Happy Pinot Noir Day! What better time than now to discover and discuss so of South Africa’s most loved Pinot Noirs? We reached out to these wine makers to learn all about what makes their pinot noir so special and delicious! Enjoy.
Our Wine Makers:
- Chris from Bouchard Finlayson
- Alexander from Villiera
- Emul Ross from Hamilton Russell (answers courtesy of Anthony)
- Duncan from Sutherland
- Berene from Tesselaarsdal
- More to be added soon!
Let’s start at the beginning and learn about the actual grapes used in South African pinot noir.
The Business of Farming Pinot Noir
Do You Grow Your Own Pinot Noir Grapes?
BF: All grapes contributing to our Pinot Noir bottlings are Estate grown.
VIL: Buy in grapes from the Upper Hemel-en-Aarde Valley.
HR: Hamilton Russell Vineyards makes a single Estate Wine of Origin Hemel-en-Aarde Valley Pinot Noir and a single Estate Wine of Origin Hemel-en-Aarde Valley Chardonnay. One red and one white – no reserves and no second labels. The Estate Wine of Origin means that everything is from our own grapes, grown on our registered Estate. Hemel-en-Aarde Valley, means that we are located in the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley wine appellation.
SL: We grow all of our own fruit, so we are in control of the process from Grape to the Bottle.
TL: I source grapes on a long term contract from La Vierge Babylon Vineyards in the Hemel-en-Aarde Ridge, but plan to produce Pinot noir from my vineyards in Tesselaarsdal Overberg once planted and ready for wine production 7 years from now.
What are some of the challenges of growing pinot noir?
BF: Maintaining moderate cropping levels and ensuring a stress-free environment.
VIL: Pinot Noir is not called the heart break grape for nothing, it is difficult to grow and just as difficult to make a good Pinot Noir. Its best suited for cool climate areas as it needs the cool area to really showcase its beauty. – Alexander, Villiera
HR: It is particularly picky about the site and soils and will punish a poor choice of site with very mediocre wine. It is thin skinned and rot susceptible. It is intrinsically a fairly simple grape, with not much structure and a potentially simple red fruit expression. If it isn’t planted in the correct place no amount of brilliant winemaking will elevate it beyond this.
SL: Pinot noir generally has quite a tight clustered bunch, which makes managing disease pressure of outmost importance during the growing season to preserve the integrity of the fruit in order to create the best wines possible. It is luckily an early ripening varietal and comes to the cellar in the middle of our Sauvignon blanc and Chardonnay, we are fortunate enough to have separate red processing equipment allowing us to do both at the same time. However, it would create a slight headache in a cellar that only has one set of fruit receival gear.
TL: Pinot noir is very susceptible to disease.
How Does the Climate Impact Your Pinot Noir?
BF: At Bouchard Finlayson we are fortunate in the Hemel-en-Aarde that our climate is strongly moderated by the Atlantic Ocean. Pinot Noir is notoriously sensitive to extended periods of heat, something our breezy and overcast climate rarely offer.
VIL: Being from a cool climate area it really helps with the flavour profile and Pinot Noir needs a cool climate to thrive.
HR: As an early ripening grape, Pinot noir performs best in cool conditions. Our strongly maritime meso-climate makes the Hemel-en-Aarde one of the cooler wine areas in the Cape – better suited to Pinot noir than the warmer areas further inland. The coolness allows ripening at lower alcohol and with higher acidity and lower pH. It also preserves fine fruit aroma at full ripeness better.
SL: Our Pinot noir is as you know planted in Elgin, which is a cool climate grape / apple growing region in the Western Cape perfectly suited to grow premium Pinot noir. Pinot noir seems to fair best in cool climate regions, perfect examples would be Burgundy (France), Willamette Valley (Oregon, USA) and Otago (New Zealand).
TL: The cool climate gives the Pinot noir a certain Burgundian style, in the Hemel-en-Aarde Ridge the climate is cool and temperate, where parallel mountain ranges channel the southerly ocean-going winds through the appellation.
How Does the Sea Air Impact Your Pinot Noir?
BF: The prevailing wind in the Western Cape during summer (including the ripening months of January and February) is SE – directly off Walker Bay, some 3km from our vineyards.
VIL: The cooler/milder temperature that one gets from being close to the ocean helps regulate the land temperature which benefits the vines and the wine in the end.
