Pinot Noir is one of the most ancient wine cultivars known to man. It’s also one of the most temperamental. Thin-skinned, fragile and prone to lose interest if handled by indifferent or incompetent hands, there’s a very good reason it’s known as the ‘heartbreak grape’.
Few express this better than winemaker Bruce Jack, “Pinot Noir demands your entirety before revealing her full character, she wants your knowledge, experience, tenacity, sweat, patience, attention to detail and a delicate touch, she’ll also want a few of your tears.”
As demanding as she may be, when a winemaker gets this grape right, when their skill is matched by their sweat, tears and unwavering devotion, the nectar produced is enigmatic and unparalleled - creating possibly the greatest food wine in the world.
Also known as ‘Red Burgundy’ (paying homage to its original region), Pinot Noir has been made for centuries in many of the small villages in the Cote d’Or of Burgundy, France. Today, it is the 10th most planted grape variety – with a tsunami of love-struck fans the world over.
In South Africa, the undisputed home of fine Pinot Noir has to be the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley. Tucked into a cleft of the Overberg region, the cool climate, strong maritime influence, higher than average rainfall and southerly latitudes found here provide the ideal growing conditions for this sensitive grape. Pioneered by Tim Hamilton-Russel over 3 decades ago, the valley now comprises a wonderfully diverse handful of wine stalwarts and new mavericks – all intent on creating the finest Pinot Noir and Chardonnay our country has to offer.
With this in mind, attending the Pinot Noir Celebration in late January was an event I was particularly looking forward to. Having been just over a year since I last visited and discovered the Makings of Greatness, returning to this breath-taking valley only proved to reignite my love for Pinot and the passionate men and women brave enough to attempt to woo it into submission.
A two-day event put together by the Hemel-en-Aarde winegrowers themselves, the Pinot Noir Celebration sees flagship wines expertly-paired with dishes from some of the country’s top chefs. Throughout the weekend, I enjoyed scores of small, thematic and intimate events, including tutored tastings by the likes of Burgundian wine producer, Jean-Marie Fourrier and a seated fine wine showcase of the best Pinot’s the Hemel-en-Aarde has produced thus far.
So without further ado, here are my top picks from a top-class weekend.
Hamilton Russell Vineyards Pinot Noir 2016
Organically farmed in stony, clay-rich soil, this famed vineyard’s naturally tiny yields give rise to a superb tightness, tannin line and elevated length. Aged in french oak for 10 months, there’s a savoury character to the wine, along with a dark, spicy and complex fruit perfume.
Bouchard Finlayson Galpin Peak Pinot Noir 2016
Deftly balanced, delicate floral aromas give way to loads of red fruit and berries on the palate. An elegant finish concludes, not before leaving rumours of cassis in its wake.
THE NEW GUARD
Ataraxia Pinot Noir 2016
In this vintage, winemaker, Kevin Grant, has aimed to express Ataraxia’s ‘dirt in the bottle’ – paying homage to the terroir and willing it to reanimate in every glass. Deffering to the site and soil at every stage of the process, the end result is a wonderful tribute to its roots – earthy, with hints of red cherry and sweet spices lingering.
Newton Johnson Seadragon Pinot Noir 2106
Possessing a rich palate of red and black fruit, bolstered by vibrant spices, ethereal floral notes infuse with a full and silky mouthfeel. An abundance of fine tannins add elegant structure that carries the opulent fruit to the finish.
Storm Ridge Pinot Noir 2016
Hailing from a cool, eastern slope in the valley with clay-rich shale soils, these grapes are basket pressed - lending a wonderful richness with crunchy black cherry notes and fruit perfume to the nose and palate. A fresh acidity is coupled with just the right amount of silky tannins, giving way to a hint of spice.
Domaine des Dieux Josephine Pinot Noir 2016
Harvested in the early mornings to ensure pristine fruit, the least amount of intervention in the cellar allows this vintage to really speak of its surroundings. On the nose, perfumed red fruits combine with earthy cinnamon tones and a delightful and delicate smokiness (thanks to 10 months in small French oak barrels). Expect sleek tannins and a poised structure.