James Halliday & pinot noir


How noir was my valley

James Halliday is quick to admit that one of the most influential factors that drew him to move to Victoria from NSW was the pinot noir grape. While working for one of Australia’s largest law firms in 1977, one of the firm’s partners came back to Sydney with a bottle of Yarra Valley pinot noir under his arm. “For me this wine was an absolute revelation…an epiphany,” says James. It was, quite literally, a life changing experience.

Already combining three careers into his busy life, as a corporate lawyer, winemaker and then as journalist, wine judge and consultant, James had also started a winery in 1970 with two colleagues in the Hunter Valley. Having been impressed by French pinot noir, they planted about half an acre in pinot vines, just as an experiment. But it was a disaster.

James says that up to about 1975 all the pinot grown in Australia, at least in this century, was grown in the wrong areas, in warmer regions. He visited the Yarra Valley not long after to do some research for a book he was putting together and saw the region for the first time. “I was enormously impressed by what I saw, and then by what I learned and researched about the area. Then and there I decided that when I ultimately retired from law, the Yarra Valley was where I would wish to end up.”

A merger with a Melbourne law firm in 1983 put the opportunity his way to make that move a lot sooner. James moved south with his wife Suzanne, and he made no secret to his employer of the fact that another agenda compelled him. “My partners knew that wine was my second life, and would ultimately be my principle life. What specifically brought me to Melbourne was the conviction that the Yarra Valley was the best place in Australia to grow and make good pinot noir,” he says. “That is the simple unvarnished truth.”

The Hallidays established Coldstream Hills winery in 1985, and haven’t looked back. From an initial vintage of just 450 cases it now sells wine in 16 countries and has a reputation all out of proportion to its size. And pivotal to its success with pinot noir, says James, is the region. “You can make very good chardonnay in many parts of Australia, you can make very good cabernet and merlot, but there are still relatively few parts of Australia where you can make very good pinot.”

The Yarra Valley, he says, was one of the first areas from what James describes as the “dress circle” around Melbourne to emerge as a premier pinot noir producing area. “The Mornington Peninsula was still emerging, Gippsland hadn’t started seriously. It doesn’t mean that there are not now some exceptional wines made outside the Yarra Valley. There are certainly great pinots made in Tasmania, and everyone would agree that south Gippsland makes exceptional pinots. So it’s not a monopoly, but I think it’s a majority situation.”

But wine production in the Yarra Valley is no new fad. In fact the region was one of the first areas to grow grapes in colonial Victoria, and vines were planted here from around 1840. The area really blossomed under predominantly Swiss settlement over the next 20 years, with wineries such as St Huberts, Yeringberg and Chateau Yering being established. So great was production in fact that the grape plantings of these three vineyards alone in these earlier years exceeded the total plantings in the whole of the Yarra Valley in 1986. By 1890, Victoria produced almost 60 per cent of Australia’s wine…more than all the other states combined.

But wine production ceased in the Yarra Valley in 1921, the last of the vintages being made that year at Yeringberg. It is often said that the vine parasite phylloxera wiped out the Yarra Valley wine industry from that era, but in fact the region was one of few that was not attacked and decimated by phylloxera. It was however swept up in the wider perception that all wine was somehow tainted by this disease. In truth, a combination of factors, including changing land use as dairying became more economically important and a change in wine tastes to favour more fortified wines, conspired to put an end to the previous Yarra Valley wine industry…or at least to shove it on to the back burner for a few years.

The re-birth of the Yarra Valley has involved many people and many wineries, and no laggard in the success of both wineries and winemakers has been the pinot noir variety. In 1987, Yarra Valley wineries received 15 out of a total of 18 gold medals awarded on the national wine show circuit in the pinot noir classes. The Yarra Valley had by then already become once again a wine mecca.

David Lance from Diamond Valley Vineyards in St Andrews is another pinot producer. Working with his son James, this is a family operation which has produced small quantities of excellent wine since its first vintage in 1980. Pinot noir is a variety that demands particular conditions to produce the best outcome and David says that “the Yarra Valley is one of the best regions in Australia to grow pinot noir and produce consistently good wine.”

Because it was one of the first established wineries in the region, David says that in many ways, Diamond Valley Vineyards has put pinot noir on the map in the Yarra Valley. “We won the Peaches Restaurant Trophy at the Canberra Wine Show for pinot noir in 1984 for the 1982 vintage. Since then, we have collected that trophy (now called the Pinot Trophy) five more times. In all, we have won around 30 trophies at a number of major Australian wine shows.”

