In his first vintage for Tasmanian Vintners, and a first release from a new wine business, Liam McElhinney blitzed the 2021 Australian Pinot Noir Challenge.
Liam McElhinney can’t quite believe it. “When you enter a wine you really love into a competition you hope it might win a gold medal,” says the New Zealand-born winemaker.
“But to come away with the top trophy at the Australian Pinot Noir Challenge – it’s a bit surreal. I’m dumbstruck.”
He’s not the only one. The judges were just as surprised when they found out the identities of the pinot noirs they’d tasted at the challenge. The top wine, the 2020 Ossa Pinot Noir, is the first release from a new wine business, made by McElhinney during his first vintage as chief winemaker at Tasmanian Vintners.
“I moved to Tassie from New Zealand just before vintage 2020 to take up the role,” says McElhinney. “And then COVID hit. Luckily, there was a phenomenal team at Tasmanian Vintners, who took this hairy-faced Kiwi and all the challenges of COVID restrictions in their stride and made it work.”
Tasmanian Vintners is a custom winemaking facility at Cambridge, outside Hobart. The business, formerly known as Winemaking Tasmania, was bought in 2019 by agricultural businessman Rod Roberts and Peter Fogarty of the West Australian-based Fogarty Wine Group, which owns a number of high-profile wineries across the country including Deep Woods in Margaret River, Lake’s Folly in the Hunter Valley and Dalwhinnie in the Pyrenees.
As well as making wine for a number of external vineyard clients, McElhinney and the team at Tasmanian Vintners produce a growing portfolio of wines for the Fogarty group – such as chardonnay and pinot from Lowestoft, a vineyard and historic homestead opposite Mona on the banks of the Derwent that Fogarty bought in 2020 – and Ossa, the new brand owned by Roberts, a ﬁfth-generation Tasmanian, and his Swiss wife, Cecile.
The couple planted a 20-hectare vineyard three years ago at their off-grid farming property Belbrook, on Tasmania’s east coast. Ultimately, this site will drive the Ossa brand, but for their inaugural pinot noir, McElhinney sourced the best grapes he could from the Derwent Valley, Coal River and the result, says the Australian Pinot Noir Challenge chairman of judges, David Bicknell, is “electric”.
“It just looked different to all the other pinots we tasted,” he says. “It had it all going on. Tasmania was the standout region among the 2020 vintage wines we tasted, and this was the standout wine from Tasmania.”
The Australian Pinot NAustralian Pinot NAustralian Pinot NAustralian Pinot NAustralian Pinot Noir Challengeoir Challengeoir Challengeoir Challengeoir Challenge is an initiative of the Mornington Peninsula Vignerons Association and is open to pinot producers from across the country. Now in its fourth year, the 2021 challenge assessed 227 wines in regional groups.
Bicknell, who makes excellent pinot at Oakridge winery in the Yarra Valley, oversaw a team of top judges including Tom Carson from Yabby Lake on the Mornington Peninsula, Marcus Satchell from Dirty Three in Gippsland and Matt Harrop from Curly Flat in the Macedon Ranges, all great pinot makers in their own right.
In another ﬁrst for the challenge, this year a trophy was awarded for the best pinot from Western Australia – a state not perhaps as renowned for making great examples of the grape as Victoria or Tasmania.
“I wasn’t surprised that Western Australia did well this year,” says Bicknell. “There have been good vineyards there for a while, and with pinot, the plants need time to achieve their full potential. Also, they didn’t have the same issues – with smoke, for example – that some of us did over east in 2020, so we got more entries.”
Bicknell says the impact of the unforgettable 2020 vintage could be felt in other areas of the challenge: fewer entries from the bushﬁre-ravaged Adelaide Hills, for example (no South Australian trophy was awarded this year); lighter, more ethereal qualities in the Yarra and Mornington wines, thanks to the cool end to the season; and the low yields in Tasmania’s vineyards, which gave the wines the extra fruit density that really impressed the judges.
The winemakers made a contribution, too, of course: of the ﬁve Tasmanian gold-medal winners in the challenge, four – including the Ossa – were produced by Liam McElhinney and his team.
It’s an impressive Australian debut for the Kiwi expat. And the accolades are a reward for the extra challenge that 2020 threw at him. His partner and young children were due to follow him to Tasmania after vintage in 2020, but after COVID-19 hit and Australia and New Zealand shut their borders, the family weren’t reunited for eight months.
“I’m still scratching my head over how we made it all work,” he says. “But I’m glad we did.”
Max Allen is working with the Mornington Peninsula Vignerons Association to help develop and host the Pinot Noir Celebration, a major tasting event scheduled to take place in 2023.
The Australian Pinot Noir Challenge trophy winner 2021
2020 Ossa Pinot Noir [Tasmania]
From its ﬂashes of bright scarlet and its beautiful perfume of prickly little red berries, ﬂowers and spice, to its pretty, ﬁnely structured, silky dance across the palate, it’s easy to see how this wine charmed the judges – not with power but with gentle persuasion. Due for release in mid-December, along with a 2020 chardonnay, a 2016 sparkling and a 2021 gruner veltliner (the ﬁrst wine from the Roberts’ Belbrook vineyard).