Pinot Purity from Paringa

Yabby Lake (tastings) did it this year at Sydney Royal Wine Show; Giant Steps (tastings) did it a couple of weeks ago at the Royal Queensland Wine Show. Both won trophies for pinot noir at capital city wine shows. Both are small, independent, pinot noir-oriented wineries – a breed known to avoid wine shows like the Plague. Hopefully it’s the start of a new trend towards small pinot-smart wineries entering bigger shows. For many years it’s been a sore point that Australia’s best pinot noir producers seldom enter competitions. Or at least not the big shows: some do enter local shows.

The upshot is that while every other class at the big shows is hotly contested, pinot noir has not been – and the average quality of wine in pinot noir classes has been way below what it could be. Why? Two key reasons: the small quantities produced, and a belief that the wines won’t be fairly judged. Most top pinot is made in tiny licks and the feeling of the makers is “Why should we give away any of our precious wine in show samples? We sell out quickly anyway.” On the second point, most top pinots are made by passionate and often eccentric pinot zealots in little boutiques who see themselves as outside the mainstream wine industry. They view shows as being the territory of the big wineries – which win most of the awards – and believe judges don’t understand fine pinot noir. But, as the quality of our pinot improves, judging standards also improve and pinot is getting a better hearing in shows. Some still argue, however, that ethereal, fine-boned pinots don’t get much of a reception.

Two pinot-smart wineries which have always entered and always done well are Coldstream Hills (tastings) and Paringa Estate (tastings). Coldstream Hills is part of Foster’s, a major show-circuit player, but Paringa Estate? What’s a little, independently owned and operated boutique on the Mornington Peninsula doing in big wine shows?

Answer? Its wines have always been awarded, arguably because they are a bigger style of pinot, a style that historically wins gold medals. Indeed, Paringa has a stunning show record in competitions of all sizes. But, to some pinot zealots, this fact simply confirms what they already think: big, dark, powerful pinots do well in shows; pale or delicate ones don’t.

I’ve always been a fan of Paringa Estate, while acknowledging that it’s definitely at the big end of town and in the past, its wines have sometimes tended to be oaky (and pinot noir is easily over-oaked). Paringa Estate is often covertly pooh-poohed by the pinot cognoscenti, and perhaps there is a whiff of tall-poppy syndrome. Frankly, I don’t see why pinot that is dark or full-bodied should be criticised for those reasons: plenty of grand cru Burgundies are also dark and concentrated when young. If you prefer delicate, ethereal pinots, then buy Bindi or Main Ridge Estate, but don’t decry a good wine of an alternative style.

It’s against this background that I attended two tastings staged by Lindsay McCall, the exceedingly talented owner/winemaker and founder of Paringa Estate. Like the best vignerons in Burgundy, McCall spends most of his time among his vines. He’s most at home in a vineyard and is fastidious about his viticulture. He seldom stages tastings, especially in far-off places like Sydney, so it was a rare opportunity.

One tasting at The Oak Barrel featured ‘Estate’ level pinot, chardonnay and shiraz; the second tasting showcased all of the Reserve (recently re-named ‘The Paringa’) wines he has made to date. There is a third, ‘entry-level’ pinot called Peninsula, which I didn’t taste, but which is normally great value at $28, and for which grapes are sourced from other vineyards.

The ‘Estate’ wines are very good to outstanding (tastings), but the Reserve/’The Paringa’ bottlings often scaled the peaks of greatness. ‘The Paringa’ pinot noirs included two of the most extraordinary pinots McCall has ever made, coincidentally in back-to-back vintages, and the most fascinating thing is that they are completely different. The ’09 (tasting) and ’10 (tasting) ‘The Paringa’ pinot noirs tasted as though they came from different vineyards and makers. The 2009 is so dark it’s almost black, and tremendously powerful, concentrated, dense and also quite tannic. The 2010 is pale, ethereal, wonderfully detailed and filigreed, and undoubtedly one of the finest Australian pinot noirs made by anyone, anywhere. But we’ll have to wait a couple more years before we can buy it.

The difference is solely a function of the seasons, and tasting this pair would be a great lesson for any student of wine. The 2010 is from a textbook season, in which the Peninsula avoided the storms, hail and flooding that hit Melbourne in February. Along with ’04, it’s regarded as one of the best vintages ever.

The 2009 is from a low-yielding vintage when cool weather at flowering reduced crops, and a February heatwave caused further crop loss, but the combination of an overall cool season and low yields gave wines of great concentration.

I rate all of the Reserve (2003-7 tastings) and ‘The Paringa’ (2008-10 tastings) pinots very highly. I scored none of them below 93, and the ’04, ’05, ’08 and ’09 scored 96, and the 2010, a rare 97.

The ’07 is current at $99 ex-winery.


Paringa Estate pinot, myths & mysteries explained:

Myths:

Paringa Estate pinot noir is boosted with shiraz – never, says Lindsay.
Some vintages have stalks included in the ferment – no stalks since 1999.
The Reserve/’The Paringa’ comes from a certain area of the vineyard – no, it’s a barrel selection.
Great pinot noir and filtration do not mix – Lindsay’s wines are all sterile filtered. He began using a cross-flow filter, fine enough to remove all wine micro-organisms, from 2008. He believes it makes no difference to his wines, apart from making them microbially stable (ruling out Brettanomyces spoilage). This is rare for a top pinot producer.

Mysteries:

Lindsay has worked in Burgundy twice, the last time in 2009 at Domaine d’Eugenie.
Paringa Estate has three pinot noir clones: G5V15, MV6 and D2V5.
Paringa vineyard’s trellis is highly unusual, especially for pinot noir: a divided trellis known as a lyre. It was chosen because of the high vigour of the site, with its fertile, deep red volcanic soil.
Yields of 5 tonnes/hectare are the aim, equating to Burgundy grand cru yields.
Paringa Estate’s pinot noir trophy tally stands at 60.
Lindsay’s most successful show wine is not a pinot, but a shiraz. The 2007 Reserve Shiraz (tasting) won 16 trophies.

First published in Sydney Morning Herald, Good Living – 19 July 2011.

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