Vineyard Association records from the mid 1800s, was ideally suited to the Valley. The one grape that, circa 1960, was the most planted red variety in the Hunter…
I’m taking about Pinot Noir, a variety that seems like nothing more than a curio in the recent Hunter Valley history, a vinous interloper that really belongs in cooler climate Australian vineyards in regions such as the Yarra Valley, Tasmania and Adelaide Hills (or the like).
But dig a little deeper and you’ll find out that the Hunter is more suited to this bitch of a variety than expected. Moreso, the Hunter Valley is actually the (contested) genetic home of most of Australia’s Pinot Noir vines.
To explain that further we need to go back to the 1920s when Leontine O’Shea, at the urging of her then just 24 year old son Maurice, bought the renowned Pokolbin vineyard of Charles King, the purchase a mature plot established on a crown land grant back in the 1880s.
Maurice O’Shea, the 20th century Hunter Valley superwinemaker, then changed the name of this vineyard to ‘Mount Pleasant’, going on to use the property as the backbone of some of the most unique wines in the region’s history, many of which included amounts of Pinot Noir in various forms.
The Pinot Noir context for O’Shea came from his wine education in France, a period during which he developed an appreciation for Burgundy and beyond. It was this appreciation then that spurred O’Shea into sourcing the greatest Pinot Noir vines he could get his hands on, a search which led to the James Busby collection (acknowledged as Australia’s first significant source of grape vine material) and a particular selection of vines thought to be taken from Clos Vougeot in Vosne Romanee (though the lineage itself is a murky one. Some say these magical cuttings were imported by O’Shea himself via the time honoured ‘vine in boot method’).
It wasn’t until the 1960s – after O’Shea’s death – that the true value of these celebrated French Pinot Noir vines were realised, with then NSW Director-General of Agriculture Graham Gregory singling out the vines as having significant genetic importance and worthy of inclusion in a vine propagation scheme setup at the time. Gregory thus took cuttings off the Mount Pleasant vineyard to setup a special grapevine collection, naming the particular clone gathered from the Mt Pleasant vineyard as MV6 (or Mother Vine 6).
This MV6 clone, even now, has gone on to become one of the most important Pinot Noir clones in Australian and New Zealand, with vast swathes of vineyard in regions such as the Yarra Valley, Mornington Peninsula, Tasmania and throughout Marlborough planted to these clones, in effect making the Hunter Valley the (contentious) real home of Australian Pinot Noir.
Unsurprisingly the Hunter Valley vignerons love the notion that the Hunter is Australian Pinot Noir ‘ground zero’, with Bruce Tyrrell (of Tyrrell’s Wines) recently quoted as saying that:
‘This (the Hunter Valley) is the home of modern Australian Chardonnay and Pinot Noir’ with Bruce suggesting that ‘if you were to say that in the middle of Tasmania or Victoria you may indeed have a fight on your hands’, despite what the local history suggests.
Tyrrell’s too is notable in the context of Hunter Valley Pinot Noir, having produced their first straight Hunter Valley Pinot Noir (though not labelled as such) back in 1972. Even now the Tyrrell’s Vat 6 Hunter Pinot Noir is regarded as one of the enduring classics of the region, renowned for its definitive character and longevity (indeed a late 80’s Tyrrell’s Hunter Pinot Noir tasted recently was still going strong).
Beyond just history, it’s perhaps of little wonder that Pinot Noir is so valued in the Hunter when you talk to the vignerons – as a grape variety it’s theoretically well suited to the region, its early ripening nature enabling it to be picked before the late summer rain hits. The climate of the Hunter is also conducive to the crafting of full bodied Pinot, with the warm summers and extended cloud cover making for ideal ripening conditions. Pinot Noir, too, is classically thought to perform best on limestone rich soils, another element which plenty of spots in the Hunter can offer (which surprised me when I first heard it).
Conversely, the challenge with growing Pinot Noir in the Hunter is that the summer is very warm – perhaps too warm at times – which can lead to wines that can be a touch overripe and lack a little elegance. The thin skins and tight bunches of Pinot Noir also make it more susceptible to rot.
Along with a vigilant spray program there are definitely some secrets to Hunter Pinot winemaking, as Tintilla Estate winemaker James Lusby explains:
‘It’s a bit of a delicate wine to make you have to be very gentle.. it’s a labour of love.’
‘There are some good tricks I’ve found over the 7 years we have been making Pinot – the most important is the timing of picking. It needs to be watched like a hawk, towards the end it can ripen quickly, almost overnight it can be there and needs picking straight away’ he said, also noting that their Four Mary Marys Pinot Noir benefits from finishing off its fermentation in only French oak barrels, helping the wine to get richer and more textural in bottle.
It’s not just James that undertakes this labour of love either, for everywhere you look there seems to be odd plots of old vines planted all over the region.
One producer that has a particular focus on Hunter Pinot Noir – and indeed can’t make enough of it – is Scarborough wines. What Scarborough do (quite uniquely) is to produce an a multi-vintage Pinot Noir alongside their standard vintage wine, an option that Sally Scarborough believes gives ‘versatility & ensure consistency of the style from year to year.’
Scarborough too have just released an updated Pinot Noir based Rose that has a little sweetness and is a lovely bright purple/pink colour, a combination that has seen it achieve instant popularity at cellar door even if it is admittedly anything but serious.
Perhaps the most important new Hunter Valley Pinot Noir release though comes from Mount Pleasant with their new 2011 Mothervine Pinot Noir. The 2011 vintage is the first release of a straight Pinot Noir at Mount Pleasant since 1996 and, as the name suggests, pays homage to founder Maurice O’Shea’s famous contribution to local Pinot Noir. A genuinely exciting wine that can hold its own amongst more fashionable cool climate Australian Pinot, it is delicious stuff (and only made in small numbers to be largely sold via the cellar door too).
Whilst this new straight Pinot Noir is the one making waves, the wine style that O’Shea himself is most famous for is actually a blend of Hunter Valley Shiraz and Pinot Noir. Indeed some of O’Shea’s wines from the 1940s/50s are regarded as some of the finest Australian wines ever created (I tasted one only recently. View it here), with the best examples still drinking well at 50 years of age. Suitably, Mount Pleasant also craft a Shiraz Pinot Noir blend known as the ‘Mt Henry’ that shows off the style with aplomb, with the clever 2011 version now released (read about that one here).
As ever, the crafty Iain Riggs at Brokenwood is in on the Hunter Shiraz Pinot blend caper too, having made straight Pinot Noir back in the 1980s and now about to plant some more on the Cricket Pitch vineyard. The intention there is to make a ‘Hermitage/Pinot’ wine that taps into the wonderful medium bodied joy that was the old O’Shea Shiraz blends. He’s also working on a ‘field blend’ (ie all harvested at the same time) in the Graveyard vineyard that will include Pinot Noir and Trebbiano amongst the mix.
Iain too describes it best when talking about the future of Pinot Noir in the Hunter Valley.
‘Watch this space….’