The renaissance of the area as one of Australia’s premier wine growing regions has been, as Tom Carson, winemaker at Yering Station winery puts it, a re-pioneering of the whole region. “This area is quite young relative to other wine growing regions in the world,” Tom says. “So it does feel like we are pioneering the wine industry all over again. But it’s an interesting phase, finding the right sites, the right varieties and the techniques that work.”

Yering Station has been in the Yarra Valley, in one incarnation or another, since the mid-1840s, and as such is one of the oldest land holdings in the valley. When it last changed hands in 1996 when it was bought by the Rathbone family, 100 more acres were put under vine, and today there are a total of 280 acres of vineyard, which keeps Tom and the rest of the team at Yering Station busy enough.

In fact, it is the effort of coming to a greater understanding of what goes on out in the vineyard that has been Tom Carson’s greatest challenge. “It might sound funny, but concentrating on getting things right out in the vineyard is a priority,” he says, “and then matching that with the winemaking techniques.” And even though some blocks of the same vineyard may seem to be the same, and are close together, Tom says they can still produce different fruit altogether. “And some things work and some don’t,” he says. “But that’s the thing about good wine making, trying to get the best from each particular site.”

Prolonged maceration, before fermentation, is one example of a technique that Tom says they will use. “We chill the must (crushed grapes and juice), to stop the natural fermentation that any wine will start anyway, for between five to seven days. But after that it will look like it wants to get going so we add the yeast and fermentation can start. When that gets going you find that the must heats up quite naturally, which helps things along too. But it’s something we have found that some blocks respond to better to than others.”

So even though the Yarra Valley is so suited to cooler climate varieties such as pinot noir, you still have to know what you’re doing. In the valley’s re-establishment phase as a wine growing region, St Huberts was one of the first to be replanted, and it was done with the advice of a French vigneron. And it is no coincidence, says James Halliday, that you’ll find that St Huberts vines are found to be in one of the few frost pockets in the Yarra Valley. The steeper slopes that are found in some areas are also worked to advantage.

Selective, even finicky, fruit choice seems to be one of the key elements to making great pinot noir. Michael Matthews at TarraWarra Estate uses cooking as an effective analogy. “In the kitchen, you’re trying to make the perfect dish; you might put in a pinch of salt, a dash of this, a dollop of that. You don’t just tip everything you’ve got into the pot and expect to cook up something great.”

Michael says that the same principle operates at TarraWarra. They might take say three barrels of fruit from one block on the estate, 10 from another and so on. “Just as you’ll never empty your cupboards at home cooking one dish, so we always had the situation where not all the fruit we grew went into the wine we produced. If we threw it all in, it would make a wine, but not the best wine we could have made.”

As a result, TarraWarra developed a second label, called Tin Cows, which absorbed the fruit that the TarraWarra label didn’t use. But even so, as the vineyards matured and started to produce more fruit that had what it takes, less and less grapes became available for the Tin Cows label, so they had to plant a second vineyard to keep up supply.

The name, by the way, comes from the three dimensional corrugated iron cows in the driveway, based on the cows they used to breed on the estate, which still runs about 1000 head of cattle. The sculptures also tie in nicely with the connection the owner has to the art world. A museum of Australian art is planned for the estate in the near future for which a $25 million bequest has been made from the owner’s private collection.

TarraWarra Estate was established by Marc and Eva Besen in 1983 and has gone on to win widespread acclaim for both its chardonnay and pinot noir wines. But even so, on an estate of 1000 acres, only 74 acres are under vine. “It’s all geared to quality, not quantity,” says Michael. “To give you an idea, with the 2001 vintage we put together fruit that initially would have made about 3000 cases, but ended up making 2000 cases. The following vintage we only had about 1300 cases, for the same reason.”

The truth, says James Halliday, is that there is no firm, hard and fast, fail safe recipe for making good pinot noir. “You have to be terribly responsive to what comes out of the vineyard,” he says, “and out of a particular vintage. And there are a huge number of nuances, subtle things that you might do one vintage that you wouldn’t do next vintage.”

Some years ago, James attended a pinot noir conference in Geelong, and one of Australia’s foremost viticultural consultants asked them all to rate out of 10 the importance the vineyard had on the one hand and the importance of the winery on the other. “After a great deal of thought I gave my answer as 10 for the vineyard, and also 10 for the winery; which may sound stupid,” says James, “but if you’d asked me that about riesling I would have said eight for the vineyard and three for the winery. Chardonnay, nine and five.

