The “Young Guns,” “Young Turks,” “Lunatic Fringe” (and whatever other monickers are used for the latest generation of wine producers) have been garnering a great deal of publicity lately. No doubt some of this is due to the fashion which holds that new is always “cutting edge.” It was therefore something of a pleasant surprise to taste wines in the past few weeks from a couple of the country’s best established Pinot producers, both united by a common history, a common appellation, and a common focus.
The first of these visitors to the Big Smoke was Peter Finlayson – the Finlayson part of Bouchard Finlayson, but also the founding winemaker of Hamilton Russell Vineyards – and therefore the pioneering Hemel-en-Aarde Valley cellarmaster. Fashionable though it is to celebrate the adventurous spirit of the young (especially the courage and daring which comes from having little or nothing to lose), when it comes to wine, there’s a serious premium attributable to experience. Of course, it’s only worth venerating the less youthful when they have not been dulled by the constant repetition which comes with the job.
Peter Finlayson has been working in the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley since the late 1970s, so he knows more than most about its growing and vintage conditions. He has also pretty much specialised in Pinot and Chardonnay, so he brings to his winemaking a lifetime of accumulated experience with these varieties. The tasting he assembled on his visit to Johannesburg was entirely about Pinot – not only his own, but also a number of top American and French examples.
It revealed that there are as many styles of Pinot as there are winemakers, but that the broadest divide is between the more classically, more nuanced examples, and the plusher, more opulent wines which have served to popularise the cultivar. In this context the American wines were unbelievably juicy, soft-tannined, deep-coloured, intensely fruited. The Bouchard Finlayson wines (we tasted the 2009, 2001 and 2000) were much more Burgundian, and sat comfortably alongside several top Premiers Crus from Beaune.
Unsurprisingly, this stylistic classicism was a feature highlighted by Anthony Hamilton Russell when he hit town with a full line-up of his latest releases (most of which are already sold out). At Hamilton Russell (the longest-established of South Africa’s pinot producers and the pioneering cellar in the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley) the House itself is the repository of accumulated experience. Winemaker Emul Ross only arrived on the property for the 2015 vintage. The viticultural practices have been decades in the making, likewise the style of the wines (which were determined by the late Tim Hamilton Russell in conjunction with Peter Finlayson). Anthony and Olive Hamilton Russell are very hands-on proprietors. Ross would never have been allowed to deviate from the very clear aesthetic which has defined the brand since the outset. Hamilton Russell himself was clear about this. “We don’t want to be producing soft, simple juicy pinots,” he said. “We seek detail, nuance and refinement.”
He might as easily have said this about all the wines – especially the reds – which come from his various properties. The Southern Right Pinotage 2016 is earthy rather than chewy, the Ashbourne 2015 (possibly the best, though least showy, example of this variety currently available anywhere) is a statement of pure vinosity, while the newly launched Ashbourne Pinotage/Cinsault exudes finesse. The 2016 Hamilton Russell Pinot Noir offers ample fruit intensity, without any dumbing down.
Emul Ross may be new in the job, and the aesthetic rules may have been clearly articulated to him, but he has already imposed his personality on the wines. The job of the winemaker is to coax from the vineyards their best possible expression. If the house style is right (and non-negotiable) this means that changes will never be dramatic – a little more refinement, greater intricacy, more precision. The job of youth is to ensure that the sails catch the most wind; experience remains the guiding hand on the tiller.