Making good pinot is like reaching for the stars!

Brian Schmidt

This interview is one that I will remember forever – talking to Australia’s 2011 Nobel physics prize winner about his passion for making pinot noir. Professor Brian Schmidt is not only highly accomplished and respected in his field of astronomy but he also has many qualities that I admire – pragmatism, tenacity, energy, enthusiasm, and enquiring mind and a healthy level of humility. As his friend Tim Kirk, the Clonakilla winemaker states:

“Brian is a genius scientist. It means he’s got an inquiring mind, but he hasn’t got a closed mind.” (‘Restless Experimenter’, Canberra Times, 6 April 2011)

He is also a self-professed perfectionist – making his experiences with the notoriously fickle pinot noir grape an interesting juxtaposition – interesting to all concerned – as Brian says, “The Swedish academy asked me about 2011 vintage when they told me about my Nobel prize – that kinda floored me!”

This article focuses on Brian’s wine and his love for pinot. For anyone who wants to know more about his scientific achievements and theories, there are endless articles available. In layman’s terms, the Nobel prize was to recognise his findings that in the last 6 billion years since the Big Bang 13.7 billion years ago, the universe has been accelerating in its expansion. In his words,

“Space is made up of more than three dimensions, it’s made up of at least four. And that fourth dimension is related to time, so when I say the universe is expanding, it’s really expanding into the future. That’s what’s so difficult for people to get their head around, including myself.” (‘Restless Experimenter’, Canberra Times, 6 April 2011)

Not only that but the pace of expansion is accelerating, with galaxies “racing away from each other at ever-increasing speeds”.

I have enough difficulty getting my head around wine! Deep breath – pinot time…

A suitable wine with which to celebrate!
I asked Brian – which wine does a Nobel prize winner celebrate this milestone with?

“I went into the cellar and I pulled out a 1990 Château Montrose, Bordeaux. Why did I choose that – well it was the first wine I bought back in graduate school.”

It was also the first expensive wine he ever purchased, something all of us wine lovers would remember. Clearly his interest in wine has always been there. I was interested to see that the 1970 Château Montrose, from the Médoc region, placed third out of the 10 French and Californian red wines at the infamous 1976 Judgment of Paris wine competition (as featured in the movie ‘Bottleshock’).

Cosmic Pinot!
With the Twitter name @cosmicpinot (bit of a clue there…), clearly Brain’s passion leans towards pinot noir, an intriguing, fickle and ultimately rewarding variety that can never be totally conquered. He says:

“I know I’ll never conquer it, there is no way to conquer pinot. Even the best pinots I’ve had in Australia – I’ll have a great one and the next year it’s like ‘ah it’s OK.’”

Canberra’s winemaking fraternity
I asked – where did you learn your winemaking skills? “I mainly learned on the fly. I did a vintage in 2001 at Lark Hill” – Lark Hill are pinot noir specialists, and Brian worked with David Carpenter, who has a PhD in physics.

“We’re a very academic group here in Canberra, plenty of winemakers here have PhDs.”

Brian chose the hands-on approach to learning the winemaking skills, and applied his methodical and thorough mind to reading a lot of books on the subject. Being a scientist is a seriously solid basis for any winemaker. It was more the specifics he needed to pick up, and this he learned by doing.

“I have certainly made my fair share of mistakes”… “Yes, pinot noir is the perfect wine for people who are not afraid of failing”

She’ll be right!
In true Aussie style, this pinot fan’s own wine label has the name Maipenrai – Thai for ‘she’ll be right’, the name given to their property by the previous owners. What a great (and somewhat ironic) name for a pinot label!

I want to know what this wine is like:

“Canberra is a continental cool climate. It has the full spectrum of flavours depending on the year.” Describing the Maipenrai wines: “2008 aromatic briary; 2009 very rich, quite a bit of structure; 2010 between the 2008 and 2009; 2011 very light and fruity.

“Unlike most wine regions in the rest of Australia we are not affected by maritime, we are cool and inland. In that sense we are not dissimilar to Burgundy. Every vintage in Burgundy is a little different to every other one and we are in the same boat. That’s kind of interesting but also challenging.”

Brian does not fine or filter his wine and relies entirely on natural yeasts. He and his family undertake every stage of the winemaking themselves, although he gets a team in to help with pruning, as he just doesn’t get the time to do this around his day job.

The Maipenrai style? He describes the Maipenrai pinot as having fruit flavours of cherry and plum, with complex savoury characters, such as briary and forest floor.

“I’m trying to make pinot noir with a bit of substance, not just primary fruit, some interest in terms of savouriness, complex gaminess, not just strawberries and intense fruit.”

Would you consider growing whites?
“Riesling is very popular in the area and we seem to have a lot of success here with riesling. In my case I am a full-time astronomer and so I wanted to concentrate on one thing and I wanted to do it as best I could and I personally find the red winemaking more interesting and challenging, whereas most types of white winemaking is pretty clinical, relatively speaking.

“As in Burgundy where you don’t usually find the little Burgundy guys doing a red and a white, they usually focus on a red or white.”

