Writing for Wine Australia — Australian Pinot Noir breaks out at the IPNC

From humble beginnings, the International Pinot Noir Conference (IPNC) in Oregon has grown to become one of the world’s premier wine events. Started in 1987 by a group of wine-lovers, winemakers, restaurateurs, and retailers, it has grown and evolved and brings together international Pinot Noir producers, journalists, Pinot devotees and chefs for a weekend of tasting, dining, and learning.

AUSTRALIAN PINOT NOIR: GROWTH TO GREATNESS

Just as the IPNC has evolved and grown in stature since 1987, so has the quality and global reputation of Australian Pinot Noir. Once a minor variety — there were only 35 hectares of Australian Pinot Noir planted in 1964 — it has grown to become a vital ingredient in the evolution of Australian wine with almost 5,000 hectares planted today. In recognition of the burgeoning reputation for Australian Pinot Noir, Australia was lauded as the feature country at the Conference in 2016 for the first time. And it’s no exaggeration to say the crowds in Oregon were utterly blown away by the Australian Pinot Noir showcased at the IPNC.

‘What I love about Australian Pinot Noir is the energy of the wines themselves but also the energy of the winemakers…’
Elaine Chukan Brown, jancisrobinson.com and Hawk Wakawaka Wine Reviews

A BRIEF HISTORY OF AUSTRALIAN PINOT NOIR

The history of Australian Pinot Noir begins with an Australian wine legend, Maurice O’Shea. Maurice was Australia’s first great winemaker, a man who spent a life dedicated to defining the possibilities of dine Australian wine on a beautiful hillside vineyard in the Hunter Valley. It was on this hillside that Maurice planted Pinot Noir vines in the 1920s, propagated with cuttings descended from the original James Busby selection. James Busby, recognised as the father of Australian viticulture, sourced an amazing collection of cuttings (around 650 varieties) during a tour of vineyards in Spain and France in the 1830s. These cuttings were used to establish viticulture in regions like the Hunter Valley, Barossa and McLaren Vale. These heritage clones form the backbone of the precious old vine material so vital to the Australian fine wine story.

The vines Maurice planted at Mount Pleasant were descended from cuttings taken from the Clos Vougeot vineyard in Burgundy. Clones from these vines became known as the heritage MV6 clones, with the MV standing for Mother Vine. Tyrrell’s winemaker Bruce Tyrrell estimates that more than half of Australia’s Pinot Noir plantings can trace their lineage back to the vines planted by Maurice O’Shea. An amazing legacy left behind by an Australian wine legend.

THE EVOLUTION OF AUSTRALIAN PINOT NOIR

Although Pinot has been in Australia for many years and the heritage clonal material was sorted, it took a long time for Pinot Noir to gain traction with Australian winemakers. It took time for the Australian wine market to evolve from one focused on fortified and big red wine styles to one that appreciated the nuances of Pinot. The challenges of growing Pinot Noir are well documented and this played some part in the slow uptake of the variety by grape growers and winemakers. This notoriously fickle variety likes temperate climates, doing best in regions with cooling influences from either the ocean or altitude. Quite simply, apart from a couple of unique sites in the Hunter Valley, by the 1970s we’d yet to find the sites where Pinot Noir would truly thrive.

So it wasn’t until the 1980s and 1990s that the modern Australian wine community expanded into new or reinvigorated regions that were truly suited to Pinot Noir. In the 1980s, Australia’s foremost critic and author James Halliday helped to revive the Yarra Valley as a fine wine region. His success at Coldstream Hills inspired others across Victoria and around Australia to explore our cooler climates for their potential with Pinot Noir.

PINOT NOIR CLONES ADD COMPLEXITY

Another key factor in the evolution of Australian Pinot Noir was the influx of Dijon clones into Australia in the 1990s. This was an important factor in adding to the clonal material available and was vital for winemakers searching for very best vineyard sites in the most suitable regions for Pinot Noir in Australia. It was essential in laying the foundations needed for developing the complexity and the character of the wines that we see today as it gave vignerons the ability to determine what works best for them within a regional, site and stylistic framework.

As a result of searching for the best sites and having the right clonal material for these sites, Pinot Noir is now very successful in many regions in Victoria and around Australia producing a wide range of styles. Yarra Valley, Mornington Peninsula, Geelong, Gippsland and Macedon Ranges all produce very high quality examples. Being surrounded by the cooling effect of the Southern Ocean, Tasmania also does particularly well, while the complex and varied region of the Adelaide Hills is also home to some very fine examples.

These regions all contribute to the diverse and highly vibrant range of exceptional Pinot Noir that has been enjoyed in Australia for many years. Now the time has come to share these delicious wines with the world, and the Grand Seminars at the 2016 International Pinot Noir Conference provided the perfect opportunity to showcase our wines with the international Pinot Noir cognoscenti.

THE IPNC: A GRAND SHOWING FOR AUSTRALIAN PINOT NOIR

Since 1987 the IPNC has bought together over 14,000 Pinot Noir winemakers, growers, consumers and retailers from around the world. The star events at the IPNC are the two Grand Seminar Master Classes for 800 guests. In 2016 it was Australia’s turn to take centre stage. The Grand Seminars were hosted by James Halliday AM, supported by one of the most exceptional panels of Australian Pinot Noir experts ever assembled.

Michael Hill Smith MW from the Tolpuddle Vineyard in the Coal River Valley in Tasmania, Tom Carson from Yabby Lake on the Mornington Peninsula, Michael Dhillon of Bindi Wines in the Macedon Ranges, Peter Dawson of Dawson James in the Derwent Valley in Tasmania, Mac Forbes from the Yarra Valley and Mike Symons of Stonier Wines on the Mornington Peninsula combined to lead the enthralled audience through an extensive tasting of some of Australia’s best Pinot Noirs. The wines from these producers were supplemented with Australian Pinot Noirs from Ashton Hills, Bass Phillip, By Farr, Home Hill, Mount Mary, Paringa Estate and Tappanappa which were instant classics for many in the audience. Many of the wines rarely reach North America, but the response from the Pinot Noir lovers at the IPNC shows there is exciting potential for Australian Pinot Noir in Australian wine’s largest export market by value.

‘I have to tell you what we say yesterday was a leap forward in every way… Not just the complexities of stem tannin, not just the complexities of French oak, not the things that you can add to a site that’s not giving you everything. But the belief in the site and the tension, in a positive way, of Pinot Noir that has a great start, a rich middle and a wonderful finish. The way Pinot Noir ought to be… I really, really, really was knocked out…’
Jim Clendenen, Au Bon Climat

THE NEXT STEPS FOR AUSTRALIAN PINOT NOIR IN NORTH AMERICA

So, where to from here? The overwhelmingly positive response to Australian Pinot Noir at the International Pinot Noir Conference in Oregon shows that there is potential for our unique interpretations of this noble variety in North America. In 2015 around 68% of the total Australian Pinot Noir exports were sent to North America, albeit off a very low base when compared to other Australian reds like Shiraz and Cabernet. Could the IPNC be the catalyst for changing perceptions about Australian Pinot Noir? It’s too early to tell just yet what the broader impact will be, but we can be assured that there are now over 800 passionate wine lovers evangelising the fine Australian Pinot Noir gospel across North America and around the world. And what a lot they have to shout about…