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Lerida Estate’s Pinot Noir Journey
The drivers were part palate, part curiosity and largely happenstance. From reading and a little tasting, I had been intrigued by the phenomenon of Burgundy: its history, the impossibly expensive, unreliable wines and their association with opulence and luxury. When the opportunity arose for my wife, Anne, and I to live in Paris and spend our spare time with our new baby, James, touring and tasting, we enthusiastically took it.
On return to Australia, and on frequent business trips to New Zealand and the USA, exploration of Pinot Noir continued. One phenomenon that struck me was that few ‘new world’ Pinots developed the extraordinary secondary flavours found in great burgundies. Even in Europe, this kind of bottle development was rarely seen in Alsace or Germany. On the other hand, some new world Pinots showed wonderful fruit and strong varietal expression, typically raspberries, cherries and sometimes darker notes.
Then vineyard land came on the market at Lake George, near where we intended to live in Canberra. The area is high, 700 m above sea level, cool, but very sunny and close to a freshwater lake, which despite being intermittent is, when full, Australia’s largest.
The area had previously been assessed as a near homoclime (i.e. climatically similar) to Burgundy. More convincingly, a pioneering Canberra District winemaker and eminent scientist, Dr Edgar Riek OAM, DSc, had, since 1971, been working at the site with many varieties and had produced small batches of some outstanding Pinot Noirs. These Pinots were exciting, not so much for the primary fruit dominant characteristics (which were not as obvious as in the what some writers refer to as ‘fruit bomb’ new world Pinot Noirs) but for their more spicy, savoury notes and secondary bottle development. The wine was far more reminiscent of Burgundy than California or New Zealand. And so, the opportunity was enthusiastically taken up and the real journey began.
The Lerida Estate vineyard now has some 4 ha of Pinot Noir, usually producing up to about 1,200 cases a year. After our first decade, three things have become clear:
Vine age really matters: early vintages had some highlights, winning our first show medals in 2002, but only from 2006 onwards (year 9) did real quality emerge;
Even in the best year, Pinot Noir needs an extraordinary level of attention, primarily in the vineyard; and
The site is really outstanding, and not just for Pinot Noir. As at November 2015, our wines have won 14 trophies and over 534 medals (or equivalents) since we first made wines in early 2000.
For us, as ‘new kids on the block’, learning to grow and make Pinot Noir was where the journey got challenging. The contrast with Shiraz is striking. Essentially, with the Lerida Estate Shiraz, we just sit back and let the vineyard do its thing. Pinot Noir on the other hand is much more demanding, intensive, and at times frustrating. We are not alone in this, as most Pinot Noir growers seem to share the same challenges. One colleague’s estimate is 300 extra hours per ha in vineyard labour compared to Shiraz.
Pinot Noir is a very old selection of Vitis vinifera, the grape vine species. It is the parent vine for Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc and others. It readily mutates and changes in the vineyard to the point where its expression of flavours and tannins becomes quite distinctive for that vineyard or, as the French would say, terroir. It also can grow rampantly with many double canes and branches, which is where the extra work starts. Other characteristics requiring extra attention relate to its low tannin levels (except for seed tannin, which tends to be harsh) and red rather than purple colour.
The challenge therefore is to control the rampant growth, prevent overcropping, leafiness and dilution of colour, and shading of the berries. These need to be exposed to ultra violet light to ripen tannins and colours without cooking the fruit and so losing flavour. Lerida Estate’s Lake George site has advantages and disadvantages for this.
The advantages are that it slopes to the east (like Burgundy) allowing the morning sun to deliver a high dose of UV while the air is still cool. Altitude and a relatively dry climate also help, making the area very sunny indeed. A deep, gravelly soil also helps, storing lots of water and encouraging deep root penetration, maintaining vine health even during the worst droughts on record.
The downside is that in more rainy years, rampant growth can potentially shade the fruit. So, most of the extra 300 hours in the vineyard is spent on vine training: namely, shoot and leaf thinning, shoot positioning, de-suckering, shoot trimming and sometimes fruit thinning.
Clearly, as our results show, we have been doing a lot right, but there is always further to go and more to try.
Our most recent trials have included changed shoot placement in the vineyard, earlier picking at lower sugar, and so alcohol, levels, more use of wild yeast, and warmer ferments with more whole berries. At times, one calls to mind a conductor with a symphony orchestra encouraging the strings, calming the brass, soothing the woodwinds and exciting the tympani to get a novel and harmonious result from a classic score.
Our most recent, and daring innovation is to supplement our efforts in the vineyard and tackle Pinot Noir’s light colour and tendency to express harsh seed tannins by using a tiny addition of white grape skins from Pinot Gris in the Pinot Noir ferments. Actually, it is not all that daring, being the rediscovery of a traditional practice in Burgundy shown to me in Aloxe Corton by an 82 year old winemaker during our period in France, some 30 years ago. Only now, with a better understanding of the underlying chemistry, and our success with a similar process in Lerida Estate Shiraz Viognier, plus two years of Pinot Noir/Pinot Gris trials batches, have we had the courage to try it more widely.
The most demanding aspect of crafting Pinot Noir is the need to work with quite small, multiple ferments of 1-2 tonnes. This is required for several reasons. Different clones (sub-varieties) of Pinot Noir and different vineyard sites can require separate treatments. We also continually refine our use of pre- and post-fermentation soaks (skin contact). Finally, we use a variety of yeasts from quite wild to partially wild hybrids to standard cultures. The goal is not so much to find the holy grail of the perfect yeast, but to produce a range of wine batches (different oak barrels for maturation also play a part in this) that allows us several degrees of freedom in blending into our three Pinot Noir styles: Josephine (elegant, feminine and refined); Cullerin (earthy, powerful, terroir-driven); and Lake George (attractive, fruity and approachable).
Our show results and customer reactions are suggesting that this, and all the other tweaks, are working but there is always more to try and refinements to look for, apart from which every season is different. For example the worst two droughts on record, 2003 and 2006, have been followed by the wettest two years on record, 2011 and 2012. This has so far not stopped us making medal-winning wines in each year, but clearly, the end of this journey is nowhere in sight.
Among other challenges, we have had to cope with the perception that the Canberra District is not optimal for Pinot Noir. This has partly stemmed from the success of the local Shiraz and Shiraz Viognier wines, which has lead commentators familiar with the different distributions of the 2 varieties in Europe to expect an all or nothing situation here. Namely that if the district is good for one (Shiraz) it will not be good for the other (Pinot Noir). This is plainly wrong as evidenced by wine show results from the Lerida Estate vineyard where gold medal-winning Shiraz and Pinot Noir grow side by side. Nor are we alone in this with many other Australian cool-climate vineyards ably producing outstanding Pinot Noir and Shiraz on the same site; the most celebrated example being Paringa Estate in Victoria.
Recent news from leading wine reviewer Huon Hooke has been very warmly received at Lerida Estate : out of 59 2013 & 2015 vintages of NSW Pinot Noirs he tasted recently, Lerida Estate Pinot Noirs were ranked 1st, 2nd, 4th and 8th. The wines were as follows:
11 November 2015