Pinot Wars: Giant Steps vs Rippon @ The Flying Winemaker – 21/11/14

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It’s not often one gets to witness a head to head with two of the best New World winemakers of Pinot Noir so Friday night’s extravaganza, expertly organised and hosted by Eddie McDougall at The Flying Winemaker, with Steve Flamsteed from Giant Steps and Nick Mills from Rippon was a real treat.

These two wineries, along with Bill Downie, are without doubt two of my favourite New World Pinot Noir producers. Giant Steps is located in the Yarra Valley, one of Australia’s top cool climate regions, and focuses exclusively on the distinctive expressions of single vineyard sites. Grapes are sourced both from estate and leased vineyards as well as from long-term contracted growers. Meticulous attention in each vineyard with a view to achieving the finest quality is paramount. Minimal intervention in the winery ensures that each wine is a faithful expression of site, vintage and Yarra Valley culture.

Rippon is located on possibly the most picturesque site of any vineyard in the world, on the shores of Lake Wanaka in New Zealand’s Central Otago. Although there are slightly different vineyard zones across the property the soil type is predominantly schist, and it is this, which gives these wines their amazingly unique structure. The vineyard is run according to biodynamic practices with no irrigation so roots dig down very deep into the schist layers in search of water and nutrients. A far cry from many Central Otago Pinots, which I often find a bit too big and jammy, these are full of wonderful complexity, elegance and finesse.

As Nick was fashionably late due to his plane being held up, Steve started proceedings pouring two vintages of the Applejack vineyard, the 2012 and the 2010. Situated in the Upper Yarra Valley, this vineyard is planted on a dramatic north-facing slope of red/brown volcanic soil. The altitude of the vineyard, at 330m, makes for cool growing conditions important for the retention of natural acidity in the grapes.

The Giant Steps Applejack 2012 was pale ruby in colour with fragrant, fruit-forward, red berry and plum aromas combined with floral and herb touches. Medium bodied on the palate with lovely balance between elegant perfumed fruit, fresh acidity and supple, delicate tannins (16.5).

The 2010 had a touch of garnet colour in the rim indicating a bit of age. On the nose slight hints of vegetal notes combined with berry and plum fruit. Fuller on the palate than the 2012, due to a warmer vintage, with more flavour concentration and firmer, riper tannins. A lovely complex finish (17.5).

Some whole bunch fermentation adds perfume and fragrant aromas to the Applejack, along with a touch of carbonic maceration. No fining or filtration, no pumping and no plunging are Steve’s philosophies when making Pinot Noir, treating the variety as gently as possible in order to extract the most gentle of tannins.

Nick arrived just in time for the pouring of his first two wines, the Rippon Pinot Noir 2011 and the Emma’s Block Pinot Noir 2011. The Rippon 2011 had mid-depth ruby colour with perfumed plum fruit on the nose and nice rounded body with juicy acidity and firm, rounded tannins. A very nice wine with great balance (17). It is a blend of fruit from the oldest vines across the estate.

Emma’s Block 2011, named after Nick’s great-great-great grandmother, was paler in colour with plum, spice and herb notes on the nose. More linear than the Rippon with slightly grippy tannins (16.5). The Emma’s Block vineyard is a unique parcel within Rippon, which faces eastward on the lakefront where ancient clay reefs run laterally through fine schist gravels.

Next up were the Gladysdale 2012 and 2010 from Giant Steps. This vineyard is similar in many ways to Applejack, being at high altitude in the Upper Yarra Valley. North-west facing, the soils here are dark-red clay which brings lovely plush fruit to the wines. The 2012 was pale ruby in colour with lovely spice and red berry fruit on the nose. Plush, sweet strawberry fruit on the palate with rounded tannins. Very tasty (17). The 2010 Gladysdale was showing a touch of vegetal and dried fruit development, not as luscious as the 2012, with more alcohol (16.5).

A comparison of two Rippon Tinker's Field vintages was next, the 2011 and the 2008. Tinker's Field is a unique parcel within Rippon, on a gently north-facing slope formed by an ancient ejection of coarse schist gravels. Tinker's Field is home to the oldest vines at Rippon, named after Rippon's visionary founder Rolfe Mills, whose nickname was Tink. The 2011 showed developing savoury notes with a touch of manure and plum fruit. Quite muscular and powerful for a Pinot with high alcohol and spice. A touch dry to finish (16.5). 

The 2008 had some wonderful gamey, mushroom complexity on the nose with plum fruit, liquorice and spice. Soft on the palate with plush, rich fruit concentration and a very long finish. A top class wine (18).

The last pair went head to head, Giants Steps Sexton 2012 vs Rippon 2007. The room was divided as to which they preferred, both styles being so markedly different. The Giant Steps Sexton 2012 was wonderfully scented with tons of perfumed berry fruit on the nose. Medium body, fresh acidity, smooth tannins with a touch of grip, giving a very fine linear, elegant structure, very feminine in style (18). This vineyard, which is north-facing on clay-loam soils, is introducing biodynamic principles to further distinguish the true sense of place in these grapes and the resulting wine.

In contrast the Rippon 2007 was much more masculine and meaty, with plenty of barnyard, manure, savoury character on the nose and a much more serious tannin structure coming from the schist soils. A highly complex wine with a number of years still left to live (18).

Very excitingly, this tasting emphasized the high quality of Pinots coming from the New World, their sheer variation and their ability to truly express their sense of place. Long may it continue!

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