Meet the winemaker

In pursuit of pinot noir

By Halliday Promotion

10 Jun, 2020

Great pinot noir has grace and power in equal measure. So how do you cultivate opposing forces in the one wine? Six Australian winemakers explain.

    Pinot noir is loved for its unique potential to be both powerful and delicate. Often described as ethereal for its ability to present intense characteristics in a deliciously light wine, the varietal is coveted by drinkers and makers alike. Unlike many wine styles that gain complexity in the winery, pinot noir begins with finicky, thin-skinned fruit that will grow in only the most ideal of conditions. 

    In pursuit of the perfect pinot noir, these winemakers and vignerons have evolved their approach to produce some of the country’s best examples. They explain what they’ve learnt so far.

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  • Darren Rathbone, Yering Station, VIC

  • CEO and winemaker at the Yarra Valley’s Yering Station, Darren Rathbone recalls his introduction to the local style. “My first memory of tasting a Yarra Valley pinot was a 1993 Coldstream Hills that a friend had brought along to a dinner party,” he says. “The wine both confused and intrigued me – it was light and delicate, but not soft or weak. It was a contradiction in a glass.” Pinot noir’s ability to maintain power and elegance intrigues many, but Darren believes its successes begin in the vineyard. “It’s a cliche, but it is the philosophy that drives our Yering Station wines,” he says. “When tasting grapes to determine when our harvest will begin, we’re always looking for dark cherry characters – and if we see spicy notes, that’s a bonus. Quality oak is used to let the wine develop and give support, but it should never overpower either the nose or the mouthfeel.”

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  • Owen Inglis, Sidewood Estate, SA

  • For Sidewood Estate, making superb pinot noir is an exact science. The fruit grown on their Adelaide Hills vines are born from specific clones, each treated differently in the winemaking process to carefully control the end product. “Pinot Noir is a cruel mistress that can be uncompromising unless treated well in the vineyard,” owner and vigneron Owen Inglis says. “Each clone of pinot noir lends itself to different treatment. A balance of whole bunch, destemmed and carbonic maceration elements give our wines vitality and varietal expression.” The winery produces a mix of small-batch, single-clone wines plus a blend of all four clones. “In the Estate blend, each clone adds something unique to the structure, aromatics, flavour and acid profile of the wine,” Owen says. “But our single-clone releases are like comparing an orchestra to a soloist – both can have a profound impact.”

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  • James Evers, Nepenthe, SA

  • As the winemaker at Nepenthe winery in the Adelaide Hills, James Evers has embraced a light touch when it comes to pinot noir. His approach to making the variety is first and foremost about keeping it simple. “In the past, my style was more robust, but I have learnt that many of pinot’s delicate complexities and nuances can be easily lost with winemaking,” he says. “Now, I apply a more subtle, gentle approach both in the vineyard and winery to ensure we get the maximum natural expression of the Adelaide Hills terroir coming through.” James describes the variety as powerful and elegant. “Pinot tends to be naturally complex in its make-up,” he says. “It is a variety that wants to misbehave, but if you treat it well in the vineyard and the winery, it will give you great rewards.”

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  • Jonny Hughes, Mewstone Wines, TAS

  • Winemaker Jonny Hughes of Tasmania’s Mewstone Wines describes pinot noir as one of the great varieties of the world. “As a table wine, it can be everything from light and bright through to dark and brooding,” he says. “Its ability to make wines of exceptional structure and longevity in regions across the globe is almost unparalleled.” Jonny first fell in love with the variety while studying wine in New Zealand and, like most winemakers, the pursuit of perfecting it drives him. “As a maker, it’s like chasing the holy grail each year,” he says. “I approach each season with an open mind, happy to make adjustments to suit the fruit as it comes in. We aim for our pinot noir to be expressive and bright – the intensity of tannin is matched by driving acidity, and the use of natural yeast and minimal handling lets the fruit and vineyards express themselves.”

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  • Sarah Crowe, Yarra Yering, VIC

  • Former Halliday Winemaker of the Year Sarah Crowe produces exquisite, cool-climate wines at Yarra Yering in the Yarra Valley, and pinot noir is one of the winery’s flagship varietals. “It is so delightful to drink,” Sarah says. “It’s fragrant, medium-bodied and silky, and it tends not to require too much cellaring, so you never regret opening a bottle too soon.” The pursuit of pinot noir’s famed ethereal characteristics is a challenge for winemakers, and Sarah is no exception. “Pinot noir can be quite transparent – what I mean by that is it’s easy to see the hand of the winemaker,” she explains. “Every great pinot winemaker aims to be invisible, to let the vineyard site be the essence of the wine, to be seen to do as little as possible – to wonder if you did anything at all.”

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  • Anna Pooley, Pooley Wines, TAS

  • Cool-climate winemaking is in Anna Pooley’s blood. After having worked for some of Australia’s most prestigious labels, she now heads up her family’s Tasmanian winery as the winemaker. “I am fortunate to be able to work with pinot noir from our two distinctly different vineyards in the Coal River Valley in southern Tasmania,” Anna says. “The variety is very transparent in its expression of both vineyard and winemaking – the most subtle nuances in vine management and winemaking decisions are plain to see.” Anna says her winemaking with the variety has evolved over the years and continues to do so. “I am now more confident in knowing when to step in as a winemaker and when to step back,” she says. “I am building an appreciation of the complexity of clone, soil, tannin, fruit concentration and ripeness, and tweaking the winemaking from one year to the next.”

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    *This article was produced by Halliday Wine Companion in partnership with the featured wineries. 

    Top image courtesy of Wine Australia | Credit Andre Castellucci