The Heartbreak Grape. Temperamental. Cerebral. The King of Wine…
Planted by the ancient Romans and later enjoyed by monks as holy sacrament, Pinot Noir is one of the oldest wine grapes in the world, acquiring an air of grace, mysticism, and prestige. Today, Pinot Noir has been placed on a pedestal as a wine for connoisseurs, believed to require the most adept of palates (and generous of purses) to appreciate its complexity. We disagree. Pinot Noir’s complexity allows it to cover the full spectrum of wine expression. That does not create barriers of exclusivity. It knocks them down.
The Pinot Noir Association is a group of Pinot Noir producers from all regions across South Africa who wish to demystify the notoriously demanding grape. Our aim is to work together as producers to further our knowledge — and yours — of the Pinot Noir expressions in South Africa.
Nicky Claasens – Vriesenhof Vineyards
Andries Burger – Paul Cluver Wines
Chris Albrecht – Bouchard Finlayson Winery
Tim Hoek – Haute Cabrière
Gerhard Smith – Creation Wines
Become a Member
Should you wish to become a Pinot Noir Association member please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org for details.
History of Pinot Noir
The first mention of Pinot Noir in South Africa was by Lawrence Sterne, who wrote in A Sentimental Journey of a Dutchman who planted “the grape of Burgundy” in the Cape of Good Hope, not necessarily to produce anything equal to Burgundy reds, but more with the aim of making “some sort of vinous liquor”. We can only assume that all evidence of these Pinot Noir vines were either ripped out or lost to phylloxera (though, with even his editors describing Sterne both as a genius and plagiarist, do take this reference with a pinch of salt).
Pinot Noir found its earliest champion in Abraham Izak Perold, professor of Viticulture and Oenology at Stellenbosch University and is credited with importing the Swiss BK5 Pinot Noir clone into South Africa. He would go on to describe the grape as “a wine of high quality . . . beautifully coloured, strong, full-bodied wine with an excellent bouquet,” in his book A Treatise on Viticulture.
Alto’s winemaker Manie Malan began experimenting with new plantings under the mentorship of Professor Perold and planted Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz and Pinot Noir. While the first two became major components of what would become Alto Rouge, Pinot Noir was considered too early a ripener and deemed unusable. While Manie Malan did win the 1924 Burgoyne trophy for “the best dry red wine approximating to the Burgundies of France”, the wine did not actually contain anything related to Burgundy… not even close. In fact, “Burgundy” was a reference to a lighter style of red wine — in this case, Cinsault.
The 20s was a time for flappers, the Ford Model T, jazz and, if you were a viticulturist, the search for the super grape. Professor Perold, ever the avid experimenter, cross-pollinated Pinot Noir with Cinsault to create what would become South Africa’s very own varietal: Pinotage.
On a whim, German artist George Paul Canitz bought the Muratie farm. Canitz knew absolutely nothing about making wine — he was a painter who taught art at the University of Stellenbosch, after all — but his good friend Professor Perold convinced him it would be a good idea, promising Canitz his help with the farm.
Canitz and Professor Perold planted Pinot Noir on Muratie. This would become the only commercial Pinot Noir in the country for several decades.
Pinot Noir takes a serious back seat. A quota system was introduced by the KWV to prevent oversupply and prohibit production expansion into new areas, limiting Pinot Noir to mainly Stellenbosch. As farmers were paid by weight and guaranteed a sale, they preferred to plant high-yielding varietals. Pinot Noir with its renowned fickleness and demanding nature lost favour with farmers who were more interested in quantity rather than quality.
“Pinot, the well-known variety used for French Burgundy cannot be freely recommended as a result of its poor adaptability to this country,” concluded Elsenburg researcher C T de Waal. And for many years that would be that.
Pinot Noir found its way into the modern era in the form of a tax break. Tim Hamilton Russell ran a successful advertising agency in Johannesburg and turned to farming to offset his personal income. Rather serendipitously, his initial goal was to purchase Muratie, but Annemarie Canitz was adamant the property reverts to its original owners and eventually sold it to the Melcks instead. The rest of Stellenbosch proved either of little interest or too expensive. Tim Hamilton Russell’s wine mentor was Desiderius Pongrácz (who, incidentally, has a very popular Méthode Cap Classique named after him — containing Pinot Noir). Pongrácz was obsessed with finding new vinicultural sites despite the strict quota laws, convincing Tim Hamilton Russell to look further afield. He bought Hamilton Russell Vineyards in the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley, close to the seaside town of Hermanus where he had spent almost every Christmas holiday of his life.
Under the watchful eye of Desiderius Pongrácz, Hamilton Russell Vineyards planted their first vines. While the initial range was designed around five wines, the result ended up being closer to eleven, making these the most southern plantings in Africa at the time. Pinot Noir with its cuttings sourced from Rustenburg was the only variety of the eleven to express something new and exciting.
Peter Finlayson became the winemaker at Hamilton Russell Vineyards, though it took some persuading to convince him to leave the established winelands for Hermanus.
While Pinot Noir found a new home on the coast, it was also finding its way further inland. Meyer Joubert of Joubert-Tradauw became the first to grow Pinot Noir in the Klein Karoo, though at the time his Pinot Noir was given exclusively to the Barrydale Cellar to contribute towards their Méthode Cap Classique.
As a move to outsmart the quota officials, Hamilton Russell Vineyards never registered their wines for vintage or grape variety. Instead, they released their first vintage as P1. If anyone questioned the strange labelling, they would simply say, “It was Peter Finlayson’s first vintage.”
With the 1990s in sight, Pinot Noir began to push for new ground. Arthur Pillmann planted the first Pinot in Bot River in 1985 at Goedvertrouw Wine Estate, while 1989 saw Haute Cabrière become Pinot Noir pioneers in Franschhoek, as well as Paul Cluver plant their first Pinot Noir vines in Elgin.
The scrapping of the KWV’s quota system and South Africa re-entering the international market spurred an excitement to explore new and distinctive expressions of Pinot Noir. The 341 ha plantings of Pinot Noir in 1990 crept up to 487 ha by the end of the decade, with new areas like Darling joining the Pinot Noir ranks with Groote Post releasing their first Pinot Noir in 1999.
“It’s a hard grape to grow, as you know. It is thin-skinned, temperamental. It is not a survivor like Cabernet that can grow anywhere and thrive even when neglected. Pinot needs constant care and attention, you know?” –
Miles Raymond, Sideways
Miles Raymond’s words from the 2004 movie Sideways spurred a global surge in Pinot Noir sales, known as the Sideways Effect, it’s wave of enthusiasm spilling over to South Africa.
Strandveld in Elim released their first Pinot Noir (though it should be noted this was planted in 2002), while new vines were planted in Stanford by Sir Robert Stanford Estate and in Plettenberg Bay by Packwood Wine. Total plantings of Pinot Noir jumped from 522 ha in 2004 to 962 ha by 2010.
There are currently 1201 ha of Pinot Noir in South Africa, making up 1,5% of the total plantings in the country. South African Pinot Noir red wines have garnered international praise from wine critics and publications like Jancis Robinson, Tim Atkin, Neil Martin, Greg Sherwood, Decanter and Wine Enthusiast.
Mosaic Top 5 Pinot Noir Wine Awards
The annual Mosaic Top 5 Pinot Noir Wine Awards identify South African Pinot Noir red wines to serve as a benchmark for the development of distinctive South African Pinot Noir red wines and to illustrate the quality of South African Pinot Noir red wines to the world.For more information visit top5.co.za
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Producers that are member of the Pinot Noir Association: