Saturday, 7 March 2009

Tasmanian Pinot Quest

Recently converted Pinotphile, Roderick Eime, tags along with some of Australia's top wine writers in search of Tasmania's ultimate Pinot Noir. Looking past the flowery phrases, he lets his taste buds do the talking.

“Right now she's not even showing you so much as an ankle or hem,” announces winery manager Maria with a twinkle in her eye as she pours a lively drop of red, “but she's just starting to undress for you. Shortly you'll see some thigh and even her knickers.”

You could be forgiven for thinking that we witnessing some lewd peep show or voyueristic act, but no, it was celebrated Tasmanian winemaker, Peter Althaus's newest release. A little bit of air after opening the wine allows the flavours to blossom, or in this case, seduce. Such is the over-the-top turn of phrase applied to the simple joy of wine tasting.

Tasmanian wines, although a fraction of a per cent of the nation's output, are developing an international reputation for superior cold-climate vintages, particularly Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris and Riesling. While these luscious concoctions attract the most pretentious and prosaic descriptions, the “acid test” is in the tasting.

“I just love the delicate structure and delayed gratification,” says Peter, a former schoolteacher with an uncanny, pedantic nose and a secret passion for date scones, “sensational!”. He is also a respected wine judge and prolific wine writer and author.

Althaus's wines are some of the few still being bottled exclusively under cork. 95 per cent of Tasmanian winemakers have gleefully converted to the Stelvin (screw) cap. “I don't care if I never see another cork,” says consulting winemaker, Andrew Hood, clearly recalling many heartbreaking events, “what goes in the bottle stays in the bottle.”

The value of screw caps is driven home at Claudio Radenti's Freycinet Vineyard. In an extraordinary act of generosity, he has dug deep into his museum to show us his 20-year-old Pinots. While the '90 and '91 are gorgeous, his face falls when opening the '88. “Don't spend too much time on that,” he laments. Clearly the cork has failed as a pungent, brown, milky liquid fills his glass.

Former diplomat and now restaurateur, author and wine writer, Graeme, pulls me quietly aside and whispers, “If it smells like wet hessian, that's cork taint. A dull brown colour means it's past its prime, oxidised, and the flavours have gone.”

Winetasting can be a daunting, even intimidating experience. When surrounded by such august company, all pontificating in gushing language, it's easy to be overwhelmed and start doubting your own perceptions.

Although I may not be able to translate the simple stimulation of my taste buds into vintner's poetry, I am reassured that I can tell a good wine from a not-so-good one and even a great one from the ordinary.

“Controlled licentiousness!” blurts Ken, a former corporate lawyer, forthright with an admirable tolerance for Riesling and a palpable disdain for Sauvignon Blanc, “it's this sort of language that puts people off wine.” He looks scornfully at the rear label shaking his head, “A female winemaker, I might have known!”

There's a lot of private jokes and knowing glances among this elite cult of the grape. Cheerfully though, no-one is allowed to get too pompous as they're quickly pruned back to shape by their peers. But their combined experience and generosity of spirit allows me to accumulate years of knowledge in just a few scant days.

I confirm that, regardless of age, pedigree or 'Gewurzness', I can't get excited about Riesling. Pinot Gris is my preferred white and I'm now a minor expert on Pinot Noir, far and away my favourite varietal.

The climate, soil and topgraphy of Tasmania makes it one of the few places in the world ideal for the cultivation of this grape, known in other parts of the world as Red Burgundy. New Zealand's South Island is another.

Next time you're at that fancy restaurant, sniffing corks, swilling, slurping and analysing that mid-palate fruit, just remember first impressions always count - and your impressions are more important than any stuck-up sommelier. As a famous wine master once wrote, "Great Burgundy smells of shit!"

Will the real Pinot Noir please stand out.

Telling a top Pinot is not as hard as it is for the winemaker to bottle it. The so-called “hearbreak grape” is a challenge for growers and is notoriously fickle, depending heavily on weather and conditions both during its growth cycle and at harvest. Here are some tips to spot your top drop.

* Open, air and decant your Pinot for up to an hour prior to tasting.
* Use a big glass for maximum aeration so you can really smell the flavours.
* You can be more confident about a wine under screw cap although younger wines may taste better under cork.
* Don't confuse with Shiraz. It's a subtle, delicate flavour.
* Look for smoothness of flavour. Better wines are silky and better still, velvety.
* Flavours should persist and linger.
* Herbal, vegetable or leafy smells and flavours indicate a “green” or unripe fruit. Not good.
* Cellar as any other wine. Screw caps can lay down or stand up.
* Look out for Tasmanian 2005 vintage, although '06, '07, and '08 are good too.

Pick of the bunch.

Taste is a very personal thing. Here are the experts' picks for top Tassie Pinots.

Ken: Clemens Hill 2005 Reserve. “Wonderful character and depth of flavour. Cellar potential.” RRP: $35.00

Peter: Domian A 2005. “Gorgeous with good varietal character. Tight, structured, plump and fleshy.” RRP: $75.00

Sally: Freycinet 2005. “Everything a great Pinot should be. Bright, clear raspberry fruit. Supple.” RRP: $55.00

Christine: Home Hill 2005. “Voluptuous and fruity” RRP:
$30.00

Graeme: Bream Creek 2005 Reserve Pinot Noir. "Complex game and forest characters, seductively rich, concentrated and velvety." RRP: $35.00

My Favourites: Stefano Lubiana and Bay of Fires were great, but the real surprise package was from the little d'meure winery south of Hobart. Their 2005 (RRP: $75) was perfect.




More:

Wine Industry Tasmania || Tasting Tasmania || Tourism Tasmania || 2009 Tasmanian Wine Show Results
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