Poor pinot – a no-no

Many red varieties can get away with offering nothing more than decent red wine in your glass. Not pinot noir.

This isn’t the first time (nor the last) I and others vent such a view.

Shiraz, cabernet, grenache, pinotage: I’ve enjoyed many less than stellar wines from these varieties but a poor pinot is plain unpleasant.

After attending The Vineyard Hotel’s Pinot Noir Festival last Sunday, I also wonder how popular pinot is; there didn’t seem to be nearly as many winelovers as had attended Wine Concepts Chenin and Pinotage Celebration a few weeks before. Too different from other red varieties; too many poor examples; limited quantity of top wines; cost – what is it about pinot that fails to capture wider appreciation?  I know the Hemel-en-Aarde Pinot Noir Celebration sells out in the blink of an eye, but that is limited to around 150 winelovers or should I say pinot aficionados; if pinot flows through the veins of some, for others, there are the other reds.

There was little to dissuade me from my opening views about pinot on Sunday. Even though only 20 of the well over 100 producers were represented, they came from many areas with top wineries such as Hamilton Russell Vineyards, Newton Johnson and Paul Cluver present.

Ryan Mostert of Terracura recently noted about a Burgundy he tasted while in the area that it had; ‘weightlessness with wild power’. I’m not sure about the wild bit in all pinots but certainly the best at the festival gave a sense of weightlessness and power. Perfume too: is it a characteristic of 2016, I wonder? Certainly both Hamilton Russell and Newton Johnson Family Vineyards are aromatically beguiling, if tighter and less voluptuous than 2015. The latter showed extremely well considering it had only recently been bottled; the consistency the Newton Johnson’s have maintained since the maiden 2008 is amazing and with greater vine age comes greater complexity in the wine. Emul Ross’s first two vintages at HRV are also noteworthy; the pinots seem to have a new energy to them. Now that Kevin Grant has finally decided he’s sufficiently satisfied with his pinot to ‘classify’ it under the Ataraxia label, his Hemel en Aarde Ridge 2015 adds to the positive reputation of the valley as a whole. It has a generosity of ripe dark fruit with a hint of forest floor complexity, a well-integrated freshness and a blessedly dry finish. Sweetness, evident in too many, is a clumsy extra.

These and a few others on show highlighted just how well Hemel en Aarde producers are doing with pinot. That’s not to neglect Elgin, which does have an individual thumbprint, perhaps summed up by a cool freshness of feel, some wines capturing greater fruit richness than others. Paul Cluver, Iona and Shannon (the last made by Gordon and Nadia Newton Johnson and not on the festival) most consistently reflect the region, but chardonnay’s your grape, Elgin!

So to Stellenbosch. If I came away from the Pinot Noir Festival wowed by any wine, it was the Meerlust 2016; Chris Williams’ wine has aromatic purity with subtlety, rich yet delicate flesh in an harmonious whole; an absolute delight. Remember the years when this wine was earthy and organic thanks to the then predominant BK5 clone? Newer and better vines as well as earlier harvesting surely now account for such lovely fruit.



Meerlust is not alone; just down the road is Mick and Jeanine Craven’s Faure pinot noir. Their flavoursome 2016 shares Meerlust’s pure pinot perfume and freshness, just in a lighter mode (their alcohols rarely top 13%). It wasn’t on the festival and is probably like hens’ teeth at retailers, but snap up any bottles spotted.

Again, success is due producer rather than exclusively area, and, in pinot’s case, those producers who drink and understand pinot from Burgundy and around the world.


5 thoughts on “Poor pinot – a no-no

  1. IMO, such is clonal variation the name ‘Pinot Noir’ alone on a label gives little indication of what it’ll be like, and since many producers use a blend of clones buying Pinot is akin to buying Bordeaux without knowing its blend.

    1. Peter, just read the Platter entry for Newton Johnson Seadragon Pinot Noir; it’s all to do with the soil. Gordy emphasises the influence of soil more than clone (and the matching of soil to clone). I’m not sure of the soil differences on Meerlust, but I know that since better clones have been introduced they have made a marked difference to the profile of the wine. Before them, there was only BK5, producing that old, organic style.

      1. Hi Angela,

        We’ve recently started a Pinot Noir group with quite a number of producers from all over the Winelands. The idea is to get a better understanding of Pinot Noir in South Africa and learn from each others successes and failures! For the 2017 vintage, we have chosen to do a clonal project. Each participating producer had to use PN115 clone grapes from a single vineyard and make a wine using a set winemaking procedure. We will, later in the year, compare these wines and see how they link to the soil and growing conditions of each vineyard. This should give us an indication of what has a bigger effect on wine style, soil? or clone?, although its probably a combination of many factors that make special Pinot. Even if there is no link, we learn something! I’ll make sure we post the results and hopefully arrange a tasting for interested people!

      2. Thanks, Emul. An interesting project in itself, one you will all learn something from, though in the end I think you’ll find it is ‘a combination of many factors that make special Pinot.’ A tasting would be an excellent idea.

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