Pioneers of Pinot Noir

Recently we had the good fortune to participate in the Mornington Peninsula International Pinot Noir Celebration 2015 (MPIPNC15),  participating in a forum on Pioneers of Pinot.  We’d like to share James’ talk about his family’s early work with that heavenly wine variety, Pinot Noir.

“Hi, my name is James Lance, from Punch. I’m here today to tell the story of my parents, and particularly that of my father – David Lance. He was amongst the early wave of Pinot Noir resurgence in the Yarra Valley, and I am now continuing this journey.

Let’s go back.

David Lance grows up in Ballarat, in a family that drinks Australian table wine with meals.

As a young man, he travels to Canada to study, where he is introduced to, and falls in love with European wines.

In 1969 David, his wife Catherine, and their young family return to Australia, settling in Melbourne. David now has a PhD in Chemistry, and a burgeoning fascination with wine. So he finds a job at Carlton and United Breweries of course!

Here at CUB he befriends two other wine-like-minded people – Martin Grinbergs and Alex White. They begin by making wine at home, often in an old bathtub. But they face the same hurdle as home winemakers everywhere – where can they source high quality grapes?

Now let’s quickly sidestep to the Yarra Valley, on Melbourne’s doorstep. Internationally renowned for its table wines during the second half of the 19th century, but virtually dormant during the 20th.  Until some enthusiasts, spurred by the vinous history of the region, began planting grapevines again from the late 1960’s onward.

On a fateful Autumn day in 1973, the three CUB friends set out along the Maroondah Highway into the Yarra Valley, in search of grapes for their bathtubs. Beside the road, picking was underway on a new harvest of the freshly replanted St Huberts. After enquiring about buying some grapes, the 3 got talking to the owner, Ernie Cester. Ernie was looking for winemaking advice. The 3 agreed. By the following vintage – 1974 – David, Martin, and Alex were the winemakers at St Huberts.

The 3 each searched for their dream vineyard site. David found his in the hamlet of St Andrews, across the Christmas Hills from Yarra Glen. The site was sloping, the soil profile thin and riddled with rock, providing protection from both waterlogging and frost. The elevation was high at 250m, allowing the natural ampitheatre of the hills to catch sunlight without excessive heat.

David and Catherine bought the property in 1975, began to build their home, and to plan their vineyard. But which varieties to plant?

How about Pinot Noir? David loved the red wines of Burgundy. On paper the Yarra, and their new vineyard, should be very well suited to Pinot Noir. Both Yeringberg and Mt Mary had planted Pinot in the late 60s. So David approached John Middleton of Mt Mary, collecting cuttings in winter ‘75, and planting in ‘76.

The first tiny vintage was picked in 1980. David and Catherine named their new wine label “Diamond Valley Vineyards”, in honour of the Diamond Creek, which wound it’s way past the base of the property. In a telling sign of the times, the back label of the Pinot informed “Pinot Noir is the red grape of Burgundy”!

The Pinot Noirs of Diamond Valley went on to enjoy great successes through the 1980s. However David wondered if they couldn’t be improved further, beyond the adjustments in viticulture and winemaking that were already being trialed. He read “Sunlight into Wine” by Richard Smart. Combining these ideas with their hands-on grapegrowing experience, David and his then vineyard manager Morris Watson sat down one night in 1989 to design their perfect Pinot Noir vineyard.

By the end of the night they had used logic to re-invent the wheel.

The design was simple – plant the vines, and the rows, very close together. David found the smallest practical tractor available, 1 metre wide, so the rows would be spaced at 1.2 metres. He decided on a 1 metre vine spacing. The small one-quarter hectare plot on the property was planted later that same year.

The first minute crop was the 1992. The wine was named “Close Planted”, and on the back label it was described as our “experimental block”.

The experiment worked.

From early on it became very clear that the Close Planted fruit had more concentration, more depth, and more tannin than the older Pinot Noir block.

I started working in the winery with my father for the 1993 vintage. I fell head over heels in love with the work. Grapegrowing, winemaking, tasting, thinking, learning, it was all exhilarating. And Pinot Noir, it quickly became my favourite red wine, and the variety I most enjoyed struggling with.

After 5 vintages at Diamond Valley, I was fortunate enough to work a vintage in Burgundy, at Domaine Dujac, where I learnt a vast amount, both from the Dujac team, and from visiting the cellars of their friends.

From tasting the fruit at harvest, I could now see why whole bunch ferments worked so well for them, and less well for us at home. Their stalks tasted different: nutty, spicy, and without green flavours. Upon my return we reduced the level of whole bunch in our Pinots, waiting for the correct stem flavours.

In 2005 David and Catherine sold their beloved Diamond Valley brand, but none of the real estate. Immediately my wife Claire and I leased the vineyard and winery from my parents, and began our new label – Punch – as the new step in the journey.

The Black Saturday bushfire burnt through our property in February 2009, destroying that year’s harvest. Fortunately for us, vines are very tough creatures! Only 10% of the vines needed replanting, and the damage to the Close Planted was minimal. Enough fruitful buds survived the flames to grow a tiny harvest in 2010.

When we harvested this 2010 Close Planted, I had a very pleasant deja vu. Tasting the stalks, there were the flavours I remembered from Dujac – fully ripe, delicious! So for the first time we made our Close Planted with 100% whole bunches. The resulting wine had so much power that for balance we matured in all new oak – one whole barrique.

So in front of you is a very special wine for us, a Phoenix wine, that has heralded a change in direction for our Close Planted winemaking in all the vintages since.

I hope that you enjoy it!