SA Wine Legends: Peter Finlayson

I first got know Peter Finlayson aka The Pinot Pioneer over a plate of West Coast oysters and a bottle of Bouchard Finlayson’s Blanc de Mer. As far as first-impressions go—from one oyster-and-wine-lover to another—this was a home run. The memory of that lunch comes washing over me as I admire a still life of oysters, bread and a bottle of Bouchard Finlayson white—which is hung on a wall in the Hemel-en-Aarde winery. The oysters may be rendered, but the man sitting across from me is as vital as ever. The Sinatra of the wine industry, this gentle giant with his sharp blue eyes and salt-and-pepper beard has a presence that commands attention. Peter Finlayson is no wallflower. 

Spanning almost four decades, Finlayson has a career you could literally call groundbreaking—having set up the region’s first winery and vineyards (Hamilton Russell Vineyards in 1979), to planting and making the very first pinot in 1981. He’s credited with putting the Walker Bay area firmly on the map as well as on international stage as an area that makes some of South Africa’s finest wines.

“Back then the Hemel-en-Aarde was all wildflowers and honey,” says Finlayson talking about the early days. “We were told by many we couldn’t make wine here.” But Peter had an advantage. After graduating in Oenology at Stellenbosch University, he went on to study at the Geisenheim in the Rheingau. He came back saying: “If you can grow grapes in Germany, you can in Hermanus.”

He was proven more than right and received his just desserts in the form of the 1989 Diners Club Winemaker of the Year Award. This award led to a friendship with international judge and negociant, Paul Bouchard.

“Knowing how to make good chardonnay requires a lot of Burgundy…” says Finlayson and it was with this thought he went to go visit Bouchard in Beaune, where the Frenchman and the Capetonian decided to become partners in a new winery. Bouchard Finlayson soon became the second winery in the Hemel-en-Aarde. It also happened to be the first investment by a French wine family in the Cape.

At this new winery Finlayson implemented another first: high-density planting of pinot at 9000 vines per hectare. This style of viticulture created competition between the vines as well as smaller and more efficient canopies. The winery released their first wines in 1991. 

Almost 30 years later and not too much has changed at Bouchard Finlayson. These days Peter is the cellar master, while Chris Albrecht wears the hat of winemaker. All around its squat buildings, as if crouched into the mountainside, fan tight, green vineyards. In the interleading decades many other wineries have sprung up in the beautiful, vertiginous valley, but it’s clear Bouchard Finlayson still operates within its own atmosphere fuelled by legend and its famed wines.

“It’s scary because it’s gone so quickly,” says Finlayson, musing over a glass of Tête de Cuvée 2013. “I had to regularly ask myself what I was doing in the exercise of winemaking. 

“It’s quite a masochistic profession,” he laughs. “When something doesn’t work out—you have to wait another 12 months to try again.

“You need to treat winemaking as a sport. You can’t always have a bull’s eye. Every wine you bottle is a challenge and the important thing is to not deviate from your vision.” 

Already at a young age Finlayson learnt the value of having the grit to follow the path to success. Coming from a fairly privileged background, things changed, ‘when my father lost everything’. 

One of five children, he grew up in the farming area of Constantia on his family’s table grape farm. Schooled at Rondebosch High, the initial idea was for him to become a vet. 

Though farming has this tendency to get under your skin and his agricultural childhood informed his decision to study Oenology at Stellenbosch University. 

Here he not only secured his future as one of the forerunners of the South African wine industry, but he also met and fell in love with his wife. After noticing her for over a year, he says he finally plucked up the courage and asked one of her friends who she was. “The friend replied that she just asked who I was!” 

Soon two sons, Andrew and Peter-Allan joined them; and now there are few grandchildren too. Andrew is an architect, while Peter-Allan is the winemaker at Gabriëlskloof as well as for Crystallum Wines.

Finlayson uncorks a bottle of Galpin Peak 2015. “With pinot noir so many factors come into play. It always reflects the soil it’s grown in. It’s a bit like growing truffles.

“Good pinot has the ability to call you back to the glass. It’s like opera too—nobody wants to listen to bad opera.” 

Speaking of, Peter has recently picked up a long-lost passion. “I’ve started singing again after 30 years.” He demonstrates a few notes in a clear, and steady baritone. “My brother recently said to me about it ‘you have to have an audience’. But it’s not that, it’s more like a sudden impulse to climb a mountain. My singing is for me.”

When not singing and making wine, Finlayson spends his time in the bush going on safari at least three times a year where he indulges in his other hobby of photographing animals, in particular black and white portraits of elephants—which he develops himself.

Peter Finlayson is a man who lives by his passions, and a winemaker who stands by his convictions. Never deviating from his vision.

Looking back over the years he says: “I’ve got no regrets, that’s for sure.”

I guess you can say he did it his way.

-Malu Lambert