When the fourth edition of an event, like the previous three, is a sell out and there’s probably a sizeable waiting list too, such event is surely considered a winner by the organisers. The reality is even a winner needs change and evolution to keep the momentum going.
During last weekend’s Hemel-en-Aarde Pinot Noir Celebration a general theme was how greater vine age is needed to clearly reflect the sense of place in each producer’s wine. There has been ongoing planting and re-planting in the valley since the first, old, Swiss BK5 clone, was established in the 1970s. The current clonal mix allows for much purer and more interesting expression of pinot from bottom to top of the valley, but the vines are young; I noted 2006 and 2009 as planting dates for two of the 2015 pinots tasted, the vintage focused on this year. Each new vintage also brings greater understanding as well as a new challenge to viticulturists and winemakers; to expect an recognisable winery fingerprint is still unrealistic. Anyway, with the same line up on another occasions, opinions would likely change.
Let’s take that fingerprint up a notch or two to those sub-divisions or Wards: Hemel-en-Aarde Valley, Upper Hemel-en-Aarde Valley and Hemel-en-Aarde Ridge, the bottom to top of the valley order in which the three flights were poured. This is another sore spot, which was re-opened in discussion, when guest speaker, James Dicey, viticulturist at his family’s winery Mt Difficulty in Bannockburn, Central Otago, New Zealand (but born in Worcester, Cape) urged wineries to think big, ie promote Hemel-en-Aarde as a whole, or specific sites. He, Michael Fridjhon among others believe there’s too little similarity within each Ward to highlight them.
The valley does indeed have many different altitudes, aspects, slopes and soils; choice of each affects the final wine. Newton Johnson, La Vierge and Storm have already explored individual sites. Hannes Storm’s three wines, Vrede, Ignis (from granite soils got my vote as most interesting) and Ridge, originate from different slopes, aspects and elevations. These and Hamilton Russell Vineyards impressed me most on the day. Another day, other favourites and views on the level of distinction between each Ward.
I was a little underwhelmed by the lineup, given the vintage, many of the 2015s do need and will benefit from age, so don’t be in a hurry to open them. I often wonder why pinot noir is released younger than many other red varieties; HRV is already on 2016 (economic reasons and demand?). Thankfully, La Vierge is on a more serene 2013.
In his introduction, Michael Fridjhon noted that back in the 1970s, pinot was viewed as an arcane, inaccessible variety. I’d argue it’s still a bit arcane, partly due to limited production (2015 figures show of Hemel-en-Aarde’s nearly 400ha, pinot accounts for around 100ha) and that proper pinot is the antithesis of the densely-hued, big, oaky, tannic, sweet reds that many consumers prefer.
How is the audience to be broadened, when attendance at this Pinot Celebration is limited, many of the same people attending every year? ‘How do I get on the list?’ friends have asked me. A dilemma the organisers need to address.
The format too has changed little; a tasting of the valley’s pinots, always two years’ old (surely older vintages should now be presented to show how the wines do age); a guest international speaker involved with pinot; this year, viticulturist James Dicey, (why was he urged by the organisers to ‘be controversial’ he spoke sincerely?), who presented his family’s intense, expressive, single site Mt Difficulty range as well as his own Ceres (Central Otago) pinot, followed the next day by individual wineries hosting a variety of tastings, usually of international pinots (plenty of competition between them on that score). Of course, there’s good food and socialising in the mix too.
This format might not pall for the 150 odd who do regularly attend but in the end you’re preaching to the converted. Having invited a viticulturist this year, did it occur to anyone that visiting vineyards and tasting the wine from them in situ could be of interest to some (my hand’s up), especially with Dicey’s emphasis on site? Alright, it rained, but something to think about for 2018.
As the local pinot celebration drew to a close, Pinot Noir NZ 2017 was about to kick off in Wellington, with ‘600 of the most influential wine writers, industry experts and imbibers from twenty countries ..’ including Jancis Robinson, Jamie Goode, Roger Jones, Michel-star chef, writer and good friend of South African wine, among many others. It’s a four-yearly sell-out event. Central Otago holds its own pinot festival every two years, something Hemel-en-Aarde should think about to prevent it suffering the fate of the Swartland Revolution.
‘Think big’; a South African pinot celebration, held every three or four years, might not have been what Michael Fridjhon and James Dicey had in mind when they urged us all to do that, but good pinot is now being made far beyond the borders of Hemel-en-Aarde; think Franschhoek, Stellenbosch, Southern Coast, Robertson and Elgin. A greater number of winelovers than those able to get on the Hemel-en-Aarde Celebration list should be given the opportunity to appreciate a wine which, at its best beguiles rather than slays the palate. Who knows, maybe it could help producers realise higher prices for their pinots.
Pinot noir has come sufficiently of age in South Africa for it no longer to be regarded as a sideline variety to the big daddies, cabernet and syrah.
Over to you, Hemel-en-Aarde and all other pinot producers.