Curly Flat Tasting

John Atkinson MW

Curly Flat was founded by Jenifer Kolka and Philip Moraghan in 1991. It isn’t unusual for people to enter the wine world with sky high hopes, but it is unusual to have them realized so unambiguously. Jancis Robinson MW wrote, Curly Flat 2004 was her favourite Pinot from that year, globally. Even though we didn’t taste as far back as 2004, Curly Flat 2012 appears to be in prime shape to see-off international all-comers too. Who cares if Burgundy isn't the doomed place in 2012 that it was in 2004? The message from this tasting was bring it on!

The estate is planted in the cool Macedon Ranges, on deep, Ordovician basalt soils. Clones are mixed – 114,115, MV6, D5V12 – predominantly trained as lyre, with a little Geneva double curtain. The vines are irrigated – ‘judiciously’ - and biodynamic methods and principles are followed, though a last resort option of synthetic fungicides is available.

Over recent years, the estate has fallen into the virtuous habit of running trials and bottling the results separately for future evaluation. On the night, we were asked to compare and contrast the role of clones, oak and stems on wines from 2010, 2012 and 2013. Additionally, we tried finished wines from 2010, 2012, 2013, 2014, and two 2017 barrel samples.

The wines were presented by Matt Harrop, Curly Flat's newly-appointed, and highly esteemed winemaker, with Jenifer Kolka, Miles Corish MW and John Atkinson MW completing the panel.

Flight 1. Clones:

A comparison was made between 3 clones: 114, 115 and MV6.

Very obvious differences across the wines. Clone 114 was, for me, the least fragrant of the 3 wines but the most satisfying to taste in terms of mouthfeel. Pinot can show a hard-edged brilliance in Victoria, but rigid palate symmetry is often the payback for aromatic extravagance. By contrast, there was a notable and very seductive lozenge-like smoothness to all the finished wines we tasted.

Matt explained that Victoria's experience with Dijon clones wasn't altogether positive. In warmer areas like Yarra, rapid ripening often resulted in simple, fruit-driven wines. One of the qualitative factors selected for by the INRA clonal programme was early ripening, and what is a boon in Burgundy can become a bane in the sunnier, and warmer vineyards of Australia. Clone 114, Matt noted, gets early rachis lignification, which can be advantageous if you're set on using stems in the ferment.

A discussion of terroir ensued. The trials in front of us backed-up Matt’s assertion that ‘man’ is very proactive in developing particular wine styles, but he also claimed that there is also an overarching ‘Macedon’ character that is directly attributable to the regions soils and climate.

Reflecting on Burgundy, the point was made that 2000 years of unbroken production has woven ways of doing and thinking into the regional consciousness. Medieval sentiments that made man an observer of God's creation are still encountered in a meek self-image that habitually looks beyond itself for explanations of style and character. Moreover, vinicultural activities become ‘second nature’ by virtue of their repetition, hiding in plain sight. 'Terroir' has the unfortunate knack of closing down conversations in Burgundy.

The Cote d'Or's geology is complicated. The availability of water and the rate of its extraction varies significantly from one vineyard to the next. To complicate matters further, the divergent hydrology is augmented by Pinot’s own anisohydric profligacy, eventually playing out as differences in berry size, ripening rate and vine nutritional status.

Matt pointed out that Australians have become experts in water management. Evapotranspiration rates are significantly higher in the Macedon Ranges than Burgundy, and dry farming can be a hollow boast if the momentum of ripening is stalled through lack of water. The soils at Curly Flat are fertile; a slow feed of water soluble nutrients is essential for vine health and fruit quality, but this needs to be achieved without causing the shoots to bolt.

Flight 2. New oak vs Neutral oak:

Australians might be good at water management, but, according to Matt, they’ve become over adept at oak extraction. A comparison between two pairs of samples drawn from 2012 and 2013 - new oak vs neutral oak - supported Matt's contention. The finish on both unoaked versions was more expressive and expansive than that of their new oak twin. Consequently, the final assemblage reflects a more cultured attitude towards oak use, with only a quarter of the final blend seeing new barrels. The additional oak tannin helps fix colour and raise the redox potential of the wine.

