Pinot’s troubled affair has its good moments

The “heartbreak grape” they call it — a sad cliché used by wine-growers around the world who’ve tried and failed to get pinot noir to produce the wonders of Burgundy. But the code has been cracked to some extent in the past few decades, including in the Cape.

Hearts are still broken, however, by the fickle creature, and during recent looks at many vintages by two of our more eminent pinot producers one reason for this was clear to me. Although the characters of different years (permutations of rain, sun, wind and heat) affect wines made from all grape varieties, the spread of variation with the pinots of Hamilton Russell Vineyards (HRV) and Catherine Marshall was notable, and I’m sure that they are far from unique in this.

HRV, from 1981 the modern pioneers of the grape in South Africa, a little while back released a “vertical” collection of their pinot noir — packs including bottles from each of the vintages from 2005 to 2009. Tranches will be released each year for another half-decade (while they build up the next collection) at increasing prices (now R2?000).

I’ve twice tasted the set and noticed that the vintages varied significantly in quality. So, incidentally, did some of the bottles — the 2005 was pretty good in one case though already clearly mature but showed serious over-development in the other (presumably oxidised by a rogue cork).

On both occasions, the 2006 was the standout success; the 2007 was much lighter — more herbal and acidic, compared with the fruitier 2008, for example. The youthful 2009 promised a fine future, well balanced apart from the evident oak influence that is characteristic of HRV despite their vaunted classicism.

One would expect more variation in Marshall’s wines as she, unlike HRV, owns no vineyards and sourced grapes widely since her maiden 2001 (still eminently drinkable). Now she is settled in Elgin and her wines show the slightly burlier, more structured character that is perhaps characteristic of that area, compared with the perfumed charm of the Hemel-en-Aarde area where HRV’s vineyards are.

Feminine delicacy

And there was greater variation of style and quality. Interestingly, the fragrant, elegant 2006 was again the standout but the 2003 was good, as were the earthier, more savoury and weighty 2008 (her first all-Elgin pinot) and the 11 Barrels Reserve from 2009. She now makes these reserves each year, which are usually bigger, firmer wines.

No one in the Cape makes more modest, more delicately “feminine” pinots than Marshall, with restrained oaking and little in the way of obvious tannic power, but at their best capable of giving great subtle pleasure over many years of development.

Marshall’s 2010 is lighter than many of her wines, though still with fresh charm, and comparatively very well priced.

It was a vintage that many producers found problematic, and HRV’s, too, is well off its best.
If it’s the top examples of 2010 you’re after, look elsewhere — to the brightest new stars of the Hemel-en-Aarde, perhaps, Newton Johnson for their Domaine and Crystallum for the Cuvée Cinema; to Elgin for the two pinots from Paul Cluver and the one from Oak Valley; to Stellenbosch for Meerlust; and to Franschhoek for Chamonix.

That remarkable spread of excellence is testimony to the progress made by the Cape’s growers of pinot noir, however scarred their hearts might be.

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Related stories

Idiom restaurant celebrates a decade of excellence with paired wine tasting

Tucked away in the hills of the Helderberg, the new Idiom restaurant and wine tasting centre feels like an escape to another world.

By Giorgio, a taste 
of Italy at Dalla Cia

Tim James discovers the tale behind winemaker Giorgio dalla Cia's wines and grappas.

Wet winter yields wonderful summer wine

South Africa's white wine is getting far more acclamation than red wine receives locally and internationally.

Obsession worms its way into pinot noir

In his novel A Maggot, John Fowles gives an archaic meaning of his title word

Grappa sprung from Cape soil will lift a humble spirit

Grappa was once rough trade, the uncouth Italian peasant not fit to associate with the aristocratic grape spirit, cognac.

Eeny, meeny, miny, mourvèdre

Expertise in hedonic or aesthetic matters must always be trumped by personal taste.

Subscribers only

FNB dragged into bribery claims

Allegations of bribery against the bank’s chief executive, Jacques Celliers, thrown up in a separate court case

Dozens of birds and bats perish in extreme heat in...

In a single day, temperatures in northern KwaZulu-Natal climbed to a lethal 45°C, causing a mass die-off of birds and bats

More top stories

North West premier goes off the rails

Supra Mahumapelo ally Job Mokgoro’s defiance of party orders exposes further rifts in the ANC

Construction sites are a ‘death trap’

Four children died at Pretoria sites in just two weeks, but companies deny they’re to blame

Why the Big Fish escape the justice net

The small fish get caught. Jails are used to control the poor and disorderly and deflect attention from the crimes of the rich and powerful.

Koko claims bias before Zondo commission

In a lawyer’s letter, the former Eskom chief executive says the commission is not being fair to him

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…