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Maestros of Pinot, Tom Carson

by Tom Cannavan, 10/05

Tom has since left Yering Station to make the wines at Yabby Lake.

With a history that pre-dates the famous Médoc classification of 1855, the vineyards of Yering Station are amongst the oldest in Australia. Yering Station's first wines appeared in 1845, made from the long forgotten Black Cluster and Sweetwater grape varieties. By the 1860s, just after the Médoc classification, over 50 acres were under vine, new plantings were with noble varieties brought from France, and the cellars had been furnished with state of the art equipment imported form Bordeaux.

The Rathbone family acquired Yering Station in the mid 1990s, and have set about a programme of extending the vineyards, which now cover 272 acres. The modern-day Yering Station winery is part of a luxurious and spectacular complex that includes an award-winning country house hotel called Chateau Yering, a fine dining restaurant and a more casual café.
 

Yering is family-owned, though the family has a partner in the shape of the Champagne house of Devaux. The winery lies in the heart of the Yarra Valley, in the state of Victoria, about one hour's drive east of Melbourne. A cool climate area (cooler on average than Bordeaux), varieties like Pinot Noir and Chardonnay thrive here, though Rhône varieties, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot can produce excellent results.


   Winemaker at Yering Station since 1996 is 37 year-old Tom Carson (left), who has included a two-year stint in Burgundy in his career so far, as well as time at Tim Knappstein wines and Domaine Chandon.

In 2004, Tom rose to real fame within the industry by scooping not one, or two, but three of the most important awards at the International Wine and Spirit Competition in London. Staggering off the stage, he was laden with the trophies for Pinot Noir of the Year, Australian Winery of the Year, and Winemaker of the Year.

The Australian wine scene is dominated by 'shows': wine competitions akin to agricultural shows, where the wines of a region or style are pitted against each other.

I asked Tom if winning this clutch of awards had real significance for the team in Victoria. "The trophies had a massive impact back here for all at Yering Station," he told me. "The prestige of the competition and the range and scope of the entrants means this show is seen with the greatest respect. In Australia we do have a lot of wine shows that range in importance and credibility, but in London the two main shows carry great weight in the UK market and abroad. The IWSC being the oldest and most independent has more impact."

A genuine modesty is betrayed as Tom continues, by his use of the first-person plural: "The fact we won the International Winemaker of the Year is still hard to believe. Yering is a relatively small winery and it seems from previous results this award is usually reserved for much larger companies. The fact that we entered six wines and won three golds is still sinking in!"

Given his years in Burgundy, and a self-confessed passion for the grape, I asked if the Pinot Noir Trophy has a special poignancy for him. "In fact, that's the second time we have won the Pinot trophy, so we were all exceptionally pleased that our winery is showing consistency. Burgundy is the home of Pinot Noir and it is certainly the benchmark in terms of understanding the complexity and expression of the variety. We are not trying to make Burgundy look-alikes, but to understand how to best express the attributes of Pinot Noir from our sites. Burgundy has the ability to able to express subtle differences in soil, slope, aspect, (terroir) and articulate that in the bottle for all to taste."

Great Pinot Noir is a sensuous wine experience. As Master of Wine Jancis Robinson once said, "If red Bordeaux's appeal is strictly above the neck, that of red Burgundy is something completely different..." I asked Tom whether making prize-winning Australian Pinot was a product of the head or the heart.

"Drinking Burgundy is the best way to understand the complexities Pinot Noir, so it is the benchmark to which we aspire. We make the wine as simply as possible with small batch open fermenters and variety of winemaking techniques - addition of whole bunches, cold soak, barrel ferment - but the techniques are just an attempt to preserve the potential quality we have achieved in the vineyard." When pressed for his favourite Pinots, Tom cites Domaine Armand Rousseau, "Subtlety and balance that truly reflects their terroir."
 

Tom also acknowledges the huge potential in Central Otago, New Zealand. "They have beautiful purity of fruit, they just need some older vines to really make some earth-shatteringly great wines."