HR: Being at closest, only 1,500 meters from the sea is one of the key cooling influences on Hamilton Russell Vineyards. The cold Benguela current coming up from the South Atlantic makes Waker Bay a cold body of water. A giant free air-conditioning system. The lower maximum temperatures – and the maximum number of daylight hours within the optimum range for vine function and ripening grapes is a direct result of proximity to the cold sea. So it is an enormous benefit.
SL: The sea air from the nearby Atlantic Ocean definitely helps to keep the temperatures nice and cool in the Elgin Valley.
TL: Prolonged ripening time and cool maritime climate all influence the juice composition, balance and flavour.
How Does the Soil Impact Your Pinot Noir?
BF: High clay content in the predominant Bokkeveld Shale-derived soils, play an intricate part in the structural make-up of our Pinot Noirs.
VIL: The soil plays an important role in the flavour character and structure of the wine. Being from Upper Hemel-en-Aarde Valley, my Pinot has more dark cherry flavours due to the soils.
HR: Our soil is crucial to the more muscular, spice and structure driven style we produce. A more “Burgundian” style for want of a better analogy. Our very high clay and iron content – along with a degree of marginality, not excess fertility, result in particular classically styled Pinot noir, which is now greatly respected and enjoyed in 64 countries.
SL: Our soils drain well but also have great waterholding capacity allowing us to only need supplementary drip irrigation. I.e in the dry years we are able to irrigate the blocks that need water.
TL: The soil composition governs the minerality, temperature, root penetration, water retention and nutrition of the vineyards – the Pinot noir grapes in the Ridge is in Bokkeveld Clay-rich soils which adds to the pristine fruit profile and almost crystalline minerality.
Do you blend your pinot noir?
BF: A small volume of Pinot Noir is included in our eccentric Mediterranean blend, Hannibal.
VIL: No, 100% Pinot Noir.
HR: No. Pinot noir is hardly ever blended – other than in Champagne and sparkling wine.
SL: No other varietal are added, it is simply a composite blend of our Pinot noir vineyards from Sutherland. In great years we might keep out about 1000 L to make a reserve Pinot as we did in 2016, we only do this in the Vintages that we feel are Reserve Wine worthy. In the years that we do make MCC we use about 25% Pinot noir in the base wine blend.
TL: We do wood blending with the Pinot noir eg experiment with regular toast, medium and blonde toasted barrels
How Do You Make Pinot Noir:
BF: With circumspect – it’s a grape that resists being forced into a predetermined direction/style.
VIL: I make it with minimal intervention, spontaneous fermentation and use about 30% whole bunch in my ferment.
HR: In short, the first and most important step is growing it in the right soil and meso-climate. The “where to plant” is more important than the “how to make”.
The long, we then handle the grapes extremely gently and follow very long-standing vinification techniques refined in Burgundy (the home of great Pinot noir) over 900 years. Natural vineyard yeasts and our own endemic yeast along with organic yeast. Top tight-grained French Oak barrels toasted extremely lightly to our recipe developed with our French Coopers. Our goal is to capture the essence of our site and soils with the individual personality of the specific vintage.
SL: We pick the fruit by hand, destalk with a Pellenc, sort the fruit on a vibrating table to remove all MOG (Matter other than Grapes), pump the grapes into our open top fermenters, inoculate with a specific yeast strain, do manual punchdowns during the fermentation for a softer extraction as Pinot noir has a very delicate nature and we would like to preserve this character in the resultant wine. Once primary fermentation is complete the wine will makes its way into 228 L French Oak barrels for a further 10 months ageing. After the 10 months the wines will be tasted, blends made and bottled.
TL: Pinot noir grapes are handpicked and brought to cellar where 10% of the harvest is whole berry bunch stomped, rest of the grapes is de-stemmed and cold soaked for one day to extract flavour and add structure to the wine, punch downs is administered one times a day and aged in French oak for 9.5 months where wine is blended and bottled
The Drinking of Pinot Noir
What should new drinkers to Pinot Noir know?
BF: More than other wines, Pinot Noir doesn’t easily accept mediocrity – its either very good or very poor.
VIL: It’s a lighter style of red and there are so many styles out there to choose from, easy drinking fruity summer wine, to a more serious earthy flavour Pinot Noir. But even if its light its still a serious complex wine and people often don’t get that part I feel.
HR: Not all Pinot noir is stylistically the same. Know your preferences and choose an area of production that suits them. All roads lead eventually to Burgundy – where the greatest Pinot noirs in the world are made. These styles are however more cerebral and usually suit the more initiated.
