Pinot Noir – past, present & future

If there’s any variety that tests the versatility of the Cape’s undulating coastal belt, from Doring Bay up the west coast to Elim and beyond on the southern stretch, it’s Pinot Noir. Winemakers’ passion for the grape known as the Holy Grail has led to the discovery of some amazing sites for the production of red wine. The majority of Pinot’s 1 100 hectares is, however, destined for sparkling wine.

According to Tim James in his book Wines of the New South Africa, Pinot was probably imported in the 1920s by Professor Perold, who described it as producing “a wine of high quality … beautifully coloured, strong, full-bodied wine with an excellent bouquet”. Vines came from Stellenbosch University’s farm and, after they were introduced on Muratie on the Simonsberg later in the 1920s, Stellenbosch became the hub of Pinot growing for several decades.

At the time private wineries were few and far between, the co-ops concentrated on quantity rather than quality, and the introduction of the quota system in 1957 often prohibited the opening up of new, more suitable areas. 

Pinot’s present fortunes really stem from the mid-1970s, when, despite the lack of quota on one piece of land, Tim Hamilton Russell developed his eponymous winery in the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley. Beyond the problem of illegality was vine material. The sole clone available, BK5, was designed for sparkling wine rather than fine red table wine. Undaunted by these small hindrances, Hamilton Russell and his then winemaker, Peter Finlayson, produced some fine wines but, more importantly, they highlighted the valley’s Pinot (and Chardonnay) potential, which has since been proven by the many others who’ve trekked south.

It says a lot that winemakers who’ve worked at Hamilton Russell Vineyards have all gone on to set up wineries in the valley, making great Pinot being their main objective.

The introduction of new Dijon clones in the 1990s produced Pinots of a totally new and alluring character. Simultaneously, the quota system was abolished and South Africa re-entered the international market. All encouraged the exploration of new and better areas for quality wine, not only deeper into the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley but also in Elgin, Doring Bay and Franschhoek, as well as Stellenbosch. Jan ‘Boland’ Coetzee has been making Pinots at Vriesenhof, his farm on the Helderberg, for over 20 years. At a recent tasting we jumped from 1994 to 2013 with a few other vintages interspersed, some from single clones. The older ones reflected his renown as a maker of great Cabernets; the younger wines were more supple, textured, less oaky and more true to the variety.

Today’s young stars, such as the Newton Johnsons, Peter-Allan Finlayson with his Crystallum wines and Gottfried Mocke of Chamonix, to name but three, travel and taste widely, experience which helps them push the Pinot boundaries. For them and their fellow fanatics, the search for great Pinot is a constant journey. 

That journey lies in seeking out new and even more extreme sites, as well as refining work in the cellar. If Tim Hamilton Russell wished South Africa stretched a further 200 kilometres south, today altitude is the (more achievable) goal.

David Finlayson (yes, another member of that Pinot-mad family), whose Edgebaston winery is based in Stellenbosch, draws his Pinot from various sites, all in the name of experimenting – from a sandstone ridge high on the sometimes winter snow-capped mountains above Tulbagh valley, where clones 777 and 115 ripen in early February; closer to home, a Stellenbosch mountain site provides fruit from clone 667; and, in 2015, Finlayson will be taking fruit from high on the Bottelary Hills, well chilled by exposure to breezes off distant False Bay.

But even in Stellenbosch, Pinot is making a mark at less elevated sites. Within a gust of sea spray from False Bay, Mick and Jeanine Craven find energising coolness on her parents’ farm in Faure. Their characterful Pinot is beautifully pure and fresh. At nearby Meerlust, Chris Williams’ Pinot is fuller but captures similar fruit charm.

One of the most remarkable new sites is on Appelsdrift, the Jack family’s 200-hectare farm on the northern face of the Akkedisberg (Lizard Mountain), roughly halfway between Bredasdorp and Caledon. Pinot, planted in 2002, grows on “a wind-torn, uncomfortably steep slope, 440 metres above sea level; the vines gaze out to the southwest, where the sun sets into the sea”, as Bruce Jack describes it.  Three clones, 115, 777 and 665, grow in ancient, decomposed Table Mountain sandstone, mixed with weathered shale and clay, interspersed with metamorphosed limestone. Each, says Jack, produces extremely different wines. As a blend of the three, The Drift Pinot Noir 2012 is initially demure but gradually the savoury, crunchy berry flavours, with their fynbos complement (from their wilderness reserve neighbor perhaps?) emerge, accompanied by invigorating freshness. It is a most particular wine, distinct from any other South African Pinot, yet unmistakable in its varietal heritage.

There are Still Mysteries, The Drift Pinot’s name, echoes what all Pinot producers believe – that the best sites have yet to be found, the best wines yet to be made.

– Angela Lloyd