“God made Cabernet Sauvignon whereas the devil made Pinot Noir”

 – Andre Tchelistcheff. Winemaker


Attack of the clones: A Pinot Noir masterclass. 22nd of October 2016. 11am-12.30pm in the Barrel Hall at Helen’s Hill. Book: info@helenshill.com.au

Young two year old ‘Pommard” clone at Helen’s Hill

Imagine a drink so wickedly good, so elusive and complex it defies understanding. You are probably thinking about Pinot Noir, a wine pursued by punters and winemakers alike with a fervour akin to madness. The perfect Pinot Noir seems to almost be an unobtainable illusion. Seasonal dependence, viticulture technique, terroir, winemaking and of course the importance of clones, all collide with each other for influence; each as important as the next Pinot Noir’s fate. So why, despite spending too much money on a wine that sometimes disappoints, or growing the vine to be rewarded one year and not the next, or setting out to make a wine that captures everything Pinot Noir has to offer only to be at the mercy of its fickle nature, are we so devoted? Because…..

“When it’s great, Pinot Noir produces the most complex, hedonistic and remarkably thrilling red wine in the world…”-Robert Parker.

The aromas and flavours of great Pinot Noir assault your senses and coalesce in a single moment of startling clarity only to drift away a moment later leaving you dazed and vague about the wines specifics with only one clear thought….. You love Pinot Noir. If you have ever experienced the phenomenon of falling in love with Pinot Noir you are on the road to becoming a true Pinot Noir nerd. Not to worry, Pinot Noir nerds are awesome people, you will fit right in with us here at Helen’s Hill.

Our love affair with Pinot Noir began back in 1997 when the Helen’s Hill family first broke ground on the tucked away paradise that is now Helen’s Hill vineyard. A slightly elevated, narrow but long strip of land with gentle undulating ripples of east to west hills creates a unique environment for Pinot Noir to thrive. Fair warning, we are about to get into the really nerdy stuff now. As growers of Pinot Noir for almost 20 years, we can be honest about the challenges in growing Pinot Noir. It is……

“A true living species…like humans, a joy to be with one day and moody bastards the next.” -Maurice DiMarino.

Pinot Noir has a long list of demands: It will only develop favourable flavour intensity in a cool climate but it’s very susceptible to frost as it is an early bursting variety. It has tight bunches, with grapes clustered closely together, making Pinot Noir fruit susceptible to bunch rot and needs careful canopy management to reduce this issue (but at the same time, it doesn’t like too much sun exposure on the fruit). The grape skins are thin compared to other varieties making Pinot Noir extremely susceptible to mildew diseases (which are more prevalent in cool regions). It is summed up well by Miles from Sideways

“It’s a hard grape to grow…thin skinned, temperamental, ripens early…it’s not a survivor like Cabernet, which can grow anywhere and thrive even when it’s neglected. No, Pinot needs constant care and attention…it can grow in these really specific, little, tucked away corners of the world. And only the most patient and nurturing of growers can do it, really. Only somebody who takes time to understand Pinot’s potential can then coax it into its fullest expression.”

You see where I am going with this, and the pain doesn’t stop there. Once you get it into the winery you have to take a variety that is not known for its colour and tannin extraction rates and turn it into something divine. The main rule for making Pinot Noir into wine is a careful and considered approach with gentle handling at every stage. There are so many decisions to be made once the fruit is in the winery: Do you add the stems to assist with tannin intensity at the risk of unpleasant vegetation characters? Cold soak it to help with colour and tannin extraction? Warm or cold ferment for capturing aromatic compounds? Oak barrel selection? Wild yeast for complexity or the safety of cultivated yeast? All the while knowing the end wine will be rigorously assessed by Pinot Noir aficionados and not wanting to let them down. The huge variety in colour, aroma and flavour from winery to winery, vineyard to vineyard (even within the same region) is not so difficult to understand when you add up all the components that effect a bottle of Pinot Noir. It is no wonder….

‘its makers are lunatic-fringe, questers after the holy grail…” -Marc de Villiers wine writer.

The Helen’s Hill team ‘hard’ at work barrel tasting the 2016 vintage wines.

