Pinot’s trail of broken hearts

The “heartbreak grape” they call it — a sad cliché used by wine-growers around the world who’ve tried and failed to get pinot noir to produce the wonders of Burgundy. But the code has been cracked to some extent in the past few decades, including in the Cape.

Hearts are still broken, however, by the fickle creature, and during recent looks at many vintages by two of our more eminent pinot producers one reason for this was clear to me. Although the characters of different years (permutations of rain, sun, wind and heat) affect wines made from all grape varieties, the spread of variation with the pinots of Hamilton Russell Vineyards (HRV) and Catherine Marshall was notable, and I’m sure that they are far from unique in this.

HRV, from 1981 the modern pioneers of the grape in South Africa, a little while back released a “vertical” collection of their pinot noir — packs including bottles from each of the vintages from 2005 to 2009. Tranches will be released each year for another half-decade (while they build up the next collection) at increasing prices (now R2 000).

I’ve twice tasted the set and noticed that the vintages varied significantly in quality. So, incidentally, did some of the bottles — the 2005 was pretty good in one case though already clearly mature but showed serious over-development in the other (presumably oxidised by a rogue cork).

On both occasions, the 2006 was the standout success; the 2007 was much lighter — more herbal and acidic, compared with the fruitier 2008, for example. The youthful 2009 promised a fine future, well balanced apart from the evident oak influence that is characteristic of HRV despite their vaunted classicism.

One would expect more variation in Marshall’s wines as she, unlike HRV, owns no vineyards and sourced grapes widely since her maiden 2001 (still eminently drinkable). Now she is settled in Elgin and her wines show the slightly burlier, more structured character that is perhaps characteristic of that area, compared with the perfumed charm of the Hemel-en-Aarde area where HRV’s vineyards are.

And there was greater variation of style and quality. Interestingly, the fragrant, elegant 2006 was again the standout but the 2003 was good, as were the earthier, more savoury and weighty 2008 (her first all-Elgin pinot) and the 11 Barrels Reserve from 2009. She now makes these reserves each year, which are usually bigger, firmer wines.

No one in the Cape makes more modest, more delicately “feminine” pinots than Marshall, with restrained oaking and little in the way of obvious tannic power, but at their best capable of giving great subtle pleasure over many years of development.

Marshall’s 2010 is lighter than many of her wines, though still with fresh charm, and comparatively very well priced. It was a vintage that many producers found problematic, and HRV’s, too, is well off its best.

If it’s the top examples of 2010 you’re after, look elsewhere — to the brightest new stars of the Hemel-en-Aarde, perhaps, Newton Johnson for their Domaine and Crystallum for the Cuvée Cinema; to Elgin for the two pinots from Paul Cluver and the one from Oak Valley; to Stellenbosch for Meerlust; and to Franschhoek for Chamonix.

That remarkable spread of excellence is testimony to the progress made by the Cape’s growers of pinot noir, however scarred their hearts might be.


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