The Mosaic Pinot Noir Top 5 Awards puts South Africa’s best Pinots on a pedestal, to identify benchmarks for the development of distinctive wines in this category and to illustrate the quality of our Pinot Noirs to the world. So, what is the current status quo?
If there’s one variety that tests the versatility of the Cape South Coast, it’s Pinot Noir.
South African wine producers’ passion for wine’s ‘Holy Grail’ has led to the discovery of some amazing sites to produce Pinot.
Pinot’s fortunes stem from the mid-1970s, when, despite the lack of quota on one piece of land, Tim Hamilton Russell and his then-winemaker Peter Finlayson put their Hemel-en-Aarde Valley on the South African wine map by highlighting the valley’s Pinot Noir and Chardonnay potential.
While the majority of the 1 193 ha (1.3%) under vine in South Africa are still destined for sparkling wine, winemakers have really stepped up their game when it comes to producing high-quality expressions of the ‘heartbreak grape’.
Improving our Pinot
Richard Kershaw (MW) of Richard Kershaw Wines is excited about the evolution of Pinot Noir in South Africa. “It’s a sphere that’s generated a lot of interest. I think winemakers are starting to understand cool climates better and applying those principles to winemaking.”
He believes winemakers now have a better understanding of the influence that the right picking dates and ripeness have on the overall flavour profile of Pinot.
Although Richard doesn’t consider this an issue (there is, after all, a market for warm region Pinot Noirs), he feels that if we are to compete internationally, we must look towards cool climate conditions when it comes to Pinot Noir production.
“In essence, having the correct climate allows the winemaker more freedom to pick at the optimal time and therefore, intervene less in the cellar.” A cool climate simply allows this freedom far easier than a warmer climate. It’s essentially far more forgiving.”
He says stylistically, we need to be honest as to where South Africa can look to secure world class attributes when competing with other countries.
“Places like Marlborough in New Zealand thrive on volcanic soils with abundant red fruit (often strawberries) while Central Otago, despite its more premium image, has full-bodied styles, yet retain high acidity and vivid fruit profile,” says Richard.
“Oregon also has more punchy fruit aromas along with high alcohol levels. Here in South Africa, we get a little more of that Burgundian savoury, earthy style with a little more mid-palate fruit weight in Hemel-en-Aarde and a little more elegance in Elgin.”
“I’m not saying we shouldn’t or can’t make those styles, I’m just not sure if they’re representative of Pinot Noir’s complexities. Are we delivering at the top end? And the top end is where I want to play, and that’s where the excitement is. Understanding our clones, and the source of our grapes, better, has really helped with that.”
He describes this variety as “thinly veiled” or compares it to a “see-through-top” which reveals all the good and bad elements of the wine. “With Pinot Noir, there’s nowhere to hide. You notice every fault in every nook and cranny.”
According to Marinda Kruger-Claassen, business manager and winemaker at Elgin Vintners, there’s been a marked improvement among producers in South Africa, and that winemakers and viticulturists have a better understanding of the cultivar.
“It’s really terroir specific. If you don’t get it right in the vineyard, you’ll struggle in the cellar. Pinot Noir loves cool climate conditions, especially regions where the difference in day and night temperatures are extreme. It even prefers misty conditions.”
For Marinda, the last three seasons in the cellar has taught her a lot about the cultivar. “Pinot Noir doesn’t like being handled too much, and because the fruit is so delicate, one must be wary of over-extraction.”
Marinda also mentions that more and more winemakers are benchmarking their Pinot Noir expressions with global counterparts. At the end of last year, Marinda hosted an informal blind tasting between the regions of Elgin and Hemel-en-Aarde where 40 to 50 Pinots were tasted and examined.
“The idea was not to say which region produces the best, but rather, ‘what can we learn from each other?”
She’s also an avid buyer of international Pinot Noirs, and recently came across one from the Russian River Valley, which piqued her interest. “It’s an interesting region and a wonderful wine.”
It made her realise that the Cape Winelands is more than capable of holding its own when it comes to producing world-class Pinot Noir. “True, we might only be a speck on the world’s total Pinot production, but I really think we compete well on the global stage, and our wines easily live up to international standards.”
Promising Pinot harvest
With entries now officially open for the Mosaic Pinot Noir Top 5 Wine Awards, there’s a sense of anticipation for this year’s crop and vintage.
Richard says this year’s harvest has big shoes to fill but remains confident that it will live up to expectation. He says 2019 was an exceptional year for Pinot Noir. “Wines were minerally precise with clean lines and good acidity. But not necessarily the mid-palate structure that the 2020 vintage offered.”
