I had always struggled to nail my precise feeling towards Pinot Noir when Danie de Wet did it for me. “You find three kinds of wine: red wine… white wine,” the Sage from De Wetshof said, “and then you have Pinot Noir.” This was over a decade ago when De Wet had been busy at playing pioneer again – not Chardonnay, but by making the first Pinot Noir in the Robertson Valley.
The deceptively simple and seemingly innocuous description stuck, and the more Pinots I drink the more on-the-button Danie’s words appear.
The grape’s fickleness in the cellar and the importance of its source of vineyard has been done to death, as is the breathless dramatic title of being “the heartbreak grape”. In the greater scheme of things, consumers don’t give a damn how difficult the grape is to grow and how tricky the wine is to make, just as a restaurant diner does not care two truffles how hard it is to concoct a decent Hollandaise. It is the end-result, the taste, that counts.
Thus the emphasis should primarily remain on what it is that makes Pinot Noir such a desirable and captivating wine. Good Pinot Noir, that is.
And the other day the self-same Danie de Wet did it again. During a line-up of South African Pinot Noirs at the Hermanus FynArts Festival, the Sage used a deceptively simple word: charm.
“A good Pinot Noir always has charm,” he said.
I like it. To me, something that has charm elicits attention in an inviting and engaging manner. Charm does not ask you to like it, it makes you want to like it. And charm does this by offering something that is not only attractive, but unique and true only to itself. Like Uma Thurmann’s wink. George Clooney’s way of holding a coffee-cup. The innocent look your Dacshund gives after peeing on the morning paper.
This is the personality of Pinot Noir, individuality and charm. Attractive to begin with as it lies ruby-like in the glass. And from the first engaging sniff a good Pinot commands attention, the kind of attention that makes physical surroundings and abstract thoughts fade away. That fruity, spicy and feral dampness. The sultry perfume of flesh, flower and land. Tastes are diverse and ravishingly beautiful and there are enough of them to cover the spectrum of wine descriptions and adjectives thought-out over the past century, and then some.
This is why winemakers become obsessed with Pinot Noir: if it can be this evocative to the wine drinker, how deep do its seductive talons not claw into the souls of those who create it?
In conjunction with Hermanus FynArts wine curator Melvyn Minnaar, Danie offered a selection of nine Pinot Noirs representing different sites: Paul Cluver 2012 (Elgin), De Wetshof Nature in Concert (Robertson) Chamonix 2011 (Franschhoek), Vriesenhof 2010 (upper Helderberg), David Finlayson Camino Africana 2012 (lower Helderberg), De Grendel 2011 (Ceres and Durbanville), Crystallum Cuvée Cinema 2012 (Hemel-en-Aarde Ridge), Sumaridge 2011 (Hemel-en-Aarde Upper) and Hamilton Russell 2013 (Hemel-en-Aarde Valley).
A charming selection, but as these things go, some wines are created with more charm than others.
Chamonix makes the most Burgundian of all South African Pinot Noirs, suppressing sweet fruit with a real hit of leather and forest-floor. Vriesenhof is a close second, although Jan Boland’s wines need at least five years to hit their stride. Crystallum Cuvée Cinema and De Wetshof both make polished, classic Pinots, but with an attractive fruit-spiciness which makes them bearers of the banner “South African Style”.
The De Grendel is dense and broody, while Camino Africana commands attention through both charm and its statuesque structure. Here is a great wine in the making.
Sure, it was interesting comparing these wines and to hear intelligent talk of clay and schist and shale and gravel. But the real joy was being in the presence of such a line-up of diverse and different wines sharing one common bloodline. For it has not only the ability to charm, but also to seduce, which it did – to the last drop of the last tasting sample.
Talk of geographic origin and site expression in the Pinot Noir narrative, as employed by Danie and other Pinot makers, are important. For if Pinot Noir is doing one good thing, it is creating consumer-awareness of the importance of site and wine origin.
Your average wine-buyer just does not have a cooking clue where the wine he or she drinks actually comes from. This is largely the result of the Wine of Origin system allowing producers in blue-chip regions to market wine from cheaper far-flung regions under their own address. You think you are buying a Franschhoek or Paarl label, for example, while the stuff in the bottle was actually made 200km away.
Pinot Noir and its producers do not – and should not – have anything to do with this as the heart of the wine’s charm lies in knowing where its true roots lie.
And false charm only gets you so far, if anywhere at all.