The promise of pinot

Camaraderie may be a significant part of Hemel-en-Aarde valley wine producers’ success. When the communal focus is on quality, the philosophy of support your neighbour and reap your own rewards, is self-fulfilling. Welcome confirmation of this came during a recent visit to Hemel-en-Aarde, mainly to further an earlier discussion about pinot noir and climate change in the region.

The variety accounts for 118 ha of the valley’s approximate 350 ha under vine and is grown in all three Wards. This might sound substantial, but vines have to compete with the more profitable apples and other fruit; land isn’t cheap either. Properties that sold for tens of thousands back in the day, would now cost millions. The valley’s producers are also on a mission to circle the land with indigenous vegetation to lessen the effects of fire and conserve water.

The division of this relatively small area into Wards – Hemel-en-Aarde Ridge, Upper Hemel-en-Aarde and Hemel-en-Aarde Valley – occasioned much discussion and disagreement; but, given the goals of quality and distinction, every effort is made to highlight differences. It also keeps the valley’s name to the fore, as there is no Wine of Origin Hemel-en-Aarde; without the Wards, the wines would fall under WO Walker Bay (the over-arching district).

Quality applies across the many varieties grown. ‘Everyone talks pinot and chardonnay,’ says JC Martin, co-owner of Creation with his wife, Carolyn, ‘but the valley does well with several other varieties.’ This includes sauvignon blanc, which, some nine years ago, was a dominant grape, probably when Stellenbosch consultants were more active in the valley. Notable sauvignons still exist, though many vineyards are making way for pinot.

Cabernet is perhaps a less likely success story. It was Tim Hamilton Russell’s initial focus, when he came to the valley, along with other Bordeaux varieties on his property higher up, which had quota.  A wine, Grand Cru Noir, was made from this fruit, until the mid-May harvest and wind eventually rendered it financially unviable.

Now, thanks to Restless River in particular, Lords and Creation, the last in a blend, cabernet has found a niche in the higher reaches of the valley. It reflects advances in viticulture and the benefits of working together. As Peter Finlayson, the pioneer winemaker at Hamilton Russell, pointed out to me; ‘Back in the 1970s, we were the first in the valley, there was no other support. Strength came from thinking out of the box.’

View from N-J’s Sandford vineyard looking towards Restless River & their new Clouds vineyard on hillside

If cabernet has taken time to prove its mettle, the results with pinot were more immediate and positive. It was thanks to Desiderius Pongracz, Tim’s mentor, that pinot was introduced to Hemel en Aarde on Braemar. Peter remembers identifying its promise during that first fermentation. ‘Looking back,’ he remarked, ‘virus was such a limiting factor.’ Virus and the Swiss BK5 clone, one better suited to bubbly.

Thank goodness wine can defy less than favourable circumstances. Last October at Cape Wine, I had the privilege of tasting the first bottling of HRV pinot, a 1981, though not labelled as such due to legalities; still with sweet fruit and a decent structure, it was more than an historic relic. During my November trip, Anthony Hamilton Russell kindly opened an unlabelled, but circa early 1980s’ bottle; it too was in equally agreeable shape. Somewhat later in 1998, this unlikely clone also provided Gordy Newton Johnson with his maiden pinot ‘lightbulb’ moment.

Hamilton Russell Vineyards pinot circa 1983

If Hemel-en-Aarde’s climate – maritime with the sea breeze – and soils – decomposed granite and clay – are drivers in pinot’s success, virus and clonal issues are ongoing. Sea Dragon, the vineyard that produced Newton Johnson’s first 2008 pinot, lost 50% to leafroll virus over 20 years.

Eradication is the goal. Vititech, who supplied virus-free material to JC Martin when he planted Creation’s initial 22 ha in 2002, monitor the vines and take shoots for reproduction. Today, JC reckons he’ll remove maybe 10 virused vines in a year over his now approximate 50 ha.

Virus-free is a common goal. ‘In four years, we will have 21ha in production; I want to leave healthy 20-30 year old vines,’ avers Craig Wessels. This will include the new 10 ha on Clouds, a property a bit above the home farm, where cabernet, pinot and chardonnay will be equally shared. Like his colleagues, Craig spends as much time as possible in the vineyards, ‘where I always find something new, be it a broken pipe or collapsed trellising; it all keeps my eyes open to problems and how the vines are progressing.’ Everyone agrees time spent in the vineyards cannot be overestimated.

The Martins, Newton-Johnsons, Wessels and Hamilton Russells are long-established in Hemel-en-Aarde, with 20 years or more of experience. More recent introductions are  Boekenhoutskloof/Cape Maritime, Hasher Family Estate (formerly Sumaridge) and the new owners of Moya’s Vineyards; I’m told all are of similar mind and serious in their approach.

View from Sandford vineyard towards Newton-Johnson home farm vineyaards & hillside cellar

If virus is one issue, clones are another. Gordy N-J recalls; ‘Twenty years ago, there was a rush for virus-free pinot and new Dijon clones but they weren’t so great. Then, we rather planted syrah, but now with better pinot clones available, syrah is making space for pinot.’ One grape that is not making way for pinot is albarino, the Newton-Johnson’s a first, which has become very popular with consumers. There are plans to plant more on the Sandford property.

As this still-young area evolves, so there are changes in viticulture. Some tackle climate change, others are designed to increase yield, of pinot especially. ‘Re-orientating rows from north-south to east-west has caused less wind damage and less direct sun,’ Gordy mentions. Rootstock too has been adjusted for acid soils and deeper roots, while guyot rather than cordon training is used for better balance and fertility, a change Craig Wessels and JC Martin have also employed. Irrigation is generally used only as a supplement from boreholes.

Over time, the Newton-Johnsons and other long-term producers have learned is that their distinct styles are dictated by individual vineyards with vinification adapted accordingly. This hasn’t happened overnight; the Art pinot block on Creation was ten years old before JC was satisfied it would deliver the correct quality. The Newton-Johnson’s first single vineyard wine, then a barrel selection, was in 2010. The single vineyard Windansea followed in 2012, a great vintage.

A study of Hamilton Russell Vineyards illustrates how far the valley has come with pinot in a relatively short time. Of the farm’s 52 ha under vine, pinot noir accounts for 11 blocks, chardonnay, 17; the oldest chardonnay is 17 years, the oldest pinot 15. Anthony first replanted the farm in 1992 with vines from KWV. Much replanting has taken place since, attention being paid to matching soil, clone and variety. Some pinot blocks are being replanted with chardonnay; experiments with rootstocks on different soils continue; pinot clone 777 has been discarded as having too tight bunches.

South African pinots and those from Hemel-en-Aarde in particular, are doing well internationally as well as on the local market. Bevan Newton-Johnson explains; ‘New World pinots are getting sucked into market, because Burgundy prices have risen four or five times on wines costing $35 or $50, an increase too much for most consumers, who are now asking what other quality pinots they can buy.’

Undoubtedly local pinot prices will rise incrementally but like the winemakers’ philosophy of support your neighbour and reap your own rewards, it equally applies to valuing their customers’ support and taking care to offer quality and value.


2 thoughts on “The promise of pinot

  1. Love the article Angela

    Have you attempted the La Vierge Apogée, yet?

    Hope your recovery is progressing well?

    Mark H


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