It’s easy to understand why pinot noir is called “the heartbreak grape.” It is deeply susceptible to the influence of climate, soil and viticultural management. Heat, sunlight hours, rainfall and the geology of vineyard subsoils all play a disproportionate role compared with other varieties – though exactly how and in what way is by no means as certain as some pundits would claim. Coupled to this is the massive weight of the benchmark of the Burgundy heartland bearing down on pinot winemakers elsewhere in the world, but especially in regions where the cultivar is widely planted.
All this might be less important than it now appears if the Cote d’Or – that 40 kilometre long and roughly two kilometre wide strip which is the source of the planet’s greatest examples of what the variety can produce – had remained a fashion backwater. Until 50 years ago, even the undisputed masterpieces from sites in Vosne-Romanee, Chambolle Musigny and Gevrey Chambertin traded for a fraction of the price achieved by the top Bordeaux properties. The region’s appellation controlée regulations were arcane to the point of mystifying all but the local authorities. Even today the most sought-after wines may not legally bear the cultivar name. It’s hard to imagine a less likely candidate for apex status in the world of fine wine.
Leon Coetzee is about as geeky as anyone in the Cape wine scene. Over the years he has tracked down, discovered or coaxed back to life any number of unusual vineyard blocks, along the way producing – under his Fledge & Company label – a series of limited bottlings made from the different varieties lurking in these sites. The parcels of vineyard he customarily farms range from the Karoo via Elgin and Stellenbosch to the Swartland. Nothing, not time, distance, inclement weather, dust, disease nor the state of the economy appears to have dampened his pioneering spirit, but pinot has come close.
“(It) hasn’t pushed us over the edge yet … you’re not allowed to have a less than perfect vintage … this grape is a fickle mistress … It’s also just the most vintage specific grape … creating a style/mark is almost futile, other than to play it all by ear & leave it to Nature.”
Coetzee hadn’t yet been born when the late Tim Hamilton Russell and his then-winemaker Peter Finlayson planted the first modern pinot vineyards in South Africa in the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley outside Hermanus in the 1970s. Hamilton Russell’s vision spawned a new area of origin, a place where like-minded masochists could book a ride on the emotional rollercoaster of pinot production. This in turn produced an environment in which equally masochistic consumers could part with depressingly large sums of money to sample the fleeting summits-in-a-bottle and the far more frequent dog-depths of expensive vinous junk.
In forty years Cape wine has made up for centuries lost to isolation and ineptitude, but it has only been in the past decade that pinot has delivered a glimmer of hope. Battered followers could be forgiven for thinking this might be just another mirage, though evidence from the recent Pinot Celebration in the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley suggests that this is not the flash of fool’s-gold in the pan.
Firstly there is a coherence to the wines – not all of them, because the role of the winemaker is significantly more important than the geography and the geology. Secondly, the very best wines from the 2017 vintage are all better than their counterparts from five years ago. The vineyards are older, the more nuanced skills sets of viticulturists and cellarmasters are increasingly evident in the bottle. In 2012 there were only a couple of wines worth even a fraction of their asking price. Today you can comfortably buy Hamilton Russell, Bouchard Finlayson, Storm, Newton Johnson, La Vierge, Ataraxia and Creation – as a future Business Day article hopes to attest. They are not all Burgundian but they are authentic. In time, a few of them could be hauntingly good.