In his novel A Maggot, John Fowles gives an archaic meaning of his title word as “obsession” – clearly the creature is a close relative of what the Germans call an earworm, that gets in your ear and incessantly sings the same irritating tune.
There’s a maggot that eventually creeps into the brain of just about every ambitious producer of famously fickle pinot noir. What if, the maggot suggests, you were to make not just one pinot, but many, each telling a subtly different story about its own vineyard? For only riesling, perhaps, is so transparent a grape as pinot, revealing its origins though the veil of varietal character.
The maggot has long been endemic in Burgundy, leading to minutely parcellated vineyards, and even smaller areas within vineyards, the finest each with its own reputation and character – and price, for the maggot can also drive wine-lovers mad. But for decades it’s also been infesting wineries around the world.
Pinot was irrelevant in the Cape until Tim Hamilton Russell decided in the late 1970s that it would be just the thing for his pioneering new wine farm in the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley, stretching inland from seaside Hermanus. Too bad that it was not what the ruling KWV had in mind; that was a challenge to be overcome.
Tim died a few months ago, but his monument endures not only in the family estate, Hamilton Russell Vineyards, but also in the proliferation of vines throughout the region. And no other area in the Cape has as large a proportion of its vineyards planted to pinot noir as does the Hemel-en-Aarde – together with chardonnay, the variety which made Hamilton Russell Vineyards famous.
Also settling in well is the maggot. Witness, first, Peter-Allan Finlayson, son of Peter Finlayson (who was the pioneering winemaker at HRV before moving out to do his own thing at Bouchard Finlayson). From the 2012 vintage, Peter-Allan’s Crystallum label offers three deliciously excellent pinots, ‘expressing the incredible diversity of site and soils’, says Peter-Allan – and I’d be surprised if the maggot lets him stop there.
The Johnson family on the Newton Johnson estate also used to buy in all or some of their pinot, but now have enough grown in diverse sites on their two properties to go it alone. The flagship Family Vineyards version has been remarkably successful since its first, 2008, vintage (it was then called Domaine) – winning five stars in the Platter guide for that and each subsequent vintage. (We must wait for the release of the 2014 edition to see what happens to the 2012 there, but I reckon it’s one of the best yet.)
As an understudy to that wine, and basically replacing the version that used to be made from Elgin grapes, the new Walker Bay Pinot Noir comes off younger vines and flatter slopes – at R180 ex-cellar less pricey by about R80, but fresh, gently structured and full of flavour.
Two pinots are not enough for some, however, and the 2012 vintage sees more evidence of the progress of the maggot at this quintessential family farm. Three different vineyards give grapes for the grand vin, and the Johnsons decided to offer bottlings of each component to those fascinated by subtleties of soil, sun and slope (or, simply, lovers of good pinot noir). Only available from the farm, from mid October and for R600, are three-packs containing a bottle of each single-vineyard wine: Windansea (my own favourite of the three), Mrs M, and Block 6 – the last of these being the vineyard that comprised the entirety of the maiden 2008, and that winemaker Gordon Johnson says is still the core of the blend.
If this is all too expensive and recherché, but you still like drinking pinot noir, you could do worse than try a bottle of modest, pleasant Felicité for around R80 – mostly from Robertson grapes, but made in the Hemel-en-Aarde cellar (the sixth version)!, and with the gentle Newton-Johnson touch.
This is an extended version of the piece published in the Mail & Guardian, 4-10 October, 2013
A SINGULAR OFFER: For various reasons, I have a full set of all five Newton Johnson 2012 pinots. They were extra wines delivered for Platter tasting, but went unused. The winery has agreed that I should offer these wines (most of which are without their final labels, though otherwise identical to what are now being sold), in exchange for a charitable donation. They would like them to go to a tasting group. If you are interested, and could collect them in Cape Town, please contact me: timjames1*at*gmx.com