“What I was trying to get across was that not only is the selection in the vineyard, limitations of yield, canopy management and so on of absolutely critical importance, once you get it to the winery pinot can be equally as unforgiving.” Pinot, it seems, is a fussy little grape. “It is a very difficult variety to deal with,” says James. “But part of the great thing about pinot, which sharply distinguishes it from something like a big cabernet or shiraz, is that it’s almost transparent, it’s translucent, with almost a gossamer fineness to it. But that also means that any little slip or error of judgement on the part if the winemaker is going to be mercilessly exposed.”

The importance of the age of vines is echoed across the valley. Tom Carson at Yering Station believes this is the one area where the pinot noir of the Burgundy area of France may have an edge. “In Burgundy they have very old plantings, and that seems to be what makes a difference. In the Barossa Valley for instance, they have vines that are more than 100 years old, and Barossa shiraz seems to really benefit from that.” Still, as James Halliday says, with Yarra Valley pinot vines finally passing the 20 and 25 year old mark, he has really started to see a difference. “And of course things can only improve as time goes on.”

But does the fact that pinot noir is a French variety, and that the French have such a head start over us in vine age, give credence to the often heard view that great pinot noir only really comes out of Burgundy? James thinks not, and says there is an inexplicable inferiority complex or cultural cringe still hovering over pinot. “People are perfectly happy to believe that Australian chardonnays have conquered the world, that our shiraz is the world’s best, that our Coonawarra cabernets are pretty damn good and our rieslings fantastic.” he says. But when it comes to pinot, he still hears the lament that we haven’t achieved the same degree of success. “And in my view that’s simply untrue. I don’t accept that for a moment.”

The view that the French can’t be beaten at their own game, he says, although a commonly held view and perhaps a politically correct one, has time and again been shown to be based on preconception rather than on hard fact. James has been to too many blind tastings, where say the wines of Burgundy, the Yarra Valley, New Zealand and Gippsland for example are represented, for him to believe otherwise.

“In blind tasting after blind tasting after blind tasting, the Australian pinots have often been preferred to the Burgundys. And that happens more or less each year at the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival” (where people front up and pay to be able to participate in tasting a variety of wines). “So in blind tastings it by no means follows that the Burgundys will prevail,” he says.

“Of course you’ll always hear the argument ‘hang on, if you put the same wines in a blind tasting in 20 years time, which would be best then?’ That actually happened with the first Californian versus Bordeaux tasting, held in 1972 and judged by the French. They had no idea what they were tasting, and the Californians crunched the Bordeaux.” Apparently the French cried foul and threw in the “20 years” argument. Some bright spark had the idea of squirreling away some bottles, and they did hold the same tasting, with the same wines, 20 years later. “And the results were not reversed,” says James.

But that said, he is quick to point out that it doesn’t necessarily prove anything one way or another. “The wines do have points of similarity, but they also have points of difference. Quality is the really important thing.”

The development of distinctly Australian wines in this country has led to them being “technically brilliant,” says Michael Matthews at TarraWarra. “They are squeaky clean, shiny wines. But a lot of the traditional pinots aren’t, because the aim is not to fine them too much. Because everything you do to them can actually take character out of the wine. TarraWarra, and all serious pinot noir makers, try to leave as much character in our wine as possible.”

The winemakers at TarraWarra operate in a very traditional manner, and try to work very little with the precious pinot. “Working it too much takes the flavour out of it,” says Michael. “Pinot noir is a mysterious alluring grape variety. But it fascinates people, even if they don’t drink it all that often. And the Yarra Valley and pinot connection is a perfect one.”

Given its temperamental nature, the pinot noir challenge seems to be an annual event. But meeting that challenge is what can keep a serious wine maker going. James Halliday sums it up this way: “When I started with Coldstream Hills, part of my rationale was that I can be top of the pile with chardonnay for a couple of years, and then someone else will come along and I won’t be the flavour of the month. But if you get a reputation for pinot noir, established through consistent production of quality, that’s something that will endure.

“I still regard this vineyard, even after all these years, as work in progress,” he says. “The great thing about wine making is that you always believe that you can do better next vintage.”


This article first appeared in Victorian Lifestyle Property magazine