In my research I saw that the Maipenrai pinot had sold out this year “We were down to our last few cases before the announcement of Maipenrai’s Brian Schmidt winning the Nobel Prize, and what remained has literally gone in 60 seconds.” (Source:

So where can a pinotphile like myself find a bottle?
“I sell to local restaurants, I have exported it in the past to the US, but with the US dollar where it is and quite frankly when you are my size, the costs of exporting it are huge and it doesn’t make it worthwhile. So mostly local restaurants and mail orders.

“I have a Burgundy-sized operation, I make 250 cases a year, so it is pretty scarce. I like that though because one part of the winemaking that I misjudged – I understand the time it takes to grow grapes, make wine, but marketing is the part I grossly under-estimated.

Just like the wine itself, wine marketing is a moving feast anyway isn’t it?

“Yes! It’s a challenge – but I have done pretty well in the past year and a bit and the wine has gotten good reviews so even before the Nobel prize we managed to more or less sell out on its own so that was great.”

Reviews have been published in the magazine Winewise; by Canberra Times wine reviewer Chris Shanahan; and by wine critics James Halliday and Nick Stock.

Brian’s pinot picks
What would be your picks of Australian pinot?

“Like anything it varies a lot, it’s a movable feast. I’ve had great bottles of pinot from a variety of places. If I had to pick a single wine that’s really knocked my socks off, I’d pick 2006 Curly Flat pinot from the Macedon Ranges. It’s a wine that has structure. I really like that style, it is the style I am trying to do here and their climate there is not dissimilar, it’s more continental. That’s what I’m after. There’s a lot of people who love the Mornington Peninsula style and there are some there that I am quite fond of but they have less structure and I prefer the more continental type that’s where I live and I guess that would be my favourites.”

What do you think of the New Zealand pinots?
“Some of them I’ve had I am very fond of – the right Felton Roads are magnificent. Having been to that area, Central Otago, it is not dissimilar in climate to what we have here in Canberra. It is continental, it’s cool, their soils are a lot more fertile than here , the basic ideas of what they are trying to do are similar. I do like some of the Central Otago ones, they really are my style, as long as they are not too rhubarby.

“At Gibbston Valley I know the winemaker, Grant Taylor, who now makes Valli, they make some good ones. The actual Gibbston Valley is very cool so I find those less ripe. Those down in Bannockburn are very ripe – I would say Bannockburn is a warmer grape-growing region then we are, plus they have this very fertile soil, so it makes a very nice compelling wine and I do like the best examples of these.

“I like a Burgundy style. The Burgundies have structure and finesse. Pure fruit is good, but you need the structure. You wouldn’t be drinking a 2010 Burgundy right now but you wouldn’t think twice about drinking a 2010 Martinborough or 2010 Mornington Peninsula.”

Brian has visited the region and knows the intricacies of the style and the French traditions and approaches to making good Burgundy – the style he most covets.

@cosmicpinot is also a foodie!
Brian spent the first part of his childhood in remote mountain country in Montana, and from age 13 lived in Anchorage, Alaska, before doing his PhD at Harvard where he met his Australian wife, and moved to Australia in 1994. He grew up with hunting being part of the way of life – elk in Montana and duck and geese in Alaska. Wild duck was often on the menu after a cold, wet day of hunting, and is interestingly now his number one food match for his top Maipenrai drop.

He learned to cook from the ripe old age of six and has been keen to master some tricky dishes ever since – including croissants, mozzarella and prosciutto. He has his own Beech pizza oven and Rancilio de Silvia coffee machine and has even planted 30 trees to establish his own truffière, to grow truffles for his own consumption.

How on earth do you grow truffles I asked…

“You can purchase truffle-inoculated trees where the people who grow the trees get the truffle fungus growing on the roots of the tree. When you plant it getting the pH right is the most important bit – it has to be up over 8 in your soil and that’s a bit of a challenge here. In time you get them. Canberra has shown itself to be a really good place to grow truffles of high quality and high quantities.”

The obvious final question
So Brian, do you think you will ever conquer pinot or is that half the fun?

“No I know I’ll never conquer it, there is no way to conquer pinot.

“I live in a challenging climate. The climate is probably changing. I may eventually have to move to a warmer variety I don’t know. At this point I don’t want to. It’s too cold for example for shiraz here still. So no you can never conquer pinot and it’s always a challenge. I want to make sure I keep on doing as good as I can and that’s the thrill of it, I know I’ll never get it perfect but I can try to do as good as I can and I like that.”

And so do we!

Thanks so much to Brian for such an enlightening and invigorating chat about a shared love – the mighty pinot noir.

Tigs (@WineSupporter)

Wine review by Chris Shanahan — ‘Lark Hill, Maipenrai Amungula Creek, Balnaves, Majella and Peter Lehmann’, posted on 17 August 2011.
Canberra Times, ‘Restless Experimenter’, 6 April 2011, by Kirsten Lawson.

About tigchandler

English-born, lived several years in Wellington, NZ, then in Adelaide, South Australia, and recently moved back to New Zealand. With an economics background, I have worked in researching wine consumption patterns, marketing, economics and social media at the University of Adelaide. I also worked a vintage and in wineries in McLaren Vale so have seen both the research/analytical side of the industry and the practical/hands-on side. I have retail experience and many ongoing industry links all around Australia and overseas. This blog reflects my ongoing passion for everything related to the wine industry.
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