There is however, one area in which Pinot Noir is very forgiving and that is when it comes time to enjoy a glass with a meal. Straddling the divide between a white and red wine the food matches for Pinot Noir are almost endless. This is where distinct bottle variation in Pinot Noir can become a help rather than a hindrance. Lighter more fruit forward Pinot Noir all the way through to the powerhouse earthy/spicy Pinot Noir widens the spectrum of food matches from salmon to anything pork or duck all the way through to a classic beef bourguignon. Que the salivation here. The right food choices can trick your first (slightly negative) impression of a particular Pinot into a delightful thrill for the sense and the pleasure gained from an especially delicious, perfectly matched meal with a Pinot Noir of stunning intensity is almost indecent. Did I mention the health benefits? It has long been touted that a glass a day keeps the Dr. This is because red wine has a concentration of antioxidants in the skins shown to assist with heart disease, improve neurological functions and could even help lower the risk of cancer. Pinot Noir is well above the rest in this regards due to the higher concentrations of a compound called resveratrol which has been linked to all of the above benefits. The reality that more than one glass per day will negate all these health benefits is rather a downer though…… Anyone able to stick to this limit should be immediately canonised, such is the power of Pinot Noir.

One of the other allures of this grape variety is its place in history. Pinot Noir is almost certainly a very ancient variety that may be only one or two generations removed from wild vitis sylvestris vines. Pinot Noir is a 1,000 years older than Cabernet Sauvignon. In a world full of man-made imitation it is exciting to grow, make and drink wine from a variety that is so close to a plant that existed during the age of the dinosaur. One of the distinctive features of Pinot Noir when compared with other varieties is its promiscuity. A bit cheeky really but it likes to spread its genetic material around and has been discovered to be the parent of many other grape varieties including Chardonnay, Gamay and Muscadet varieties. It’s also not shy when it comes to its own mutations with Pinot Meunier, Pinot Gris/Grigio and Pinot Blanc all evolving from Pinot Noir (rather than cross pollination with another species.) Now we reach the pinnacle of Pinot Noir nerdiness; Clones. I am not talking killer mutant plants fused with robots here to destroy the earth, but the rather fascinating ability of Pinot Noir to adapt (on a genetic level) different qualities depending on the environment in which it is grown. Astonishing really, but this plant so easily mutates its genetic material there are hundreds of clones planted around the world, all selected for superior vigour, bunch closure, flavour profile, ripening parameters etc. It begs the question: what is more important, terroir or clones when it comes to Pinot Noir? I am glad you asked that, it is a question we have been carefully considering ourselves. Of the hundreds of clones available around the world, we grow 8 here at Helen’s Hill. It doesn’t sound like much, but trust me, it is well above the average. We do this because clones are to Pinot Noir as are patches to a quilt. Meaning they add different flavours. They add complexity. They add depth of character. They add structure. They just simply add. In fact we are so sure of the importance of subtle clone variation that we have dedicated an entire range of wines to exploring the differences in clones. Picked within 24 hours of each other and vinified with almost identical processes the two Reserve Pinot Noirs produced here at Helen’s Hill (MV6 and D4V5) are quite different in all aspects from colour and body through to aroma and flavour. We loved the results so much we have added another two to the range (115 and Abel) due for release next year.

Are you inspired to delve deeper into the madness that is Pinot Noir yet? I hope so because we are opening the doors to our barrel hall in a very special event to give our fellow Pinot Noir nerds a taste of the mystery behind the wine. This event will be a true account of our love of Pinot Noir here at Helen’s Hill as well as an exploration of everything our vineyard has to offer this onerous grape and the moreish wines we are blessed to be able to create. We will also be giving the lucky attendees a preview of the two Reserve Pinot Noirs still in barrel, as well as comparing the current release wines with some museum stock. To top it all off, Allan is throwing an American style BBQ lunch on the deck afterwards (think beef ribs, pork belly and chicken joints). If you weren’t a Pinot Noir nerd before reading this you probably are one now. What can I say? Welcome to the dark side.

Attack of the Clones: A Pinot Noir Masterclass.

Saturday 22nd of October 2016 11am-12.30pm. Barrel Hall at Helen’s Hill. Check in at Cellar Door. Tickets $35 per head, includes wine and matched share plates of food

Allan hosting a Pinot Master Class in 2015

American Style BBQ on the Deck from 1pm $45 per head, spicy beef ribs, smokey pork belly and sticky citrus chicken, salads, soft rolls and sauces included.

Bookings essential: email info@helenshill.com.au or call (03)97391573