He says the 2021 and 2022 harvests were quite different compared to the previous years, “influenced by a wet spring and relatively rainy year.”
According to him, the 2021 vintage had a lower alcohol, which he feels, is a good thing. “It will deliver a different standard in the sense that it will be a little bit more linear, less fleshy, more precise, and possibly, longer aged.”
Looking at what’s in the barrel currently, Richard is excited about the 2022 harvest and vintage.
“We learned from 2021 that we need to tighten up in the cellar as some of the tanks were sluggish through ferment as the temperatures were colder during maturation. Better tank warming and a warmer autumn season contributed to the fact that we achieved a better alcoholic and malolactic fermentation in 2022.”
Richard says sometimes, a more “hands-off approach” in the cellar is better for Pinot Noir. “I don’t necessarily want a wine that’s polished, but rather a wine that reflects the vintage. I’m excited about 2021 and 2022 and I think it will deliver wines that are different to the previous years.”
Marinda feels it’s still early days to determine whether the level of quality from this year’s harvest will live up to the previous two seasons, which she describes as “excellent vintages.”
Elgin’s Pinot Noir success had led the estate to increase its planting from 10 to 18 hectares over the next couple of years. Marinda says the focus is on quality. “Pinot Noir is not a particularly heavy bearer, and on our medium to light soils, we’re happy if we get yields of eight tons per hectare.”
The wines are currently maturing in the barrel, but according to Marinda, the flavour and concentration of the 2022 Pinot Noir harvest is there. “All the signs are pointing towards a quality Pinot Noir harvest. We experienced cooler growing conditions this season, and it’s looking promising.”
She says Elgin’s Pinot Noir are all planted on clone 777, one of the Dijon clones (so named because of the return address on the shipping containers that held the original imported cuttings from Burgundy). “There are strong blackberry flavours with beautiful earthy tones, which is encouraging. However, it all still needs to come together.”
Importance of a Pinot Noir competition
Marinda says competitions like the Mosaic Pinot Noir Top 5 provides the necessary exposure and awareness for quality-crafted Pinot Noir among South Africa’s buying public. “There are many wine consumers in South Africa who don’t drink Pinot Noir, simply because they don’t know or understand the cultivar,” she says.
Richard says competitions like these provide important touch points for a snapshot picture of Pinot Noir production in South Africa.
“A competition like this is like a jigsaw puzzle, if you will, as to where Pinot Noir fits in the wine landscape of South Africa, not only placing our finest wines on a pedestal – especially those that aren’t necessarily mainstream or well-known, but it also confirms the quality of the wines we do know.”
Says Marinda, “Competitions like this, that puts the quality of our Pinot Noir under the microscope, will ultimately drive more sales, but it also gives winemakers and producers the confidence and credibility needed to keep growing the Pinot Noir category in South Africa.”
She says a dedicated Pinot Noir competition is the perfect segue for introducing this style of wine to new consumers, as well as international markets.
“There’s a fine balance between price point and quality. Often, here in South Africa, we tend to overproduce on quality in relation to price point. A competition like this provides tremendous value on quality and helps with the traceability of credibility.”
“While South Africa might not be regarded as a ‘traditional’ Pinot Noir producer, Marinda says this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be taken seriously as a Pinot Noir producing-country.”
“We’re constantly identifying unique pockets of excellence that lends itself to producing world-class Pinot Noir,” Marinda concludes.
About the 2022 Mosaic Pinot Noir Top 5 Awards
Organisers of the Mosaic Pinot Noir Top 5 Awards decided to make entry (as well as award emblems) into this year’s competition free of charge. Producers are also free to enter multiple vintages and labels.
Producers are encouraged to submit their entry forms by 25 July 2022 and deliver the three (x3) 750 ml sample bottles between 25 and 27 July 2022 to 27 Donkin Way, Edgemead, Cape Town.
This prestigious competition is sponsored by Mosaic Family Office and identifies five distinctive South African Pinot Noirs. The aim is to provide a carefully curated portfolio of South African Pinot Noir exemplars to the international wine community.
Winners will be announced on International Pinot Noir Day (18 August 2022).
This year’s judging panel for the competition will consist of chairman Dr Winifred Bowman (CWM), Gregory Mutambe (head sommelier at Twelve Apostles Hotel), Adi Badenhorst (winemaker at AA Badenhorst Family Wines), Achim Doerr (consulting winemaker and international wine judge from Germany) and Fiona McDonald (editor of Cheers Magazine and international wine judge).
Raise a glass of Pinot to your health!
The health benefits associated with drinking red wines are linked to a powerful antioxidant called resveratrol. According to Forbes, cool climate Pinot Noir are more likely to deliver high levels of resveratrol than other varietal red wines.