Pinot Noir in Heaven and Earth

Tuesday, 30 January, 2018
Dave March CWM
The 2018 Pinot Noir Celebration was held deep in the rolling hills of Heaven and Earth, the beautiful Hemel-en-Aarde Valley, and presented wines from the three wards carrying its name.

Over two days, with each intermission lavishly dosed with wines from the district (nine Chardonnays accompanied lunch, for example) attendees were treated to a fun charity auction which raised some R120 000,vineyard tours, an immersion into Burgundy wines and the philosophy of Domaine Fourrier, individual masterclasses in Pinot Noirs of the World at many estates (such as Bouchard Finlayson, Newton Johnson, Hamilton Russell, Ataraxia and Storm) and in between food created by the likes of Peter Goffe-Wood and George Jardine.

Sound-bites of the beauty and frustration of Pinot Noir occured throughout, Jean-Marie Fourrier said, “You don’t tell Pinot Noir how to be made, it tells you how it wants to be made”, Anthony Hamilton Russell; “Pinot Noir is not an absolute, it is an expression”, Kevin Grant of Ataraxia wants you to experience, “Our dirt in a bottle”, and host of the weekend Michael Fridjhon believes, “Pinot Noir is almost price immune”.

The main event on the second day was a comparison of Pinot Noirs of three wards of the district.

Starting at sea level from Hermanus, the road winds through the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley, then, higher, the Upper Hemel-en-Aarde Valley and furthest from the sea, but still maritime and cooled by ocean breezes comes Hemel-en-Aarde Ridge. The furthest point of the wards is only 10km from the sea and with temperatures akin to Elgin and more rain than Stellenbosch (usually making irrigation unnecessary) the district experiences cooler days and warmer nights and cooler summers but milder winters than most regions.

The first wines were from Hemel-en-Aarde Valley. The soil here is clay, shale, stony and infertile, but without the limestone of Burgundy. Hillsides have more sandstone and quartz and wines have more structure, seem to be less forward and tighter in their youth. Wines are complex and brooding, yet poised; Hannes Storm calls them, “Not flashy or overly fruity”. This ward produces classic, intense and pure Pinot exemplified by Bouchard Finlayson’s Galpin Peak 2016 which also includes a small proportion of whole-bunch fermentation (which many producers are practicing).

The Upper Hemel-en-Aarde Valley is larger, further up the road and has more granite mixed with clay allowing deep root penetration and vineyards north and south facing. Wines here are more opulent, less nervy and seemingly riper. Corlea Fourie of Bosman Family Vineyards had a low p.H of 3.39g/L in her wine and felt that assisted the elegance and balance of her 2016. The wines drink easier earlier, and despite more weight than those of the Valley below have an “Ethereal, and linear minerality,” says Anthony Hamilton Russell. Restless River winemaker Craig Wessels believes this ward reflects more obviously, “varying soils and aspects as well as winemaker influence”.  “Ethereal’ and ‘linear’ appeared again, in the notes of Gordon Newton Johnson’s Seadragon Pinot 2016, a wine I scored at 93 points and it’s still in nappies.

Promotional material introduced the third ward, the Hemel-en-Aarde Ridge as ‘not located in the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley’, but running between the Valley and the Onrus and Klein rivers. Soils are shale, stones and sandstone, freer draining and slopes and elevation can exceed 300 metres. The wines seemed less homogenous, the Creation Art of Pinot Noir 2016 showing Morello cherry and spice, the Domaine Des Dieux Josephine 2016 being more restrained, crisper and sleek and the Whalehaven Ridge 2016 being forward, easy drinking with red berry delicacy. JC Martin of Creation got his 2016 sugar level down to 1.5g/L which takes some doing. Young vines and as Kevin Grant says, “a pursuit of individuality’, effect these wines which Hannes believes may not be just the soil variations.

The wines of the wards have different characteristics, then, not blatantly, but increasingly so. Michael Fridjhon believes that there is, “an increasing coherence of wines of the district”, that aging vines in each Ward is adding to their unique terroir characters and making them more separate but still with the overall Burgundian restraint and balance key to the Valley.

It was clear listening to those mentioned as well as Gordon Newton Johnson, Chris Albrecht, Emul Ross, Walter Pretorius, ReinoThiart, and Christo Kotze that Michael Fridjhon was right in his assertion that winemakers here are looking for structure, elegance and tension in their wines and not New World heavy fruit bombs. Colour is a by-product, depth isn’t the goal, extraction is abhorrent. Several winemakers don’t do punch downs or much maceration, Craig Wessels spoke of moistening the ferment cap by hand and not controlling ferment temperatures at all!

Michael Fridjhon says that it may not be apparent yet but in 100 years the Valley will be Burgundian in its sense of unique place and family, and that producers will cherish and reflect the terroir of each plot which will be as distinct and complex as the vineyards of the Côte d’Or.

What was also apparent was the comradery of winemakers, their humility and free exchange of information, the pursuit of excellence and willingness to experiment and admit to mistakes. They pursue, as Jean-Marie Fourrier put it, “Legacy, not fashion”.

Participating Appellation Tutored Tasting Wineries;
Bosman Family Vineyards
Bouchard Finlayson
Domaine des Dieux
Hamilton Russell Vineyards
La Vierge
Newton Johnson
Restless River

Other Hemel-en-Aarde Wineries;
Mount Babylon
Southern Right