No other grape variety brings out the inferiority complex harboured by South African wine people like Pinot Noir does. Even the most cynical wine maker, critic or afficionado will proudly state Cape wines made from grapes of Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Shiraz can compete with the best in the world. But just mention local Pinot Noir and the pouty wet mouths “tutt-tutt”, the sweaty foreheads are lowered solemnly. Never, no. “We can’t make Pinot like Burgundy does.”
This reverence for the magnificent red wine grape is understandable, sort of. Pinot Noir made well – from grapes grown on a suitable patch of earth – is a truly delicious and multi-faceted wine. Its diverse charms and willingness to please also make it a cerebrally satisfying drink. Throw in Burgundy’s 2 000 year-old PR machine with stories of Cisterian monks tending to vines in-between hours of chanting and meditating in gloomy old abbeys, and Pinot Noir is wrapped in a veil of superior expectations. And with every wine-maker or critic with access to a youtube channel preaching his or her reverence for Burgundy’s terroir pedigree, this part of south-eastern France is elevated to some kind of vinous Xanadu presided over by those having the first and final say in the making of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.
Pinot Noir suffers by this comparison to Burgundy far more than the region’s famous white grape, of which far less is grown in South Africa. This has given local critics and such the guts to keenly praise the quality of Cape Chardonnay. But they fear to truly credit Pinot Noir, horrified by the prospects of being laughed at or dissed by their peers for daring to compare the qualities of Elgin and Hemel-en-Aarde to that of Corton or Musigny.
As ever, the proof is in the quality of the wines. And every six months I am once again startled by the terrific quality of South African Pinot Noir, which I personally deem to be one of the Cape’s success stories of the past decade-and-a-half. When the wine representing the great Pinot Noir grape is made from fruit accurately cultivated to permit the grapes to express vitis vinifera Pinot Noir, when the winemaker’s focus is on delivering a sense of what you are instead of what others want you to be, when the only expectations requiring managing are your own…..then justice is being done to this gorgeous grape. And this is all that counts.
The latest Cape Pinot Noir to rock my world is from Storm Wines, namely the Ignis Pinot Noir 2018. One of three site-specific Pinot Noirs in the range made by Hannes Storm, Ignis is from a northern slope in the Upper Hemel-en-Aarde Valley. Vineyard soil is decomposed granite, and the vineyard farmed organically. Yield is meagre – three tons a hectare. After pressing, the wine is fermented with native yeasts and aged for 11 months in a selection of French oak barrels, of which 20% is new.
What grabbed me about this wine, is the absolute purity of Pinot Noir expression. Not in a candied, coated New Zealand or Russian River kind of way, but in kind of tuning-fork precise display of what lies at the core of Pinot Noir’s appeal.
There is a whack of clove and red-berry on the nose, giving the wine a striking heady perfume – for me, one-third of the total pleasure derived at from Pinot Noir. The attack on the palate is both loud, graceful and muscular, pretty much like a Roger Federer backhand from the base-line in Set 2. Marvellously dapper flavours of sour cherry, crème de cassis and fennel ease onto the mid-palate, while a run of supple, bracing tannins ensures the mouth stays alert enough to absorb the total splendour that is being offered.
And on the finish, this is where the winemaker leaves his signature on Pinot Noir. The most controlled winemaking from grapes rooted to the best geography can be wasted on a disrupted finish. All the intense and riveting splendour of the wine’s initial impressiveness can fall flat with a clumsy finish. Here the Ignis closes brilliantly, a final brush of dry, aromatic fynbos steered down the hatch by rivulets of clean, tasty and harmonious red wine. Just that. And only that.
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