A more general discussion of tannin followed, with Matt stating that the quality of Burgundy tannin is something Australian pinot producers should aspire towards.

The point was made that Burgundy displays huge variations in quality. In order to hold the region up as an exemplar we need to first drain the swamp of bad wine. Every great bottle of Burgundy has its shadow. Notwithstanding this, the panel discussed factors that may positively impact tannin quality in Burgundy’s best wines.

One idea put forward is that there may be a latitudinal forcing of dormancy within the vine. Burgundy’s continental climate and high latitude may encourage lignification, the vine responding positively to rapidly falling light levels and temperatures through September.

A second suggestion is that wine aggregates the season-long influence of vine vigour, leaf number and leaf age. Dr Belinda Kemp has suggested that the quality of tannin is often masked and negatively reinforced by other ‘green’ characters sourced from the leaves and transported to the fruit. At harvest, Burgundy’s attenuated canopies are hedged to a few senescing primary leaves and even fewer laterals. Maybe a combination of low vigour and zealous tipping and topping literally cuts off this masking problem at source.

Flight 3. Destemmed vs Stems:

As with flight 2, two wines each form 2012 and 2013, one destemmed, the other whole cluster.

The difference within the pairs was pronounced. Either of the 2012 samples could have been bottled in its own right. A pleasant and intense citrus oil character was drawn from the stems in 2012, bridging the gap between mid-palate fruit and acidity in the finish.

The 2013 whole cluster experiment was less conclusive. There was some eucalypt-taint present, particularly exaggerated in the stem sample. Matt explained that eucalyptus is particularly pernicious as it is perceptible at very low concentrations. Just a few trapped leaves within the clusters can have a very detrimental effect on the whole vintage.

Returning to the theme of style and extraction, Matt said that he had been experimenting with carbonic maceration. He likes some of the carbonically-derived fruit characteristics, but finds the stems more problematic. His solution is to run with carbonic maceration for a few days, and then push the active ferment through the destemmer.

Flight 4. 2017 Barrel samples:

Only two samples in this flight: one wild ferment, the other inoculated.

Within the room there was a preference for the texture of the wild ferment over the cultured yeast. More interestingly, after 6 months in barrel, these samples seemed simple in the context of the bottled wines we'd just tasted, illustrating how important the inward dynamic of redox potential is to the finished wines. Again, this shows a stylistic shift in technique and thinking. In the past, Australians were quite content to layer flavours one on top of another, with barrels adding a finishing polish to the primary fruit. By contrast, at Curley Flat barrel-ageing is employed much more generatively, increased tannin load being valued for the role it plays in a chain of redox reactions that build intensity and definition within the wines over time.

Flight 5. Finished wines:

Four vintages were shown – 2010, 2012, 2013, and 2014.

As said, there is a lozenge-like smoothness to the finished wines. The attack - not the right expression - is supple; there’s a mid-palate swell to the fruit; and the acidity is naturally high. When everything is in the right proportion the chain of advantageous redox reactions set in motion during elevage isn't broken by bottling.

So often New World Pinot ages inauspiciously. There’s little development, just a sluggish leaching away of character, like the colour slowly draining out of an old photo. Claiming an expensive wine will age is indispensable to its positioning, but it's often no more than an extended warranty that comes from driving a few extra nails into the body of a wine.

Judging by 2010 and 2012, Curly Flat is that rare thing: an Australian Pinot that, over a decade or so, can reassemble its elements into a more flattering form. 2012 Curly Flat really is a magnificent wine, with 2010 not far behind.

This was an excellent event, well-attended and well-organised. A big thank you is due to Jenifer, Miles and Matt for their generosity and time, and to Sally Easton MW for her help in organising the event. 

John Atkinson MW (review taken from John's website www.angleterroir.blogspot.co.uk)
16 October 2017