The annual Hemel-en-Aarde Pinot Noir Celebration is a great event – like no other in South Africa, now that the Swartland Revolution has been abandoned. It’s more than just the marketing tool that most other public wine events are – largely because of the genuine love for pinot wine felt by the local winegrowers, and their generosity and enthusiasm in sharing it. While the Friday is, very properly, mostly focused on showcasing the current pinots of the area (this year the 2014s), the Saturday is full of smaller events hosted by the producers, many marked by a most remarkable will to share.
Take Kevin Grant of Ataraxia, who this year offered a fascinating tasting of eight wines (seven from premier cru vineyards) from the eminent domaine of Robert Chevillon in the Nuits-St-Georges appellation of Burgundy’s Côte de Nuits. Wines made in identical fashion, from patches of earth separated by not many kilometres, yet very different – and the difference is the enthralling bit, for pinot is perhaps the most transparent of red grapes (as riesling is of whites), showing its varietal character while, when sensitively made, revealing the character of soil, slope and vintage. A great experience this was, a tasting beautifully prepared and presented by Kevin and by Derek Kilpin of Great Domaines, South Africa’s great importer of Burgundian wines. Wow.
And Peter Finlayson, in a rather easier-going experience, included some of his own Bouchard-Finlayson wines in a tasting of mostly foreign wines, among them a few Burgundian Grands Crus, which certainly did not put to shame Bouchard Finlayson’s fine 1998 CWG pinot. The Tête de Cuvée 2000 was another of quite a few Bouchard wines that played a part in something of a revision in my mind about Cape pinot’s past and present and potential performance: I’m overall more impressed than I have been, as indicated in some recent blogs. I’m learning. I’m always learning, I hope.
A challenging vintage
As to the tasting of 2014s. I was rather expecting the worst, from a vintage I knew had been marked by rain at the wrong times, one that was, as Anthony Hamilton Russell acknowledged, “full of obstacles” – but also, as Gordon Newton Johnson said, “nice low alcohols”.
The wines were presented, of course, by ward. There are (notoriously?) three of them in the Hemel-en-Aarde, and we’re perhaps starting to see some coherence and significance in the arrangement. The Hemel-en-Aarde Valley ward offered just three wines, and I rather liked them all, and wondered if they were linked by a more robust tannic structure than the wines of the other wards. The Hamilton Russell showed, perhaps surprisingly, less of the herbal character I often am disappointed to find on it; it was held together by a pronounced, by not imbalanced acidity (quite a lot of added acid here); not one of the HRV Pinots that age well, I suspect. Bouchard Finlayson Galpin Peak had more perfume and charm, and a slightly woody note – drinking very pleasingly already and probably also not for long ageing. Storm Vrede was the standout of the line-up: the most youthful-looking, the richest (though with the lowest alcohol, at 13.06%, but a touch more residual sugar).
The other of Hannes Storm’s wines, the Moya’s, was in the line-up of Upper Hemel-en-Aarde Valley wines. Hannes is really one of the area’s stars already, after just two vintages (and many as previous HRV winemaker, of course), and this was also a lovely wine – open, perfumed and expressive, perhaps a shade more elegantly restrained than the Vrede. Newton Johnson Family Vineyard showed very well, as usual. Not much lighter than usual, with fine perfume and an equipoise of structure with full cherry fruity complicated by earthiness, in a lively tension. I was a bit disappointed by Sumaridge this year, but it is balanced and makes for very pleasant early drinking. WhaleHaven is rather more awkward, and has a soft, sweetish element and easygoing richness. But likeable enough.
There was something on the aromas of all the Hemel-en-Aarde Ridge wines that linked them for me, but I can’t really understand or isolate it – something between earth and toffee. The line-up was mixed, I thought, in terms of quality, some wines showing evidence of a lack of concentration, a weakness at the centre. With the Ataraxia, I suspect this might be the age of the vines, with the two Creation wines more likely it’s a degree of sweet over-ripeness that had other effects that I didn’t care for much (after having admired these wines last year). I also found a sweet element on the Domaine des Dieux Josephine, which is perhaps light and lacking complexity, but certainly not without charm.
Two wines were shown by La Vierge, and I like them both (neither yet released) – I think winemaker Gerhard Smith, with invaluable experience in New Zealand, is doing great things here, and the evidence is starting to show. The La Vierge Noir is one of the more vibrant of all these wines, with a beautiful, tense balance. There’s also a small bottling of a naturally-fermented wine (though the acidity is still adjusted) called Apogée, which is a fine argument for the approach. Perhaps a little oaky now, but I bet it will harmonise. The fruit is more intense, the complexity more in evidence than in the Noir.
Peter-Allan Finlayson’s Crystallum Cuvée Cinéma was certainly among my very top wines of the tasting, confirming my view of its status as one of the Hemel-en-Aarde’s, and the Cape’s, best pinots. Impeccable balance, with perfume, just the right grip from acid and tannin, and a savoury element as part of its elegant intensity. Importantly, like some others here, it shows a firm orientation to that restraint, that subordination of fruit to terroir, which is, I think, an important part of what we love in fine burgundy.