I was chatting with a customer in the store yesterday about Pinot Noir from California and Burgundy, with a bit of talk about New Zealand as well. When the topic turned to value, however, as in the best bang for your buck options, I asked him: "What do you know about the Yarra Valley in Australia?" It's a big country down there and, believe it or not, the whole of it isn't planted solely to scorched Shiraz. There's actually a very famous cool climate spot called the Yarra, making what are to me some of the most finessed and well-priced Chardonnay and Pinot Noir expressions on the planet. The problem for us American enthusiasts is that often the best of them don't leave the region and there aren't exactly hoards of importers taking the fifteen hour flight to Melbourne to solve that little issue. We're mostly stuck with some of the larger production wines that don't necessarily charm the palate the way some of the smaller grower/producer wines are able to. About a year ago, I spent a day in the Yarra Valley with Alan Nalder, the proprietor of a small estate called Helen's Hill. I was on trip to Australia on behalf of K&L, looking for small producers we might be able to feature as part of our direct import program. We hit it off immediately and by the end of 2017 we had his incredible sub-$20 "Ingram Road" Pinot Noir moving out of K&L by the case, faster than we could refill the floor stacks.
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. Alan and I have a lot in common in terms of the way we talk about drinking; he was instantly outgoing, passionate, and straightforward about his wine making 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.
My friend Jen was with me, so I let her ride shotgun while I squatted on the back of the flatbed and snapped photos, listening to Alan talk about viticulture. 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. 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, but I was even more impressed by the way those flavors came through in his wines. The fruit at Helen's Hill is meticulously cared for and you can taste that care for a ridiculous $14.99 with the Ingram Road expression, a wine that's not only full of pure Pinot flavor, but also fresh and lively on the palate.
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. Alan 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 at prices that are simply unbeatable.