Hemel en Aarde pinot pioneer

A big sadness for me earlier this year was, due to an unfortunate car accident en route, missing the third Hemel en Aarde Pinot Celebration. Both previous years provided a great learning experience (as well as much fun – no wine event is lacking that!); on the first day with the tasting of all the valley’s pinots from the previous vintage, then the international wines during dinner and the various events the following day.

Peter Finlayson chatting about his 37 years in the Hemel en Aarde valley
Peter Finlayson chatting about his 37 years in the Hemel en Aarde valley

I wonder whether Peter Finlayson, the pioneer pinot man in the valley, who made the very first pinot there in 1981, would have imagined such a Celebration taking place some 32 years later? Let alone that Hemel en Aarde has become synonymous with pinot, though other varieties have also proved their quality credentials.

I didn’t ask Finlayson that question at lunch yesterday, during a catch up session with him and a few of his wines. So I give you this quote from an article I wrote in the first issue of Wine magazine in October 1993,: ‘My first vintage, the 1981, at Hamilton Russell was fermenting: I drew a sample to taste and knew immediately this was it!’

Well, that was then and the old Swiss bubbly clone, BK5, which accounted for pretty well all the pinots in those days. Its organic character was liked by some, but today’s pinots, from a more suitable selection of clones, are far more interesting and graceful.

I should also mention at the time of the first HRV pinots, where they were grown had no quota, so they were technically illegal, hence subterfuge names – Grand Vin Noir – and vintages – P4 etc.

Finlayson didn’t have similar immediate affinity with Chardonnay; that came ‘.. after a run of successes with early Hamilton Russell Vineyards – a 1987 tasting to evaluate South African chardonnays, when HRV headed every category.’

But what made pioneer Peter head to the Hemel en Aarde valley in the first place, apart from the invitation from Tim Hamilton Russell to help him set up his recently purchased property? (Finlayson actually arrived in the valley in 1979.)

His confidence in the area, even though it falls within the summer rainfall area, stemmed from a year in Germany; ‘If you can grow grapes there, they can be grown in Hermanus’. His confidence, as pioneer in this un-charted wine territory, has been well-realised over the past 35 years.

It was confirmed 10 years after he arrived in the valley, when he left Hamilton Russell Vineyards to start up his own winery just up the valley. As winner of the 1989 Diner’s Club Award for Pinot Noir, he met with international judge, Paul Bouchard of that family’s negociant business, Bouchard Ainé et fils. Showing his own pioneering spirit, Bouchard went into partnership with Finlayson, making it the first investment by a leading French wine family in the Cape. The first Bouchard-Finlayson wines came from 1991. First too was Finlayson’s high-density planting of pinot at 9000 vines per hectare, ‘Which creates competition between the vines, a smaller and more efficient canopy. It wa a good move,’ he concludes.

What, I wondered would Finlayson say are the major changes in the valley since those early days? ‘All the new investors,’ is his instantaneous response. Over the years, the valley has become a magnet for all serious pinot and chardonnay producers. ‘A unique aspect,’ Finlayson continues, ‘is that every producer has planted every vine with the object of making fine wine.’ This surely has had a positive effect on the swift rise in the quality of the wines and good image of the valley.

But it’s not been without its own controversy; the division into three separate Wards being one issue with the sub-plot of whether the Hemel en Aarde Ridge, the highest of the Wards, should even be regarded as part of the valley.

What’s your view, do you think the three Wards are justified? I challenged Finlayson. ‘The three Wards are an excellent move’. Again no hesitation in his answer and I have to say I support him; I do believe pinot within each Ward does have overall similarities.

BouchardFinlayson TetedeCuveeIn his own Ward of Hemel en Aarde Valley (NB upper case in Valley), Finlayson maintains the pinots enjoy more tannin and a more French classic profile. I agree re tannin. Both grape and oak tannin used to be over done in his pinots but with time has come learning. We enjoyd Bouchard-Finlayson Tête de Cuvée 2009 and 2012 with lunch; 09 in particular is a perfect balance of rich fruit, enlivening natural acid and forming tannins. It’s strange that at .5% lower alcohol, the 12 tastes riper, more luscious but still oak and tannins are judged with an understanding hand.

Missionvale Chardonnay from home-grown fruit has shown good consistency down the years and, judging by the 2005 Finlayson opened, mature very well. Given the less than positive things I’ve had to say about 2005, this nutty, savoury wine was a most enjoyable exception to the rule. The much younger 2013 follows the equally welcome trend of a less oaky, more vibrant profile with a juicy citrus filling. An enjoy- now-or-more-mellow sort of wine. Lovely!

I opened that Wine article written so long ago with the words: Have you ever looked at a winemaker and thought: ‘How well your personality complements your style of wine’?
I concluded then, as I do now that Peter Finlayson, this gentle giant of a man, is much more attuned to the rural, natural environment of both Burgundy and Hemel en Aarde, yet he has the single-mindedness to produce pinots and chardonnays, especially of focus and individuality.

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