Pinot Project tests soil versus climate theory

Vineyard in Mornington Peninsula (Photo: Via Visit Melbourne)

It’s long puzzled Australian wine professionals that the French place so much emphasis on soil as a determinant of wine style, while Australians place much more importance on climate.

It came up most recently at the Mornington Peninsula Pinot Noir Celebration, where the early work of the local Pinot Project was aired. Six vineyards were originally involved, with the wines of just five participants exhibited. The project began in 2014 and is a 12-year trial involving 19 vineyards, looking at key climate and soil influences. Each vineyard provided enough grapes for two barrels of wine to Moorooduc Estate winery, where Rick McIntyre ensured each batch was treated exactly the same. The grapes (all MV6 clone) were picked at the same sugar ripeness, and vinified and matured in the same way, then all were bottled at the same time.

The vineyards involved were Eldridge Estate (tastings), Moorooduc Estate (tastings), Paradigm Hill (tastings), Paringa Estate (tastings) and Robinson’s. There is 13.8 km between the furthest separated vineyards, Paringa and Moorooduc, and 170 metres of altitude difference between lowest and highest (Robinson’s at 55 metres; Eldridge at 225). The differences in soil type, rainfall, trellis and canopy type, row orientation and spacing were recorded, as well as heat summations. Eldridge and Paringa were the coolest, not surprisingly because of their higher altitudes, giving them a climate more like Burgundy than the two Moorooduc Plains vineyards, Robinson’s and Moorooduc Estate. The wild card is Paradigm Hill because it is the only one exposed to the east, or Westernport Bay, side of the peninsula. This brings slightly different weather patterns.

Those attending the celebration were given the opportunity to taste the five wines from two vintages, 2014 and ’15 (the ‘16s being still unfinished in barrel). The vintages were served in two separate rows, but the tasting was otherwise blind. We were asked firstly if we could identify any differences between the wines, and secondly if we could match the winery/vintage pairs.

It was obvious at once that in each vintage row, the wines seemed to be arranged from lightest to heaviest, from finest structured to most tannic, and from highest acid to lowest. The conclusion being that they were arranged from highest altitude to lowest. In confirmation of this pattern, the heaviest wines seemed to have more alcohol, less-fine tannins, and some had a eucalyptus/mint character, which experience tells me is seen more in the region’s lower-altitude wines.

And, although a surprising number of tasters thought the sequence was in reverse, it was revealed as being highest to lowest altitude.

Were there any similarities between pairs? Both Eldridge wines had noticeably higher acidities and lifted cherry-like fragrances. Both Robinson’s wines were weighty and had chunkier tannins. Both Moorooduc Estate wines had a full body and generous tannins.

The Paradigm Hills, which were served in number 3 spot, between the ‘uphill’ and ‘downhill’ pairs, belonged to neither camp. They were similar for their leaner profiles, mintiness, and nervy, slightly bony structures. There was less difference between the vintages of Paradigm, while for the other pairs, the 2015 was marginally preferred over the 2014.

Paradigm to one side, the climatic details of the vineyard fitted the style of the wine. Soil was barely mentioned in the discussion.

Much more needs to be done, and several more vintages are needed to provide a significant bank of data. Perhaps in time, light will be shed on the effect of the soil differences, which are substantial – the grey clays of the Moorooduc Plains versus the red volcanic loams of the high country.

Even so, I suspect meso-climate will remain the major factor influencing differences in wine styles.

3 thoughts on “Pinot Project tests soil versus climate theory”

  1. Dirtman says:

    The Style matrix is more likely a suite of temperatures/plant growth cycle/cropload as these are regularly influenced from season to season at a particular site …if you know what I mean!

  2. Lester Jesberg says:

    Drainage is likely to be a factor rather than the chemical composition of the soil.

    1. Huon Hooke
      Huon Hooke says:

      Yes, I think it always is.

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