Quality Tasmanian Pinot Noir stems from varying degrees of stalk removal

Professional experience: Tasmanian winemaker Steve Lubiana uses small batch winemaking with varying degree of stalk attachment to grape bunches to create his Pinot Noir wines.

This article first appeared in the May/June 2009 issue of the Australian and New Zealand Wine Industry Journal. Click through to http://winetitles.com.au/wij/ for further information and subscription opportunities.

Considered by many to be the 'holy grail' of wine, Pinot Noir is challenging in the vineyard, prefers to be handled gently and is tricky to ferment, changing from one vintage to the next and evolving dramatically as it ages. As reported in the Pinot Noir Varietal Report in the March/April 2006 issue of the Wine Industry Journal, Pinot Noir is still, by and large, the domain of small producers. At that time, winemaker Michael Glover wrote that Pinot Noir has 'resisted technology and has stayed steadfastly traditional', leading winemakers to forgo yeasts, destemmers, filters and other equipment and work in harmony with wild yeasts, stalks and gravity to create 'artful' results.

Principle producers of Tasmanian Pinot Noir, Andrew Pirie, Steve Lubiana and Peter Althaus have different preferences for the optimum level of destemming grapes to create wines with elegant tannins and intensity of fruit flavour, as Wine Industry Journal editor Lauren Jones discovered.

While Andrew Pirie did not wish to disclose the commercially sensitive methods of making Tamar Ridge Pinot Noir, he said that traditional Pinot Noir making dictated that stalks were not separated from the ferment and bunches were unbroken.

'The resultant wines had more tannin and took longer to mature,' Pirie said. 'Circa 1959 in Europe, it became the new practice to crush Pinot Noir prior to ferment, which was before much of the Pinot Noir production in Australia.'

Pirie prefers a 'bit of each' in his Pinot Noir making, either crushing the grapes or leaving some stalks attached and whole bunch fermenting.

'It would be fair to say that Tamar Ridge's common practice at the premium end of Pinot Noir production is to add some stalks if the fruit looks mature enough, with some whole fruit included in the ferment,' he said. 'Tamar Ridge has different winemaking regimes in place, particularly for Pinot Noir intended for immediate consumption or for longer-term cellaring.'

Three Pinot Noir wines feature in the portfolio of Stefano Lubiana Wines, with each distinctly different from the other, assisted by Steve Lubiana's small batch techniques with varying degrees of stalk kept intact with whole bunches.

The ultra premium 'Sasso' label, meaning stone, chosen to reflect the Granton vineyard's unique stoney soils, is an aromatic style of Pinot Noir made only in exceptional years and features black cherry, spice and dark chocolate characters, typical of wild yeast fermentation. The Estate label, with fruit sourced from two small blocks planted to mainly clones MV6, D5V12 and an unknown clone features flavours of violets, strawberry, black cherry and cassis fruit with a deep, earthy and spicy palate, lifted by the use of 30% new and 70% one-year-old French Burgundy oak. The 'Primavera' label, a modern style of Pinot Noir is made from clone 777 planted in Lubiana's mature vineyard, producing intensely coloured small bunches bringing extended palate texture and length with flavours of blood plum, rich chocolate, raspberry and creamy vanilla, balanced by tangy acid.

'For our wines intended for earlier drinking, less stems are incorporated as a general rule with no stems on some batches,' Lubiana said. 'The premium Sasso label may have 15-20% stems included, therefore the wine spends more time in French oak, both old and new, to give the sappy character time to turn into fine tannins.'

The Primavera label is matured in 5000L new oak to bring dryer and rounder oak tannin to the wine, which Lubiana said 'transforms the wine into a mature, richer Tasmanian style and away from the previous Beaujolais style without forfeiting any of Pinot Noir's elegance'.

Lubiana does not use a crusher at all with his Pinot Noir fruit, instead opting for whole bunch fermentation.

'Whole bunch fermentation offers a little bit of a carbonic maceration character, giving the wine more aroma and a better tannin profile from the stalks, not just from the skins and seeds. In addition, the sugars are involved in the fermentation, rather than relying on yeast. It is not usual to plunge the ferment and find a whole bunch still in tact.

'The changes that whole bunch fermentation bring about in the wine such as changes to pH due to the increase in potassium and the loss of some colour does not worry me, as I believe the negatives associated with the technique are outweighed by the positives,' Lubiana said, crediting whole bunch fermentation to his wines have silky, sappy tannins and good length of flavour.

'Winemakers can either add tannin or add stalks. I don't like to add anything as I go through the winemaking process, preferring a natural approach. Whole bunch fermentation is a rougher style of carbonic maceration, perhaps even a partial carbonic maceration technique,' he said.

In vintages that winemaker Peter Althaus sees fit to create the usual 15 barrels of Domain A Pinot Noir wine from his Stoney Vineyard in the Coal River Valley region of Tasmania, he chooses to entirely de-stem the fruit from his 1.5ha vineyard, before gently pressing it in a German-built KVT pneumatic press.

'Whole bunch pressing is best done with over-ripe fruit, which I try to avoid by picking within a three-day window in the last week of March, so that the Pinot Noir is neither under-ripe or over-ripe,' Althaus said. 'There is enough tannin in the fruit, so I don't need any extra from the stems.'

The Stoney Vineyard site has Jurassic dolerite and limestone soil topped with a layer of black cracking clay, which Althaus said is more suited to the growing of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. The site's climate is temperately maritime, with low annual rainfall and warm days.

'As a result, I pay attention to pH, acidity and sugars in the Pinot Noir to select the optimal harvest date,' Althaus said, looking for cherry fruits with hints of bramble leaf, wild honey and fine tannins.

According to Althaus, the resultant single vineyard wine is distinctly reflecting of the site's terrior, with a prime alcohol content of 13.5%.

'In some years, the alcohol has crept up to 15%, which I didn't like but could not avoid due to harvest coinciding with the Easter long weekend, meaning picking staff was in shorter supply,' he said.

Althaus chooses to not filter Domaine A Pinot Noir, believing 'it strips too much of the character from the fruit in the wine'.

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