I really learned about wine in Oxford under the tutelage of Max Hartwell, the College’s wine steward and an Australian of the ocker variety. He was a good teacher, and generous too. His favourite red was Bordeaux, and I developed a taste for it myself. The best I ever had was 1947 Ch. Cheval Blanc, with 1949 Ch. Latour a close second. These were bought from the College cellar at a time when the wines were sold for an affordable price to members of the College. He was less enthusiastic about Bourgogne, and we had much less of that, though a decent Volnay was on sale for 7/- (this was in 1964).
Back in Australia I found that Shiraz was the best I could buy. The Cabernets were hard, and it took several years before I had developed enough red wine in a cellar to drink wines that were seven years old, by which time the Cab Sauv had softened. No one was growing Pinot Noir, or if they were they were keeping it to themselves. But once the Australian wine industry began to grow I began to hear of Pinots that were drinkable, and of course of many other varietals, too. A friend had opened for me a bottle of a Maurice O’Shea Pinot Noir, so-called, too, from the Hunter (1956, if I remember correctly). It didn’t taste like anything I could remember of the best Burgundies I had tried.
Then I learned that another friend just out of Canberra had made some that he thought was pretty good, and it was (Affleck, 1999). I bought some. He said that Lark Hill, up the road from him, also had a good one. It was, and I bought a case there too. Then another Canberra winery (Lerida) produced a good one. So I got some of that. I had learned that older men moved to Pinot, and there I was, doing that moving. (There is a new variety for older men, called Pinot More, but I won’t go there.)
One evening Bev and I were dining in Stefano de Pieri’s wonderful restaurant in Mildura, where the wines come to you with each dish. I opted for the Pinot, which looked and smelled exactly right. Gorgeous, not only by itself, but with the dish: the aroma was of cherries and berries, it was brilliantly soft and lingered in the mouth. When the glass was empty I kept it, just to smell the aroma. I asked the waitress what it was.
‘Oh,’ she said. ‘You wouldn’t know that one. It comes from Canberra — Lark Hill, it’s called.’ It was the same vintage as mine, but how well it presented there, in what I still consider the best restaurant I have been to in Australia. Then I found out about Mornington Peninsula, and bought quite a lot of Pinot Noir (and Pinot Grigio)there. Then to Central Otago, where I felt I had found the best Pinot in either Australia or New Zealand.
By now the cellar had its fair share of Pinot Noir, and one does drink other things. Last year I discovered that the cellar had too much old Pinot, and that I would have to drink some of the older stuff before I bought any more of the recent vintages. So I began to drink lots of Pinot Noir.
The good news is that all the wines were in perfect condition in terms of finish and softness. They were fine old red wines. The bad news was that virtually all of them had lost their discernible Pinot character. You couldn’t tell what they were. They weren’t Shiraz, and they weren’t Cabernet. Bev would tell me what they weren’t (her palate is better than mine). Were they perhaps Tempranillo, or Sangiovese. or something really new. The only one that stood out in terms of aroma was Rippon, from Central Otago.
I don’t have an old Romanee Conti to compare them with. But a year or two ago I did buy (at $106!) a single bottle of Gioconda Pinot from Beechworth, which I had heard described as Australia’s best Pinot. I’m saving it for a special occasion.