Let’s accept it, pinot noir is niche. Starting with 1176 hectares planted throughout the Cape, much of which is channeled into Méthode Cap Classique. The fruit destined for red table wine is shared between roughly 130 producers; it’s easy to see quantities are of necessity limited. Many vines are also still young.
The variety was introduced to South Africa in the 1920s. More general interest grew in the 1980s with early examples from Hamilton Russell Vineyards 1981 and Meerlust 1980; both were made from BK5, a Swiss clone better suited to bubbly than red table wine. It was only during the 1990s that dedicated red wine clones from Burgundy were introduced. Paul Cluver Wines in Elgin was one of the first to plant these in the mid-1990s. But as cellarmaster, Andries Burger revealed at Winemag’s Pinot Noir Report awards (where his Paul Cluver Pinot Noir 2017 was among the top ‘Magnificent Seven’ as the winners were dubbed), that vineyard is about to be uprooted due to virus; that’s 23 years growth gone. According to other Elgin producers present, many pinot vineyards were planted only from 2005 onwards. Sure, there’s better vine material now, but, as the rest of the awardees confirmed, nothing can beat mature vines.
Let’s accept that pinot noir is a tricky customer in both the vineyard and cellar. It prefers a cooler climate, is very vintage sensitive and requires specific vinification to give of its best. Whereas producers can get away with an ordinary cabernet or shiraz, this doesn’t work with pinot. It should be no surprise that many of the top pinot producers are, in the main, pinot specialists with several, sometimes many years of experience. If, in the early years, pinot often came out looking more like cabernet – dense in colour, highly extracted and overly ripe and probably too much new oak as well – now, most sit confidently without disguise; ‘They show more purity than five or 10 years ago,’ Andries Burger confirms. There’s also suppleness with weight, freshness with structure.
Let’s also accept pinot noir doesn’t come cheap. The overall winner, De Grendel Op Die Berg 2017 is a reasonable R200; Creation Emma’s 2017, a statement R905. The rest of the top seven hover between R200 and R345. Giving context to pinot prices, Winemag’s editor, Christian Eedes revealed the average price for all the wines scoring 90-plus was R361; this compares with R286 for cabernet and R230 for shiraz. It may be more than the price which deters many winelovers from buying South African pinot; Burgundy, as the variety’s benchmark, is stratospherically priced and difficult to come by. Again, poor examples, of which I’ve had a few, do neither grape nor region any favours.
But let’s not accept that South African pinot is a lost cause. Far from it. Firstly, it fits so well into the current – and hopefully, long-term – trend for lighter, fresher red wines, of which grenache and cinsaut are also exponents. These latter two have captured winelovers’ imagination, so why not pinot. I was more than pleasantly surprised by all seven winners; there wasn’t one I didn’t enjoy, from the light-footed Lothian, Shannon’s broad, mouthfilling flavours of black and red berries to the dark-hued De Grendel, spicy and full-bodied yet with no dulling heaviness. Could one have enjoyed as much a one or two-year old cabernet or even shiraz? As can be seen from the full results, 35 entries were received from 24 producers; many of the recognised pinot producers weren’t represented but no longer is quality limited to a few, the talent is spreading as are the areas producing quality pinot, though all enjoy an element of coolness.
Now it requires sommeliers to assist the cause. Pinot, in all its iterations, is a food wine par excellence. Fish, from hake to tuna; poultry and game – duck can be a marriage made in heaven – to red meat; there are pinots begging to be enjoyed with each and all of these.
Let’s accept pinot noir is niche but very nice.