The Hemel en Aarde Pinot Noir Celebration 2015 proved even better than the maiden event last year – especially in that the main item on the programme, a formal tasting of all the area’s 2013 pinots, presented by the winemakers on Friday afternoon, was held in a really good venue: the ballroom of the Bon Dea estate venure, with plenty of natural light, marvellous views through the big windows, and air-conditioning – eat your heart out, Swartland Revolution!
I say that but, actually, no – as with most aspects of the (oft-touted) comparison between Cape wine’s two best wine festivals, there are advantages both ways, and trying to work out which is “better” is rather like fixing on either syrah or pinot noir as the “better” grape. Despite inadequate lighting and airconditioning, and despite the impossibility of pouring wines during the tasting (there’s just no room, and it’s a significant drawback), the tented auditorium in Riebeek-Kasteel allows for twice as many tasters (only 135 paying guests for pinot), and its fan shape and tiers allows for better integration of the audience and panel – virtually everyone can see everyone else, which is nice.
In fact, the more formal format of the Pinot Celebration does seem to encourage better discussion of the wines, which is to my mind the real edge it has over the Revolution. The atmosphere, while happy and excited enough, is not the rather frantic party-going noisiness encouraged by the Swartlanders – so there are fewer jokes and more serious appreciation of the wines. (But I’m hoping that maybe the Swartlanders have realised this now, and will aim to focus more attention on the wines and less on the relentless adolescent fun next year.)
The Saturday programme in the Hemel-en-Aarde would be impossible to replicate in the Swartland – and it’s another aspect of the more un-crowded feel about the event, as the group splits up into shifting smaller groups for the day, rather than staying together as a large group. The pinot producers are all based pretty near each other in the valley, so it’s easy for the punters to scoot between them and the various brilliant tastings they put on (though of course one can’t go to nearly all of them).
One of the highlights of the Celebration for me (as I’ve mentioned elsewhere) was a tasting of 2011 pinots from Martinborough, New Zealand, presented by Gerhard Smith (right), winemaker at La Vierge. Gerhard worked here for some eight vintages [see my correction in Comment below], and his Gladstone Vineyard Pinot 2011 was amongst the best of his lineup: perfumed and refined, with the silk-textured and restrained elegance that seems to be an enviable hallmark of Martinborough. And delicate. Suddenly Gerhard reminded me of David Sadie of the Swartland (about whose wines I was recently enthusing): both are big, rugger-buggerish-looking guys but making wines of refined, delicate loveliness.
I think Gerhard is getting there with his La Vierge Noir, though the Hemel-en-Aarde is obviously going to produce a different wine from Martinborough, even once the vines reach comparable age – possibly always bigger, more savoury, less immediately charming. The 2013 Noir is the first made entirely under his guidance, and it’s very promising – amongst my favourites of the valley’s offering of that vintage. My note on it read: “Good fragrance, very clean, fresh nose. Floral. Fresh, lively, energetic. Nice but not excessive tannic tug. Silky enough. Muscular but still elegant. Pleasingly dry.”
I’m glad to say that the 2013 will only be released in another year or so – it’s evidence of the seriousness of this cellar that they are holding back their flagship wine until it’s had a chance to mature a few years in bottle. (Don’t ignore the 2012, by the way – it’s not as good, but it’s far from negligible, and recommendable.) While the 2013 is undoubtedly impressive, it’s still undoubtedly rather raw, and should be even better on release.
La Vierge has a lot of young vines coming up in the Hemel-en-Aarde Ridge ward, and is clearly destined to be a substantial pinot player in the area, in terms of quantity as well as quantity (though the sympathetic attitude of owner Peter Clarke is that grapes will also be sold off to young winemakers without vineyards of their own). It’s a label to be watched with great interest – I look forward to trying their other wines at some less stressed time. But, by the way, don’t bother to try to find out anything useful from the clumsy and silly website, as I did – there are a lot of words there, but they convey little of interest.