A New World of wine to discover

The astonishing Aussie ‘Noirs’ that rival premier cru Burgundy

Prejudice and habit play a huge part in deciding what we like to drink. One of London’s leading fine-wine brokers merely laughs if you inquire about any Italian wine, while my wife starts to panic if I suggest a bottle from Argentina or even California. (‘Why bother? Let’s just have some of that lovely Puligny from Domaine Leflaive.’)

Of course, there are lots of classic wines I drink as often as the opportunity arises, but for me there is immense pleasure and satisfaction when you discover a completely unknown one that blows you away. That was my feeling when the chef Rowley Leigh opened a Rhône called Pialade 2002 — a seriously underwhelming vintage. It turned out to be made from grapes not considered good enough for Château Rayas, the greatest of all Châteauneuf-du-Papes. Perhaps this less than salubrious pedigree contributed to such a decadent barnyard air. It reminded me of a 30-year-old vintage Burgundy.

A similar thunderbolt struck me on a recent visit to Australia. I was dining at the Lake House in Daylesford, the finest hideaway hotel in the country, and asked the sommelier to serve me a good local wine. He chose Bindi Pinot Noir 2012 Original Vineyard from the nearby Macedon Ranges. Now, I had drunk its wines a few years earlier and thought them impressive, but this one was a revelation. It was spicy with an intense mineral backbone, nothing at all like most New World Pinots, which tend to be too sweet and fruit-driven for my taste.

The magic of great wine is the way it evolves both in the bottle, then in the glass. After an hour or more exposure to the air, the experience can be entirely different. Here, the mid-palate suddenly had the complexity and profundity of a premier cru Morey-Saint-Denis from Burgundy — a first for me with any New World Pinot Noir.

This demanded more study. I rang the wine maker, Michael Dhillon, and drove through pristine forest and farmland to find Bindi, overlooking Mount Macedon near Melbourne. It was the day before harvest, yet all 19 acres of vineyards were completely draped in fine mesh, as if in mourning. This was just a precaution against marauding flocks of crimson rosellas, or lorikeets, which can completely strip an un-netted vineyard.

Bindi’s back story is extraordinary. It was founded 30 years ago by Bill Dhillon, a Sikh from the Punjab, who went to a boarding school in Ballarat and decided to stay. His family bought a modest 1,000-acre sheep farm 1,500 feet up and hoped to turn part of it into a vineyard. After extensive research, Bill planted 15 acres with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, the sole grape varieties of red and white Burgundy. This was a high-risk strategy, as Pinot Noir is the most temperamental grape of all, with only a minuscule fraction of worldwide production comparable with even the humblest of Burgundy’s output. Dhillon’s mentor was an old friend of mine called Stuart Anderson, the founder of Balgownie, one of the earliest and best boutique vineyards in Australia.

By the turn of the century, Bindi had made a name for itself, and has now expanded to 19 acres with seven different wines broken down according to minute soil variations. The vineyard is planted on soil mainly from the 480 million-year-old Ordovician Era, mingled with volcanic earth from a mere five million years back. The most sought after is Block Five, which produces an average of only 150 cases annually. This is even less than Burgundy’s Domaine de la Romanée-Conti (DRC), which means the cases are carefully allocated to subscribers as well as to restaurants and a handful of countries in Asia and Europe at prices from £45 to £100 a bottle.

Bindi is now owned and managed by Bill’s son Michael, who is in his late forties and dedicated to raising standards even higher. His latest idea is a new vineyard with vines four times closer together, like in Burgundy, to see if that results in more complex grapes. Only a quarter of the crop survives as most bunches are pruned to increase the concentration in what remains.

The wines are incredibly long lasting, taking at least five to eight years to open out then continuing to grow in complexity. I have tasted less than a dozen bottles and never the Block Five (‘Tar and Roses’), but that’s the excitement of fine wine and the reason to be curious rather than complacent.


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