Current Issue #488

Murdoch Hill hits the heights of Pinot

Murdoch Hill hits the heights of Pinot

It was Pinot, Pinot and more Pinot at the finishing line as the wines of the Adelaide Hills came storming home in the latest Hot 100 Wines.

One Hills winery, Murdoch Hill, took two of the competition’s top 10 spots, winning third place with a wine made from a blend of Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Pinot Gris, and eighth place with a straight Pinot Noir.

While chuffed on his own account, Murdoch Hill winemaker Michael Downer is especially pleased by the strong showing of his region.

“It certainly showcases the drinkability that the Adelaide Hills offers – there’s a bit more finesse and elegance about the wines, and probably something that consumers are looking for,” Downer says. “It shows that the Adelaide Hills is growing up and putting out some pretty handy wines in the marketplace.”

Murdoch Hill sits in the back-blocks between Balhannah and Woodside, on a cattle-grazing property bought in the 1930s by Michael’s grandfather. It wasn’t until the 1990s that vines were planted by Downer’s dad, Charlie. After knocking over oenology and ag science degrees and putting in some winemaking yards at nearby Shaw & Smith, at Best’s in western Victoria and Cape Mentelle in WA – as well as a stint in Italy – took up the lead winemaking role at Murdoch Hill in 2011. The 20-hectare home vineyards, which sprawl on the wide slopes east of the farmhouse, are planted with Shiraz, Cabernet-Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, varieties for which the local conditions are well suited, Downer says. But for his Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier fruit, he looks to grower vineyards in the higher and cooler terroirs of western Oakbank, Piccadilly Valley and Uraidla.

Andrew and Michael Downer at Murdoch Hill (Photo: Sia Duff)
Andrew and Michael Downer at Murdoch Hill (Photo: Sia Duff)

The Hot 100 third place-getter was Murdoch Hill’s 2018 Ridley Pinot x 3, an eccentric blend in the winery’s Artisan series (all named after types of horse-drawn carriage). It combines two darker-skinned Pinot grapes with a touch of the lighter Pinot Gris. The components are fermented separately and then blended together.

“The idea with the Ridley is the Pinot Meunier comes in and gives that softness and lusciousness to the wine, and the Pinot Noir gives it a linear acidity and fresh red fruits, so it just makes for gorgeous summer drinking,” Downer says.

“It gives me the flexibility to play with percentages of the varieties. It’s not set in stone every year that it will be three. The 2016 Ridley was a ‘Pinot x 2’, a 50-50 blend of Noir and Meunier. In 2017, I added a small amount of Pinot Gris; because of the lighter nature of the vintage it seemed to marry quite well. It was in the order of eight per cent, and it was fermented on skins, which do have colour pigmentation.”

In 2018, a sunnier year, the Pinot Gris component dropped back to four per cent.

While much warmer than 2017, Downer says there was a run of cold nights in the Hills in 2018 that had a magical effect on the vibrancy and freshness of the fruit. “There was a cold snap of nights in late February that retained beautiful acidity with that core of red fruit, producing some extraordinary Pinots, which is probably why you found quite a few in the top 10.”

Downer says his own just-bottled premium 2018 Pinot Noir is looking exceptional: “it was a terrific year for Pinot Noir.”

It was, however, a Pinot Noir from the very different – and testing – 2017 vintage that won the Hot 100’s eighth place on the back of its Piccadilly Valley fruit.

“It was much cooler, and much later ripening – we weren’t sure if we were going to get there,” Murdoch says. “There was high rainfall, there was disease pressure: it was the complete opposite vintage and required a very different approach.”

Whole bunch pressing was reduced to 15 per cent, and time on skins was extended.

Otherwise Downer stuck to his usual technique for Pinot: “a touch of new oak maturation of around 15 to 20 per cent, to give a bit of support and structure, and it is matured a little bit longer, up to 10 or 12 months, before it is bottled.

“With this wine, I think you can see the delicate nature of the vintage, but you can see the savouriness and the texture and length coming through from the approach I had in the winemaking,” he says.

It worked for the Hot 100 judges, who found flavours of charred meats and strawberry compote “with a whiff of balsamic raspberries, poached rhubarb and subtle cinnamon spice”.

Downer is gratified that two such diverse wines got the nod. “It was quite fascinating to have the Ridley and the Murdoch Hill Pinot there, which are very different offerings in their own way. They’re very different vintages and there’s the blend versus the straight varietal, so it’s interesting to have them both in the line-up.”

Murdoch Hill (Photo: Sia Duff)
Photo: Sia Duff

For those wanting to make the wines’ acquaintance, an architecturally designed cellar-door facility, comprising a tasting room and deck, has recently been added to the front corner of the Murdoch Hill mega-shed, with views over paddocks dotted with ancient gums. Tastings are conducted seated at the central table.

“It gives a face to Murdoch Hill which we haven’t had before, so it’s very exciting times,” Downer says.

Downer says that while Adelaide Hills hasn’t yet had the national recognition accorded to Pinot Noir from regions such as the Yarra Valley, Mornington Peninsula and Tasmania, he is confident it will come into its own.

“It is unique and different. We are high elevation, we have high diurnal shift, we have very ancient soils, so we’re going to have our own unique marque and identity of our expression of Pinot.

“The way I see it, it’s going to be a little more on the red fruits spectrum – it doesn’t go in to the forestry, ferny elements that you see from some of the cooler places, like Tasmania for example.

“I think with that profile, and a slightly different approach to winemaking and viticulture, you end up with these really lovely lively, vibrant, delicate wines, often very light in colour. And with the right handling – not too much oak, not too much extraction – we can produce, as we’ve seen in the Hot 100, these highly consumable wine styles.”

Murdoch Hill
260 Mappinga Road, Oakbank

Header image:
Sia Duff


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