SL: As mentioned before Pinot noir is a very delicate varietal, so don’t expect lush full bodied Cabernet Sauvignon style wines but rather delicate aromatics with fine tannins and a light but lingering finish.
TL: Every Pinot noir is different due to site expression, Origin and wine making style.
I love how light Pinot Noir Is. How does your wine have this Quality?
BF: It’s the essence of good Pinot Noir, and it’s mystic allure. How a wine can offer intensity without weight.
VIL: My extraction is very light as I only do one punch-down a day and the 30% whole bunch also adds to the lightness of my Pinot Noir.
HR: Not all Pinot noir is light. The great Pinot noirs of Gevrey-Chambertin in the Cote de Nuits in Burgundy for example, can be muscular and structured and particularly age-worthy. This potential for tannin and a dark muscularity only occurs in certain sites and soils. The Hemel-en-Aarde Valley is one of the geographically privileged areas in the world for this.
Most Pinot noir in the world, does however reflect the grape’s thin skin, generally low tannins and lighter colour. I prefer the term “elegant” for certain our vintages like the 2020, to “light”.
SL: Pinot noir is a delicate varietal and without the right attention to detail in both the vineyards and the cellar it can very easily go wrong. Therefore we do our outmost in both the vineyards and the cellar in order to preserve all the delicate varietal characteristics in the resultant wine.
TL: Wine expresses site and climate of its Origin, Pinot noir is a great reflection of this.
Can Pinot Noir be aged?
BF: Certainly, but this depends on the vintage and producer. Good Pinot Noir can benefit by as long as 10 years’ cellaring.
VIL: Yes, a well made Pinot Noir can age for decades. Pinot Noir benefits hugely from bottle age as it has a high acidity and needs time to come into its own.
HR: Great Pinot noir can be aged for a long time. We still actively search for bottles of ur Pinot noir from the early 1980’s to buy back. Our maiden vintage – the 1981 – if well cellared – still drinks beautifully. Styles like ours, with spice, structure and tannin, age better than the softer, easier, more fruit driven styles.
What does Pinot Noir pair well with (food wise)?
BF: Classic pairings include duck with berry sauce and wild/exotic mushroom risotto, but I find it pairs very well with grilled fresh fish.
VIL: Depends on the style of Pinot Noir, but duck is always a winner for me.
HR: Pinot noir is probably the most versatile food variety of all. What to pair it with depends, of course, on the style of the wine and its age. It is often paired with lamb and fillet – and dishes with mushroom and/or a particularly savoury/umami character. The Thanksgiving or Christmas Turkey and Pinot noir is an excellent match.
TL: Tesselaarsdal Pinot noir pairs well with chargrilled lamb chops but also compliments butter curries.
Proudly South African Pinot Noir
What Makes Your Pinot Noir So Unique and Special?
BF: One unique contributor would be our high density method of planting, which is common in Europe. Traditionally, South African vineyards contain between 2500-3000 vines per hectare. Our Pinot Noir vineyards contain as many as 6,500 vines per hectare. This close proximity creates inter-vine competition, which results in higher fruit flavour concentration.
VIL: For me it’s the hands off approach I use that brings about a different style of Pinot Noir and the whole bunch portion also adds to the character of the wine.
HR: Our cool maritime site and clay and iron-rich soils produce what for many people worldwide is the most Burgundian expression of Pinot noir outside Burgundy.
SL: We make a very unique style of Pinot noir in South Africa, which is in a way a combination of a Burgundian / Old World Style Pinot noir with a New World edge. The finished wines from Sutherland generally have silky soft yet firm tannins, which makes these wines a pleasure to drink for both Pinot nuts as well as your Cabernet Sauvignon drinkers.
TL: Tesselaarsdal wine style is reflective of a pristene fruit profile and almost crystalline minerality.
Tell us one thing about South African pinot noir?
BF: As a category, SA Pinot Noirs have made massive quality and diversity progress and are of a high international standard.
VIL: Its on the up and only going to get better with time, there are some seriously good Pinot Noirs out there. It’s all about finding the right style of Pinot Noir for you and all the different area’s producing Pinot Noir there is a lot to choose from.
The best South African Pinot noirs – despite what might seem to locals to be expensive wines – offer extraordinary value in world terms. Drink them before they become far more expensive. – Hamilton Russell
SL: As Pinot noir is a delicate wine by nature it pairs well with delicate food dishes. Great examples would be duck, seared tuna, salmon, roasted chicken and some pasta dishes.
TL: South Africa produce some of the best Pinot noirs world-wide and is often referenced and compared to Burgundy.