Anthony Hamilton Russell can rightly claim to be one of the senior statesmen in the world of Cape pinot and chardonnay – so he was speaking with some authority when he observed recently that neither of the two burgundy varieties has attracted the attention of the Cape’s “New Wave” winemakers. There are a few exceptions: Leon Coetzee at Fledge & Co has been making pinot noir for years; Mullineuxs offer a fine Stellenbosch chardonnay in their Leeu Passant range.
New Wave is largely identified with older, generally virus-resistant vineyards. Look down any list of single variety or New Wave blends and (with the exception of chenin) the Mediterranean, rather than continental France, rules supreme. Excluding chenin, grenache (red and white), cinsaut, mourvedre, shiraz, and clairette blanche account for 80% of what’s on offer. Mainstream international varieties – cabernet, merlot, riesling, malbec, as well as pinot, chardonnay, pinot blanc and sauvignon blanc, hardly feature at all.
This is not really surprising. Most of these so-called “noble cultivars” are prone to virus – which means that there are very few healthy old vineyards. The fruit from these sites sells for a great deal more than the Young Guns were able to afford, especially when they were starting out. Then, to get the most from chardonnay and pinot you need decent barrels – not all necessarily new. For a young craft winemaker without serious financial backing trying to produce great wine, deluxe oak is an expense best avoided.
Nowadays, especially for millennials, “craft” has become the single most important attribute driving the purchase of alcoholic beverages: craft gin, craft beer and craft wine have taken off while big brands (whether as producer names or the varieties which go into the bottle) have had to shift their focus to other consumers. The craft Cape wine sector is booming – or at least appears to be (since you cannot conclude from the on-shelf pricing how well a small wine business is actually doing). New Wave producers have more wines priced for R400 a bottle or more than all the grand cellars of Stellenbosch combined.
Pinot Noir is the variety selling in the same bracket as the most sought after wines at the top-end of the craft wine sector. There are very few on shelf for less than R250 and several where you won’t get any change for R500. Until recently, shelling out that kind of money for pinots (most of which were either from young or else from virus-infected vineyards) made no sense to me. Young vines yield simple, pretty fruit; wines from virused vines show discernible stress notes: what lands up in the glass lacks the charm and finesse which are the hallmarks of good pinot noir.
Lately however there have been several very classy pinots on the market. Besides the usual suspects – Hamilton Russell, Cluver Seven Flags and Bouchard Finlayson Tete de Cuvée – there are specialists like Peter-Allan and Andrew Finlayson’s Crystallum (Peter Max, Cuvée Cinema and Mabalel), and the Newton Johnsons (Seadragon and Windandsea). There are also cellars where pinot enjoys a special place, and the kind of focus necessary if you wish to avoid pedestrian wine: Radford Dale (AD and Freedom), Creation, La Vierge, Cape Chamonix and lately, Andrew Gunn’s Iona.
I recently tasted a couple of pre-release examples of the 2017 vintage made from almost adjacent single sites at Iona in Elgin – two vineyards called Kloof and Kroon. Both differ markedly from each other, suggesting that the term “terroir” is meaningful in this context. One is palpably “earthier” while the other has an almost crystalline purity. Both will be released before the end of the year.
I suspect that with a total production of only one barrel each they’ll vanish as quickly as the Guptas, despite a proposed R600 per bottle price tag. They are likely to cement Elgin’s and Iona’s reputation for the so-called “heart-break grape,” as well as adding to the growing fascination with single site wines.