Mornington Peninsula pinot noir is fulfilling its early promise with breathtaking finesse, writes Max Allen.
A shiver of surprise rippled through the audience. There were audible intakes of breath. Someone whispered, "Wow. Really?"
The cause of the kerfuffle at the 2015 Mornington Peninsula International Pinot Noir Celebration was wine two in a regional blind tasting. When the wine was revealed as the 2012 Paringa Estate "The Paringa", the tasters just couldn't believe it: this was so elegant, so pretty, so restrained, so fine - so unlike the dark, powerful, burly pinots Paringa has produced in the past.
Now, this might not seem like a particularly momentous revelation to you, dear reader. But to a room full of pinot-loving wine geeks, the elegance and finesse of this wine seemed a perfect encapsulation of how Mornington Peninsula pinot noir in general has improved and matured enormously in the last few years.
Pioneers such as Nat and Rosalie White at Main Ridge Estate first planted pinot on the peninsula in the mid-1970s, and the outstanding quality of the wines attracted many other wannabe vignerons. By the late 1990s and early 2000s, though, some of us began to feel that peninsula pinot had lost its way. Too many wines were made from over-cropped young vines, produced under contract for absentee vineyard owners.
All that has changed. The local vignerons association has made a concerted effort to improve quality over the past decade, partly through events such as the Celebration (there's nothing like presenting your wines to other winemakers from around the world to focus the mind on improvement), and grape growers and winemakers are paying more attention to yields, to the peculiarities of site and to handling in the cellar. As a result, the standard of peninsula pinot is now very high. And getting better all the time.
One of the most important developments has been the ongoing work to identify how the peninsula's subregional terroirs influence wine style and quality. There's a huge difference, for example, between how grapes grow in the sandy soils of the low country around Moorooduc and how they grow in the deep red volcanic soils up on Red Hill. You could taste these differences in the best pinots presented at the event.
The impressive 2012 Crittenden Zumma, for example, was made predominantly from pinot planted in the '80s in sandy loam over clay soils 50 metres above sea level near Dromana: dark fruit flavours and a dense, round solidity. The amazing 2012 Polperro Mill Hill Pinot Noir, by contrast, from a vineyard planted in clay over granite 270 metres up on Arthurs Seat, was open and bright, with pretty red fruit and a line of nervy tannic grip. And the 2012 Staindl Pinot Noir, from the volcanic, iron buckshot-rich soils of vines 220 metres up on Red Hill was different again: tangy perfume, voluptuous in texture, rich in plummy fruit.
There are, of course, many variables to consider when comparing wines from different vineyards made by different people. How much of what you're tasting is terroir, and how much the hand of the winemaker?
In an effort to answer this question, the Mornington Peninsula Vignerons Association presented the early results of a fascinating long-term trial. In 2014, Richard McIntyre at Moorooduc Estate made trial batches of pinot noir in an identical way from five sites across the region. The sites chosen were as similar as possible - all north-facing, all MV6 clone pinot, all picked at the same ripeness - varying only in altitude and soil.
McIntyre was the perfect choice for winemaker.
As well as producing a number of pinots from different sites under his family's own label (the spicy, almost syrah-like 2012 Moorooduc "Garden Vineyard" is one of the most delicious peninsula pinots I've tasted from that stellar vintage), he also makes the excellent range of single-vineyard wines for Ten Minutes by Tractor.
The wines told a distinct story of terroir: the two lower, sandier-soil sites produced wines with bolder, more dense, rounder qualities; the higher, volcanic-soil sites were more perfumed, tangier, more savoury, open; and the fifth - from volcanic soil on lower ground - straddled the two styles: perfumed but dense.
Another highlight of the event was listening to Nat White tell the story of how he and Rosalie established Main Ridge Estate 40 years ago. It was a poignant moment - the Whites also announced that they're retiring and have decided to sell the vineyard.
It's the end of an era. But the quality of wine at this year's Celebration is a clear sign that the future of Mornington Peninsula pinot noir is in good hands.
+ Max Allen was a guest of the Mornington Peninsula International Pinot Noir Celebration.