If you like wine, you’ll know that one of life’s great pleasures is visiting vineyards and cellar doors in picturesque regions, on beautiful sunny days.
One of the last wineries I visited before lockdown was Kevin Bell and Tricia Byrnes’ Hurley Vineyard on Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula. It was fascinating to walk around the property as Bell explained how the differences in sun exposure, slope and soil of the three discrete blocks of dry-grown pinot noir vines planted there are expressed in the wine produced from each.
And then to taste those differences in the winery: Bell took samples from barrel after barrel and squirted splashes of bright crimson wine into my glass, telling me about the clones of pinot planted in each of the blocks in the vineyard, about the 2019 growing season that produced these wines, and which barrels he will blend together to best express each block.
I’m not sure when I will get an opportunity to do that again, to travel to a wine region, walk through a vineyard, taste beautiful pinot noir from the barrel. I suppose, strictly speaking, I could probably do it now: after all, for me it’s “work”. But even as social distancing restrictions begin to be relaxed, it still doesn’t feel right to be doing something that involves spending so much time in proximity to other people – especially when we’re all spitting wine into buckets (masks and wine tastings don’t mix).
So, for now, I’m contenting myself with enjoying wine tasting at home. I’m lucky, of course, in that a lot of that wine arrives on my doorstep in the form of review samples. And one of the packages to turn up recently contained the new 2018 vintage pinots from Hurley. As it happened, this package arrived at the same time as a box of 2018 single-vineyard pinots from Oakridge and 2019 single-vineyard pinots from Giant Steps.
Now, if you like pinot noir you’ll know that one of life’s other great pleasures, aside from heading to wineries of course, is being able to taste a bunch of top-quality single-site pinots side-by-side, to compare and contrast the different winemaking philosophies, to tease out the influence of terroir. So that’s what I did: I masked the 12 wines (so that I wouldn’t approach them with preconceptions based on price or experience of previous vintages) then tasted them in my home office while I looked at the rather gloomy autumn day outside my window. The highlights are reviewed below.
It made me realise that, as much as I love and miss visiting vineyards and talking to winemakers, tasting wines alone can be just as rewarding and enlightening. As great as it is to hop from barrel to barrel and be given the context behind each wine as you try it, you can also be swayed by what you’re told.
Perhaps, sometimes, not being able to visit the vineyards isn’t such a bad thing after all.
Single-vineyard pinots to taste at home
2018 Hurley Estate Pinot Noir (Mornington Peninsula), $50, and 2018 Hurley Garamond Pinot Noir (Mornington Peninsula), $85
Each year, Kevin Bell and Tricia Byrnes bottle three pinots, one from each of the discrete vineyard blocks at Hurley. They also usually bottle an Estate wine, a blend of pinot from the three sites. In blind tastings, I consistently pick the Garamond – from the coolest, most easterly block, and planted solely to the MV6 clone of pinot – as the best, most complex, most cellar-worthy of the wines, and the Estate as the one I most want to drink now. And that’s what happened this year: the 2018 Estate is pretty and perfumed – pale, ethereal, rosehip-fruity, delicate – and the 2018 Garamond, while deceptively translucent and floral to look at and smell, has more substance on the tongue, with an amazing undertow of earth and hints of licorice and spice. hurleyvineyard.com.au
2019 Giant Steps Primavera Pinot Noir (Yarra Valley), $65, and 2019 Giant Steps Fatal Shore Pinot Noir (Coal River Valley), $75
The Primavera vineyard is at Woori Yallock, in the cool southern volcanic hills of the Yarra Valley. The Nocton vineyard – where grapes for the Fatal Shore pinot were grown – is planted in the calcareous and sandstone soils of the Coal River Valley near Hobart. The vineyards are about the same age, have a similar clonal mix and the wines were made almost identically – half of the grapes were de-stemmed, half fermented as whole bunches, then matured in barriques (25 per cent of them new) for eight months – and yet they couldn’t be more different. The Primavera is all vibrant, juicy, crunchy red fruit, a cascade of raspberries and cranberries and fine, dusty tannin, while the Fatal Shore is denser, darker and plusher, with plump black cherries and chewy tannins. giantstepswine.com.au
2018 Oakridge Local Vineyard Series Henk Pinot Noir (Yarra Valley), $44, and 2018 Oakridge 864 Aqueduct Pinot Noir (Yarra Valley), $90
The Henk vineyard is also planted in the cool volcanic soils of Woori Yallock, not far from Primavera, but there are subtle differences in the winemaking approach at Oakridge: grapes picked a little earlier, less whole-bunch, less new oak and a little longer in barrel. The Henk is a lovely, round, seductive pinot, with flavours of plum and blackberry pip, leading to a long savoury finish with hints of dried mushroom. The Aqueduct, made from a block of MV6 clone pinot in the Henk vineyard, is less aromatic and eager to please initially, but as you swirl it in the glass it opens beautifully to reveal more intense perfumed bramble fruit, followed by sinewy, sappy tannins and a flowing, lingering finish. Gorgeous. oakridgewines.com.au