Here is an article I came across. Sounds like it is time to find 1 or 2 good examples.
The great grapes of Burgundy have found a rather surprising new home, James Lawrence argues.
If one were to imagine the most likely candidate for producing refined, elegant Pinot Noir, South Africa might, to put it mildly, not come very near the top of the list.
After all, a nation that provides us with meaty, voluptuous Syrah with an ease tantamount to promiscuity is surely not a frontrunner for making convincing imitations of red Burgundy.
Such perceptions are often willingly reinforced by the trade, who continue to wax lyrical about the marvelous examples of Pinot coming out of Oregon and New Zealand, while simultaneously insisting that the grape rarely travels well.
"For me, since New Zealand started to identify the better areas for Pinot Noir, no one country in general has really found an area where it is thriving," argues Cedric Nicaise, wine director at Eleven Madison Park in New York.
"There are pockets here and there but overall, if you are looking for a region where Pinot Noir thrives, I have not really seen anything new. It's a notoriously finicky grape and yet very fashionable right now, therefore new plantings are popping up in places where they should not be."
Yet a recent tasting of various South African Pinots, grown in diverse sites across the Western Cape, strongly hinted that this proud nation is one of world's great unsung heroes of producing memorable and evocative Pinot Noir, albeit in small volumes.
The best examples were utterly seductive, treading an interesting line between the riper fruit and weight and denser texture of the New World, and the more complex, structured mineral tension of the Old World.
Some leaned much more towards Burgundy, while others could have been mistaken blind for Californian Pinots – few, though, could be described as overripe, unsubtle duds.
Hamilton Russell Vineyards definitely belongs in the Burgundy camp, a remarkable producer of elegant, velvety Pinot Noir run by second generation Anthony Hamilton Russell. They planted their inaugural vines in 1976 – first vintage 1981. Yet the owners attribute their success to sheer luck, rather than anything else.
"The extensive soil research I conducted in 1994 pointed to the extremely clay-rich and iron-rich Bokkeveld Shale derived soils as being probably the principal contributor to our more structured 'Burgundian' style," says Hamilton Russell.
"However, in the 1970s, very little thought was given to the impact of soil structure on wine style and we had 'lucked into' planting our vines on clay-rich soils derived from 400 million year old shale – soils traditionally thought of as only good for wheat cultivation or grazing sheep."
Today the estate cultivates 52 hectares in what is arguably South Africa's best source of Pinot Noir – the Hemel-en-Aarde region. It is made up of three contiguous appellations: Hemel-en-Aarde Valley (Hamilton Russell's appellation and the closest to the sea), Upper Hemel-en-Aarde Valley and Hemel-en-Aarde Ridge.
"In the Upper Hemel-en-Aarde Valley, where the soils are lighter and from decomposed granite and sandstone, the wines are more feminine, less structured, while the Hemel-en-Aarde Ridge, back on clay-rich soils but further from the sea, has a little more structure than the Upper Hemel-en-Aarde Valley and a slightly darker fruit profile, at times reminiscent (to me) of Oregon," says Hamilton Russell.
However, tasting Paul Cluver's range of wines, particularly the Seven Flags brand, confirms that Hemel-en-Aarde doesn't have the monopoly on red Burgundy imitations. Cluver planted their first (Pinot Noir) vineyards in Elgin in 1989, a region renowned for its cooler growing conditions.
"The Elgin Valley is quite unique: we are surrounded by mountains, we are situated on an elevated plateau, and our proximity to the Atlantic Ocean make Elgin the coolest wine-growing area in South Africa," says winemaker Andries Burger.
"But I do not think we can compare our Pinot Noirs to the wines from New Zealand or West Coast of the US. Elgin is quite unique, possibly more Old World in character than New World, the focus is more on elegance and fruit purity. The wines display great purity of fruit, yet always with restraint and great poise."
Crystallum is another rising star among South Africa's growing firmament of superlative Pinot Noir producers. Their Peter Max cuvée is currently one of the region's best buys.
Nonetheless, winemaker Peter Allan Finlayson readily concedes that elegance does not come naturally or effortlessly to South African Pinot Noir.
"The greatest difference between Pinot here and the Cote d'Or is that while they often struggle with achieving ripeness, we have the opposite problem in retaining acidity and freshness," says Finlayson.
Meanwhile, Chardonnay grown in the Western Cape appears to be getting better with each vintage – De Morgenzon, Hamilton Russell and Paul Cluver all now produce world-class examples.
"Our Chardonnay is planted on steep, east-facing slopes, so they only receive cool morning sunshine – weathered granite soils result in a flinty, linear style of wine," says De Morgenzon winemaker Carl van der Merwe.
"Cape Chardonnay grown on granite gives a wine that reminds me of Meursault. It's not as broad and round as Napa, nor is it as lemony as what one sees coming out of modern day South Australia. It matures faster than Burgundy but shows that fine balance of ripeness and freshness with a flinty backbone."
Yet, he also adds that: "Whilst the SA wines can be fleshier, they may not have the persistence and 'tail' that good Burgundy offers."
But what is also undeniable about the best of South Africa's Chardonnay and Pinot Noir is the great value the wines represent, tail or no tail.
Sadly, though, they are too frequently absent from wine lists – Pinot Noir is usually beaten to the post by Kiwi or US West Coast competitors.
London-based wine buyer Christine Parkinson explains that New World Pinot is a massive seller for the Hakkasan restaurant chain, yet conversely she chose historically not to list any from the Cape.
Her counterpart in New York, Cedric Nicaise, is also reticent, admitting: "We list, on any given day, upwards of 200 different wines, but they are mostly from California, Oregon, and New Zealand."
It may simply be a question of time, however, as the trade wakes up to the exceptional quality on offer, minus the grand cru price-tag.
Christine Parkinson, for example, adds that she is considering adding some South African Pinot Noir to her list, noting that the wines "are vastly better than they used to be".
US sommelier Max Kast is another acolyte. "I'm a big fan of South African Pinot Noir, particularly from Hemel-en-Aarde Valley; as a sommelier I have always had Hamilton Russell on my lists," he says.
"I think very highly of the wines from Hemel-en-Aarde and am excited to see what transpires in the region in the future."
Indeed you'd think that listing South African Pinot and Chardonnay would be a no-brainer for most restaurants; every sommelier I've met claims that their raison d'etre is to seek out wines that over-deliver, in relation to their price tag.
An accusation that, without any hesitation, could easily be levied at the wines below.
Wine Name Avg. Price
Hamilton Russell Vineyards Hemel-en-Aarde Valley Chardonnay, Walker Bay $31
De Morgenzon Reserve Chardonnay, Stellenbosch $30
Paul Cluver Seven Flags Pinot Noir, Elgin $39
Crystallum Peter Max Pinot Noir, Walker Bay $26
Newton Johnson Pinot Noir, Walker Bay $25