Mornington Peninsula Pinot Noir Conference

Plaudits for Australian pinot noir flowed almost as freely as the wine at the recent biennial Mornington Peninsula Pinot Noir Celebration. Visiting American Burgundy specialist Allen Meadows, author of the Burghound newsletter, said he'd been impressed by the progress made with pinot noir since his last visit, five years ago. Visiting Burgundy winemaker Etienne de Montille, of Domaine de Montille, also expressed surprise at the quality of the wines he tasted. Meadows was pleased few of the Australian pinots showed excessive oak or other winemaker fingerprints.

But local winemaker Nat White of Mornington's Main Ridge Estate sounded a couple of notes of warning. During a tasting of aged pinot noirs, which focused on the 2004 vintage, he said: "We need to find place to grow and make wines that can live for 15 or 20 years if we are to build a reputation for fine pinot noir." It seems the ability to age is still an important indicator of quality for wine drinkers, even if they intend to drink the wine immediately.

The main thrust of the discussions, in seven tasting workshops held over two days, was terroir: the idea that wine has a taste unique to the location where the grapes were grown. A sense of place, if you like. In a competitive, over-supplied market where many wines lack a distinctive taste, this 'somewhereness' is eagerly sought by winemakers, wine media and the wine trade, and increasingly by drinkers in the know. It is also the ultimate aid to marketing wine: anyone can make a chardonnay, but no-one can make a Burgundy outside Burgundy, or a Red Hill wine outside Mornington's Red Hill sub-region. At least, that's the theory.

Allen Meadows's keynote speech was as perfect an explanation of terroir as I have heard. It was also a passionate appeal to winemakers to seek to express the terroir of their land. He exhorted winemakers to stand back and not interfere, but let the wine speak for itself.

"Do you have something more interesting to say than your vineyard does?" he asked. Instead of excessive oak or other manipulation, a winemaker must let the soil speak. "Pinot noir is the messenger," he said. "Are you putting your signature on the wine, and is that signature subtle or strong? The monks (in ancient Burgundy) were humble before God. They stayed out of the way. The temptation is to say 'It's all about me. I'm more important than nature'." 

The vertical tastings of Domaine de Montille and Domaine Serafin Burgundies certainly spoke eloquently of their terroir, of the vineyard sites within Burgundy's Cote d'Or. But an awful lot of bottles had to be opened to find enough good ones to serve. That was because like most Burgundy wineries, these two still use natural cork. In the Serafin tasting, the servers rejected 12 out of 70 bottles opened. That's more than one in six. A shocking statistic, especially considering these wines retail for between $135 and $395 a bottle.

At one point, owner Christian Serafin was asked about alternative closures such as screwcaps, and his reply was: "I will change to screwcap when Bernard Dugat Py does!" (Dugat Py's are among the most feted and expensive Burgundies.) If only they had a Jeffrey Grosset in Burgundy! Grosset is the leading Clare Valley winemaker who led his peers by example to use screwcaps on Clare riesling in 2002. None have looked back.

Etienne de Montille still believes wines do not age under screwcaps, and that oxygen must enter the wine via the cork in order for wine to age. This is certainly not contemporary scientific thinking.

Indeed, de Montille revealed himself to be very old-fashioned on another score. A $150 bottle of 2004 Faiveley Latricieres-Chambertin Grand Cru attracted the most damning reception of any wine served, with several experts accusing it of Brettanomyces taint (a spoilage yeast) as well as the objectionable characteristics common to red wines in the poor '04 Burgundy vintage. But de Montille felt obliged to defend the wine.

Then came another perfectly-timed pearl of wisdom from Nat White, whose own 2004 Main Ridge Estate Half Acre Pinot Noir tasted superb: "If you are going to try to describe your terroir, the first step is to have a fault-free wine."

That seemed to rule out wines suffering from cork faults, Brettanomyces and any other interferences. 

The Mornington audience was hungry for revelations of terroir. They were true believers in the religion of terroir. But much cork-taint is so slight as to be subliminal – is it the cork or is it the wine that we're tasting? In these cases we could ask: whenever cork-sealed wines are poured, can anyone be certain they're tasting what the winemaker originally put into the bottle? Any discussion of terroir could be sabotaged before it begins.

For the record, many superb pinot noirs were poured, most of them from Mornington but also from other Australian regions and also overseas. Apart from Burgundy, New Zealand, Switzerland, Germany and the USA were also represented.

Some of my personal favourites: Tapanappa Foggy Hill 2008, Dexter 2008, Paringa Estate Single Vineyard 2008, Moorooduc Estate The Moorooduc 2009 and 2008, Ten Minutes By Tractor McCutcheon Vineyard 2008, Foxeys Hangout 2007, Eldridge Estate 2007, Chehalem Ridgecrest Oregon 2008, Main Ridge Half Acre 2004 and 2009, and from Burgundy, Domaine de Montille Volnay Taillepieds 2002 and 2007, and Domaine Serafin Charmes-Chambertin 2007. But most definitely not the 2004 Faiveley Latricieres-Chambertin!