Pinot noir in colour
People often remark that Australian pinot noirs are too light, so we must be over-cropping our vineyards. These people tend to compare the likes of Yarra Valley with the dark, burly Central Otago wines from New Zealand’s South Island, but it’s an unfair comparison.
The Central pinots often trump our Yarra Valley et al in competitions, perhaps because they look more impressive and they usually have more palate weight as well.“Our Yarra wines have less colour because the vines don’t get the same sunlight intensity they do at lower latitudes” – Steve Flamsteed
The colour difference has nothing to do with cropping levels. Many leading winemakers have been open about their yields over the years, and their top pinots usually crop at around 2 tonnes per acre, the magical number for grand cru Burgundy (35 hectolitres per hectare). Their colours are light, irrespective of yield, whether expressed as kilos per vine or tonnes per hectare.
I recently quizzed winemaker Steve Flamsteed, of leading Yarra Valley winery Giant Steps, about this. I’d commented that his 2020 Tasmanian pinot, Fatal Shore, which comes from the very southerly Coal River Valley near Hobart, has a much darker colour than his 2020 Yarra Valley pinots Sexton, Applejack and Primavera.
“Our Yarra wines have less colour because the vines don’t get the same sunlight intensity they do at lower latitudes, such as Tassie and Central Otago,” he replied.
“We don’t have a lot of colour here (in the Yarra) anyway, but when you try to extract colour in the Yarra Valley you end up in no man’s land.”
The wines may be darker and more tannic but they lose fragrance and finesse.
He explains why grapes grown at lower latitudes have more colour.
“Anthocyanins (the colour pigments in the grape skins) are built up by sunlight. The grapes develop them as a protection, like a kind of sunscreen. That’s because there are longer hours of sunlight at lower latitudes.”
Anyone who has been to Queenstown in summer will know the sunlight is surprisingly intense and lasts long into the evenings. The locals say you can get sunburnt at 9pm.
Southern Tasmania is similar to Central Otago in this:
“In Tassie, our berries are smaller and blacker, the bunches are also smaller: little nuggety things,” said Flamsteed.
If you take out your atlas, you find Queenstown and Hobart are on fairly similar latitudes: 45 degrees versus 42.8 South. Healesville is 37.6 and Beaune, 47 degrees North.
When the winemaker includes a percentage of whole bunches (uncrushed, with stems intact) in the fermentation, pinots tend to lose even more colour, which compounds the situation.
“I like the Burgundian approach: you sacrifice colour but you get texture from the glycerols and other things than tannin,” said Flamsteed.
More glycerols are released in whole-bunch ferments. All of the 2020 Giant Steps single-vineyard pinots had a proportion of whole-bunch.
The wines are superb, as we might expect. The Applejack and Primavera vineyards are an especially interesting pair, as they are just 5km apart and the same altitude, around 300 metres, the difference being the soil type.
Primavera, on red basalt, is very floral with a note of lavender and a brothy, umami side. Applejack, on the grey clay soil more commonly found in the Yarra’s lower altitudes, is pale coloured and beautifully perfumed, with pot-pourri, raspberry, rose petal aromas: a very refined wine. “The finest Applejack we’ve made,” said Flamsteed.
The Sexton, from a lower, warmer site, is more a matter of dark cherries, while the Tasmanian, Fatal Shore, is a darker, heartier wine with more grip and structure and less detail. It will probably turn out to be the best performer with time as it has the structure to age. You might say it’s closer to the Burgundy model. All are highly recommended.
Lighter pinot noirs have their place, especially at the table. Lighter wines go with lighter foods, Applejack with tuna tataki, perhaps, and leave the Fatal Shore for the lamb fillets.