I have been thinking quite a lot about Pinot Noir lately after having written an article on the grape for a local magazine. I feel that I can usefully reconstitute some of those points here in slightly stronger language.
Why is it, I wonder, that we are continually comparing our Pinots to those of Burgundy? Sure, they have been growing the stuff there for hundreds, if not thousands of years, but the comparison tires me out, and I am beginning to wonder how helpful it is at all.
I am sure that some of you might be thinking, “Sod you, Haddon, we can’t afford Burgundy, and now you are going to tell us not to compare it to our local wines, why don’t you go jump in a vat of Pinotage.” Or possibly even, “Burgundy, huh?”
To the former I ask for patience as I hope that even if you don’t have deep pockets, the points I make are useful to wine drinkers in general. To the latter:
Burgundy – a region in France – and more specifically a little strip called the Côte d’Or and its residents have been making wines out of Pinot Noir for a very long time. Some of the wines from this region are the most hallowed, expensive and hard to get wines on the planet.
I have tasted a fair amount of Burgundy, and while far from being an expert, I can say that the wines can be immaculate, interesting, difficult, hedonistic, and exciting. That’s fine. I am sure we can all believe that truly great Pinots can come from Burgundy. Happy? Good.
My problem is the continual comparison of our local Pinots to theirs. Should we be doing this? Is it helping or hindering our understanding of our local Pinots?
“Very drinkable, but not exactly Burgundian.”
“Wow, brilliant, almost Burgundian.”
“I’m telling you, put this in a line up of Burgundies and it will be hard to spot as South African.”
These comments, while understandable, are beginning to grate. Soon I am going to stand up at a tasting and shout back,
“Well why don’t you fuck off to the sodding Cote d’Or and drink all the sodding Burgundy your pretentious little stomach can handle.”
This would miss the point, but make me feel a lot better. But seriously, or as seriously as I can be:
The reason Pinot Noir has flourished in Burgundy – we assume the area is perfect for Pinot, but has anyone tried Pinotage I wonder – is because they have being doing it for a long long time. Monks kept scrupulous records of how the vine grew in different soils for something like 800 years. 800 years. That’s long enough for James Michener to write a novel about it.
Logically for some, this has turned into a game of catch up for new world (everywhere but Europe) wine producers. But here is where I see this race to be Burgundy as totally illogical.
After growing a variety for so long in one place, even one so susceptible to mutations like Pinot Noir, it gets settled in. It is, like that grisly man at the bar sitting on the same bar stool day after day, a local.
As such, the Burgundians are justified to bang on about how their wines do not taste as much of the grape itself, but of the terroir. Okay. Fine. You have 800 year’s practice; you can say what you like.
If we accept this, then surely comparing how our Pinot’s taste to those that taste of French soils, climate, and winemaking is a little absurd. Of course like locals anywhere, winemakers can look to the French examples for tips on winemaking, soil types etcetera.
When we sit down and taste a South African Pinot – or any wine for that matter – and immediately dismiss it because it isn’t a facsimile of a wine from a region a 1 000 miles away, we are truly doing our own wines a disservice.
When we taste our wines, we need to start thinking how they taste South African. Can we find typicity among a bunch of South African examples rather than find the one that tastes most French? That last sentence sums up the absurdity of the exercise.
So, if you want to go out and start trying this, here are a few wines to get you started.
Chamonix Pinot Noir Reserve:
It got five stars in Platter. It’s a beauty. From Franschhoek, expertly crafted, sumptuous, light and well structured. A beautiful wine.
Meerlust Pinot Noir:
This wine is making a comeback. Believe me.
Mr. P (from Iona):
A slightly more frivolous Pinot Noir. You don’t have to worry about anything other than where the next bottle’s at.
Solid, dependable, always well made.
Of course, this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t drink widely, and taste as much Burgundian, Californian, Australian, Chilean and New Zealand Pinot Noirs as we can. There is a difference between levels of quality and what a wine tastes like. That’s a column for another day, but for now we need to be finding out what our wines taste like.
Are there any Pinots you have had recently that are fantastic? How are they South African?
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