On the Trail

Burgundy Down Under

David Driscoll

As a fan of the lighter, more aromatic and finessed expression of pinot noir typically found in Burgundy, I have to admit I've been having that itch scratched more often lately by our exclusive Australian and New Zealand selections rather than the standard Marsannay or Beaune offerings in stock. A string of cooler vintages in the Côte d'Or has streamlined much of our current inventory into an individual style; namely, crunchier cranberries rather than soft cherries, and tightly-wound acidity rather than refreshing and relaxed drinkability. The wines are still top notch, but they'll need some time to soften up before they're ready to show their true character. In the meantime, however, there's a slew of pinot noir from Marlborough, Central Otago, and the Yarra Valley that—in my opinion—tastes more Burgundian than some of the actual Burgundy wines we have on the shelf. They offer fresh raspberries on the palate with hints of forest and baking spices on the nose, at amazing prices that reflect our direct importation and make the value proposition unbeatable. Of course, Burgundy is a complex and complicated vicinity. Not all of its red wines are as lithe and feminine as I described above. What about Pommard with its bolder fruit and firm tannic structure? What about Corton with its power and drive? I've got a few bottles of Pommard and Corton sitting in my cellar at the moment. I'm waiting another decade for them to evolve before drinking them. In the meantime, I've recently discovered an Aussie alternative to that style of Burgundian pinot, made by a guy named Allan Nalder. I visited his winery in Australia's Yarra Valley last week and I left in utter awe. His Helen's Hill expressions are some of the most complex and dark-fruited Burgundian-style pinot noirs I've ever tasted outside of the Côte d'Or and now they're available in the states at K&L.

The discovery wasn't mine initially, however. My colleague Ryan Woodhouse—who had already tasted the wines and purchased them—called me while I was visiting the Yarra and said to me distinctly: "Make sure you stop by Helen's Hill and see the vineyards." I did as I was told. I pulled up to find Allan and his team pressing pinot noir for a batch of sparkling wines, tasting the unfermented juice out of the underlying tank and extending a glass in my direction. I liked Allan immediately upon our introduction. He was outgoing, passionate, and straightforward about his winemaking and his intentions in the vineyard. "We specialize in single vineyard pinot noir," he told me right off the bat. "All of our wines are made with our own estate fruit and I know every row of vines like the back of my hand." Many winemakers in the Yarra purchase pinot noir from a number of different growers around the region, but Allan is very particular about his produce. He wants complete control over the process from beginning to end so that he can ensure the purest possible expression of fruit. "I'm not saying I don't trust anyone," he added before we walked into the barrel room; "It's just that I don't trust anyone."  Then he smirked and gave me a wink. "Come on, let's hop in the gator. I'll show you what I mean," he added. 

The "gator" it turns out was an ATV with a flatbed attached to the back. We propped a pillow on the surface so that I could kneel and snap photos as we drove through the vineyards. Like any good Burgundian vigneron, Allan believes in an intimate relationship between the land and the people who look after it. There are a number of different soil types and microclimates (or terroirs) across the property, so the pinot clones vary between Pommard and MV6—the latter of which was grafted from cuttings originally taken from Clos Vougeot, one of the most famous grand cru vineyard sites in all of Burgundy. The Old Block Reserve vineyard, originally planted back in 1980, is where those MV6 vines sit today—old and gnarly—penetrating deep into the hillside and yielding small crops of concentrated fruit. The Range View site is planted with the Pommard clone across a loamy clay soil with a limestone base. The eastward-facing slope produces pinot noir grapes with meatier flavors and earthier undertones, much like I would expect in Pommard itself. We spent a good half hour touring the various locales and examining the unique conditions of each. I was utterly invigorated by Allan's passion for farming.

Much like I've come to understand about winemaking in Burgundy, Allan believes in a more hands-off approach in the cellar. "We subscribe to the whole less-is-more philosophy" he said to me as I snapped a few photos of his gorgeous pinot clusters. There's a reason a winemaker in Burgundy is known as a vigneron—one who tends to vines. It's because they believe ninety-percent of a wine's flavor and character comes from the character it develops on the vine, not from clever techniques in the lab. Once the wines are fermented and put into barrel, Allan continues to taste that development and ultimately selects only the best and most characteristic casks for the Helen's Hill single-site expressions. It's paramount to Allan that the wines reflect the place in which they're grown, and it's clear that Allan takes pride in making that reflection one of quality and complexity. After an inspiring and breathtaking introduction to the property, I was very excited to open a few bottles in the tasting room to see if Allan's descriptions matched up with the wines themselves. It's one thing to talk about the significance of place, but it's another thing to actually taste it and link that unique character with complexity and quality. We're working in a market where many producers are taking a nod to the French idea of terroir and talking about the importance of origins, but it's rare to see that idea translate clearly and distinctly. I had a hunch, however, that Allan's wines were going to deliver the goods—and I was right.

Tasting the 2013 Helen's Hill "Old Block Reserve" with Allan back at the winery was a memorable experience because I have to admit—I thought he may have been pulling my leg by doing a little switcharoo with a bottle of Burgundy. I couldn't believe how Burgundian the wine tasted. It wasn't the bright or juicy style of pinot noir I had been tasting throughout my other appointments in the Yarra. It tasted much more like Volnay with subdued fruit, hints of earth and forest floor, with grittier tannins on the finish. I honestly couldn't believe it was Australian—not because I didn't think Australian pinot noir could be that delicious, but because I didn't think these types of wines existed outside the Côte d'Or. The 2013 "Range View" was just as revelatory with blackberry fruit, dusty tannins, and a darker, more brooding profile. I was speechless, to say the least. Not only did the wines show beautifully, they matched exactly the descriptions that Allan had provided earlier in the vineyards based on the clone being used, the growing conditions, and the microclimates in each site. In the case of Helen's Hill, not only are they following the philosophies of Burgundy, they're actually achieving the same results, yet in a much more approachable style that drinks well right out of the bottle. 

Before we pulled back into the winery, I spotted a couple of kangaroos sitting between a row of vines in the Old Block site. "Do they add anything to the flavor of the wines?" I asked jokingly, hopping off the flat bed to snap a quick photo. 

"That's marketing," he laughed, "Put that up on your blog and tell 'em it's roo terroir!"

Were it not for the kangaroos, I might have forgotten where I was. Helen's Hill is as close as I've come to Burgundy outside of France, but in many ways Allan has improved upon the old world style. The wines are pure, yet unrestrained. They're fleshy, yet elegant. They're charming, yet simultaneously rustic. With our direct import pricing, they're also likely to sell out fast. I'm sure I'll be emailing Allan within the next few weeks asking how long it's going to take before the 14s are ready. Helen's Hill is one of the most exciting producers we've discovered at K&L since I've worked here and the wines are further proof that the Yarra Valley is making wines of serious distinction and quality.

-David Driscoll