Despite the 'Sideways effect' that has launched Pinot Noir into the stratosphere in the USA, in the UK the casual wine drinker still has much less exposure to the grape, which is almost invariably confined to slightly more expensive wines. Tom says the situation in Australia is not so different. "Pinot Noir is well regarded by the drinking public, although most good Pinot is sold in fine wine shops and restaurants. It not a variety that has a huge presence in discount shops, as to make a good Pinot requires the right area and more expensive winemaking inputs. There is not a lot of good cheap Pinot around, unlike Shiraz, so at the bottom end of the market the wines are often simple and light, and the question often asked by the consumer is 'why bother?' It is a variety and wine that has more of a niche acceptance."

With the Yering Station mantelpiece groaning under the weight of last year's trophies, I asked Tom what the future held for the winery, and what personal development plan he had in place to maintain their high standards. "For Yering Station our goal is to be regarded as a top producer making consistently great wines at whatever price point. I always take the approach that each vintage is an opportunity to make all of our wines better than they have been before. Each year we are trying to find the balance in the vineyard and winery to react to that season's conditions. The balance and intensity of the tannins, acids and fruit flavour must all come together to produce the vinosity of the wine; the completeness of smell, taste, texture, flavour and finish."

And given his Winemaker of the Year award, is there room for improvement still? "I intend to continue to improve, to learn and to understand how to make better wine. I also intend to taste as much great wine as is possible, which is one of life's ongoing challenges!"

Yering Station wines

Yering Station 'Frog' Chardonnay 2003
There is a nice sense of restraint here, with a creamy, quite honeyed edge of nutty, toffee notes and a ripe, sweet pear fruit. The palate has a racy elegance, with plenty of crisp, focused white fruit and a fine core of acidity that has a luscious quality, but clean, limpid acidity that plays against spice and gentle toffee in the finish. £6.99, Majestic.

Yering Station M.V.R 2004
'M.V.R' indicates Marsanne, Viognier and Roussanne, which come together in this powerful and aromatic Rhône-style blend. It has lovely perfume, with a little floral lift to crisp, Asian pear and a waxy lime and kaffir lime leaf quality. On the palate it is racy and vivacious, though with a mouthfilling texture of rich pear and apple skin fruit, and a dazzling core of grapefruity acidity that keeps it lean and savoury. From £9.99, Majestic, Philglass & Swiggot, Totnes Wine Co.

Yering Station Pinot Noir Rosé 'Extra Dry' 2004
The Pinot Noir Rosé really is a beauty, and much more akin to a lighter style fully-fledged Pinot Noir from Alsace or the Loire Valley than most rosé styles. It has a deep, cherry red colour and fabulous, berry-laden nose. Ageing in French oak barriques adds a delicate smokiness and spicy warmth, with real Pinot character on the palate: a fine truffle and damp earth nuance to sweet strawberry fruit, all wrapped in that sheen of well-judged oak and with a fine core of acidity that shimmers through the finish. £9.99, Majestic.

Yering Station Pinot Noir 2002
This wine has a light, ruby red colour and a nose with lovely delicacy of cherry, liquorice and raspberry fruit, and fine rose hip notes with a touch of sweet cedarwood. On the palate there is a lovely balance between full, ripe, quite lush chocolate-tinged berry fruit and that keen, savoury edge of cherry skin and redcurrant, all supported by a toasty, tobacco oak. The mouthfeel is silky and full, and this really persists on the palate. From £9.99, Majestic, Oz Wines, Tanners.

Tom Carson's Desert Island

Dream wines? Domaine De La Romanée-Conti 1978 and Dom Perignon 1996.

Best wine memory? Mount Pleasant Light Dry Red 1943 and Domaine De La Romanée-Conti La Tache 1942 and 1966, opened by James Halliday.

What you'd eat with your top Pinot? Duck; Peking, roasted or confit.

Perfect companions? My two beautiful daughters, Alix (6½) and Tara (2½).

You have time to plan an alternative career: Getting paid to play golf and fly around the world playing at the best courses.