Cape pinot and burgundy seven years on

Merely out of a rigorous sense of duty, of course, I last evening opened a bottle of red burgundy. I am, of course, always obedient to the dictates of duty – especially perhaps (I mentioned previously that I am engrossed in Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park) when I feel the severely dutiful Fanny Price hovering like a good angel over my left shoulder. Actually the only mention of wine in the book in connection with Fanny Price is her regretting the absence of her beloved cousin Edmund when it comes to adding water to her wine. (I warmed more, I confess, to another character who welcomed the arrival of a friend to stay as an excuse for drinking claret every night.)

My bottle of burgundy was not a very grand one – a mere village wine, though from an excellent producer – but anything from burgundy seems grand as the rand plummets and the prospect of affording more of the stuff recedes into the mists of fantasy. A bottle of Meo-Camuzet Vosne-Romanée would probably cost at least R1000 now.

pinotCompare that to Newton-Johnson Pinot Noir – probably a third of the price. Comparing them was precisely my point. I had first opened the 2008 Newton Johnson. Nowadays it’s known as Family Reserve, but the 2008, the first release to come entirely from the home vineyards in Hemel-en-Aarde, just has “Pinot Noir” on the front label and “’D’ Pinot Noir” on the back – the “D” standing for the word “Domaine” that had to be dropped in deference to the linguistic controls exercised by the European Union.

Well, comparing the two – though not the price – was precisely the point of the exercise. I’d opened, the bottle of Newton Johnson 2008 the night before and drunk happily of it. No question it was still very much alive (the colour pretty advanced but that’s no surprise as this wine can show brown almost from birth) and valid as a pinot noir, and actually pretty tasty. My worry was that it was a touch heavy and thick-textured, lacking verve, though certainly drinkable. So, off I went to find a 2008 burgundy to compare.

Flashback to New Year’s Eve. A quiet, marvellous evening: dinner under the trees with Chris and Andrea Mullineux outside their house on Roundstone farm on the Kasteelberg, with Rosa Kruger also there. Amidst too much else, we opened a bottle of similarly modest village burgundy I’d brought along (also a 2008 from a fine producer: this was Dujac Morey St Denis). Said someone: “Can we here make anything as good as this?” I thought perhaps we could, though I am a touch sceptical of the big claims that are made about Cape pinots (and not only by local critics).

So when, a week or two later, I’d broached, and started enjoying, the Newton Johnson 2008, I thought I’d make the direct comparison. I do rather think, in fact, that the Newton Johnson Family Reserve has improved with succeeding vintages, vintage differences taken into account. (In Burgundy, 2008 was a very decent, probably underestimated, vintage.) But on the night, with this pair, some seven years after the vintage (the Cape wine obviously a little older than the French one), I’m afraid there was no doubt about the quality difference – clearer, I suspect, with a bit of maturity than it would have been in the flush of youth. The Méo-Camuzet Vosne-Romanée 2008 has, firstly, a freshness, elegance and liveliness that the N-J lacks (has perhaps lost), and more layers; it certainly has many more years of life and development ahead of it.

As the rand plummets and serious French wines get increasingly unaffordable, and I feel so grateful about the quality of local white wines, syrah and the occasional other, this reminder of how hard it is to match red burgundy (chardonnay’s a different story, perhaps) is a bit depressing.

13 thoughts on “Cape pinot and burgundy seven years on

  1. It is a cliche now Tim, but that is why Pinot is called the heartbreak grape. It brings us such joy, and always such sorrow. Sorrow perhaps too strong a word, melancholy is probably better.

  2. Is it really depressing that the Cape can’t make pinot that tastes like Burgundy? Burgundy can’t make Chenin as good as the Cape, or Syrah, or Pinotage… (and it doesn’t lose any sleep over it)

    Surely the Cape can’t expect to mirror every famous old-wine region, nor IMO should it. It should be making the best Cape wine.

    However..Unless the two wines use the same Pinot clones, or same blend of clones, then the comparison is notvalid. There’s so much difference between some PN clones as to make them effectively different varieties.

  3. That’s fair comment, Peter. My final point really meant that fine burgundy is getting too expensive for me, so it would be nice (and un-depressing!) if I could find a cheaper local substitute for it. But to respond to you more generally: Firstly, as Chris implies in his comment, everyone wants to make great pinot if they possibly can. Secondly, in the Cape we make some very tasty ones and some pretty good ones, which I much enjoy for what they are; maybe one day we will make great ones here. Many people, in my opinion, overrate them now, though (just look at the Platter ratings, for example, which are often absurdly more generous than for, say, chenin, arguably because not enough South African judges and critics taste enough fine pinot from around the world to allow them to form a valid judgement). So my comment is a little contribution to that debate. Incidentally, I think that serious Cape pinot-makers (Newton Johnson among the leaders, of course) are well up in clonal choice and understanding of the variety.

  4. True enough Hennie. But that’s a bit like saying, while talking about international rugby, that your brother-in-law is a very good scrum-half for the local club. A lot depends on the context in which you’re talking about “very good”, doesn’t it?

    • Put it up against a Newton Johnson and you will see that price is not always an indicator of quality. Which I think is the point you were making.

  5. Not trying to be argumentative, but I repeat my point. I have no doubt of Newton Johnsons expertise and knowledge of clones, but if their wine uses a different clone – or a different blend of the same clones – than the Burgundy then it’s not comparing like with like. For example, Wadenswil, Pommard, 667 (Dijon Clone), and 777 (Dijon Clone) each make noticeably different wines.

  6. While the NJ’s are doing a bit of Burgundy research tonight I can add to this discussion that they use Dijon clone’s 113, 115 and 777.

    Last week I did a pinot tasting with 5 vintages of NJ FV, from 2009 to 2013 (2009 was still called Domaine) and the 2011 was the standout. A comment from a Burgundy expert was “NJ is the most Burgundian” (we compared Chamonix, HR and NJ).
    In 2008 the vines were just 6 years old so not fair to compare this with the Meo-Camuzet Vosne-Romanée 2008.
    Next time you should compare a 2011 Village with the NJFV2011 and I think you will be surprised!

  7. Agreed, Udo, that would be a more interesting comparison. As I said, I suspect the wines have improved with succeeding vintages. But even better would be to compare the 2011s once they have reached what in Burgundy would be regarded as something like maturity for a good wine. Generally, I’m not impressed by the ability of local pinots to improve for 10 years. One or two of the older HRVs seem alive still, but we don’t have much more to go on.

    • The HRV older vintages at the tasting were a bit of a disappointment. The 2005, 2006, 2007 and 2008 were too old, giving no pleasure at all. The 2009 was ok, but not great. More recent vintages were better at dinner.

  8. Clones are a factor, but climatic and soil differences are the key determinants of outcome with Pinot. And we’re still looking for somewhere outside of the Cote D’or that offers such conditions- Tasmania and Canterbury show some promise, but in reality everyone is playing for second place at this point in time.

  9. I’m with Grant on this one; Gordy & Nadia emphasise soil much more than clone as influential on the wine.
    At this stage, I’m happier to drink local pinots when they’re relatively young (+-5 years) and charming, rather than risk a quick dive with age into dullness.

    • If you stay in, or around wine long enough, you end up at Pinot Noir. And the most profound experience you can have with that grape is from those grown in the Cote d’Or. If you talk to any committed Pinot maker/grower, they pretty much all have a wine or vineyard from Burgundy that they use as their benchmark or inspiration…love the stuff, just wish it didn’t cost so much! 🙂

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