When, in the early 1970’s, Tim Hamilton-Russell settled on the Hemel-en-Aarde valley in South Africa’s southern coastal Cape area as the coolest spot he could find to produce Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, he regretted there wasn’t a region just 100 or so miles further south in which to perfect his endeavors.
But Hamilton-Russell’s choices proved successful: today the wines—especially the Pinot Noirs–are winning accolades and awards worldwide. The category continues to gain traction as vine material improves and winemakers better understand how to cultivate the notoriously sensitive variety in the Elgin and Hemel-en-Aarde regions.
On the wave of this rising star momentum, and in an effort to see how South African Pinot Noir compares internationally, Cape Town-based sommelier Jorg Pfuetzner recently organised a tasting of 50 carefully selected Pinot Noirs from Burgundy, New Zealand, Hemel-en-Aarde and Elgin, tasted in five blind flights with winemakers, sommeliers and Pinot experts.
The South African selections included the highly-rated Newton-Johnson Domaine 2008 (Hemel-en-Aarde) and Cathy Marshall’s Elgin 2008, as well several vintages going back to 2000 from established names such as Hamilton Russell and Bouchard Finlayson. Central Otago formed the majority of New Zealand’s representatives: four from Felton Road, including the iconic Block 3 and Block 5, Craggy Range Te Muna and Wild Earth. Pegasus Bay (Waipara), and cult wine Koru from Marlborough represented other regions in the South Island.
Among the impressive Burgundian selections were Domaine Armand Rousseau Clos de la Roche Grand Cru 2006, Domaine Robert Chevillon Nuits St George Les Chaignots’ 1er cru and Domaine Marquis d’Angerville Volnay Les Champans 1er Cru.
The New Zealand and South African Pinots appeared to develop more quickly than the Burgundies, in some cases ageing but without developing much complexity. Few tasters could pinpoint a particular Hemel-en-Aarde or Elgin character in the wines, due in many cases to the youth of the vines or new producers with few vintages under their belt. Despite this, quality across the board is considered good and 21st century South African Pinot Noir is on the radar for wine to watch.