They are often mentioned in the same breath, and in the same hushed tones of devoted reverence, but the appeal of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir stems from different stratospheres. For me, the sweet-spot, the tuning-fork precision point of absolute beauty in Chardonnay is about as far removed from Pinot Noir’s appeal as Lindiwe Sisulu is from the nearest hair-styling studio.
I was having such deep, thoughtful thoughts last week as I gazed over the verdant expanse, rolling and hilly and set under a low blue sky, of the Creation Estate vineyards on the Hemel-en-Aarde Ridge. This vinous insight stemmed from having just had exposure to a few of Creation’s Pinot Noir and Chardonnays, varieties for which this part of the world are renowned. And a region that has played a profound role in ensuring that both Burgundian grape varieties made here on the southern tip of Africa are becoming serious world contenders.
The wines that specifically got me thinking about the discrepancies in the two cultivars were the Creation Emma’s Pinot Noir, named after the daughter of Jean-Claude and Carolyn Martin – who own the estate – as well as the farm’s top-end Art of Chardonnay. Both are direct hits to my Chardonnay and Pinot Noir soul, yet besides the obvious different flavour profile one would expect from a white and a red wine, the intentions each wine uses to create wonder and to pierce the senses are vastly different.
Art of Chardonnay 2019 shows that the splendour of the variety lies in the beauty found in purity. Upfront, heady-wonder and gorgeousness. Everything about the wine is balanced, Zen-like and harmonious in its faultless refinement. Flavours are vivid, direct, easy to love. Bergamot peel and white-fleshed nectarine. Green nutmeg and pear-drop. A whiff of sun-dried hay. Slight hit of croissant dough from the aging in wood. Mountain-spring water gushing over volcanic gravel, loud and true.
And as accurate and direct as the flavours are, so pin-point precise is the texture and mouthfeel. Flirtatious, titillating attack on the palate. Long, slow and cool flow of flavour with acidity perky, un-abrasive and invigorating with a warm-blooded heartbeat. Evocative finish ending with a sated sigh, a slight gasp of spent excitement.
Like Rudolf Nureyev or Catherine Deneauve, Chardonnay is all about complete beauty. Unchallenged and supremely confident in its allure and the wonder created by it.
But Pinot Noir should not be like this. A Pinot Noir that ticks all the boxes of completeness and relies on beauty and charm and in-tune singing, well, that is a boring Pinot Noir. A glass of tasty, but one-dimensional, uninspiring juice. Good Pinot Noir, like Creation Emma’s 2018, must have a restlessness about it, a feral heave of unsettling danger.
Sure, there are the expected features one expects to find in wines made from this variety. Sour cherry and dry mushroom stem. Browned pine-needle and plum sap, with the cloud of autumn hanging over everything. A hint of ocean rock pool waiting for the tide to come in. Tasty, comfortable.
But any Pinot Noir can be in this comfort-zone.
It is when earth, sun, soil and site are sucked-up by the grape to show uniqueness and character, blend with the cultivars ability to express a raw savage sensuality, this is when Pinot Noir truly struts its stuff. Cute as the name Emma’s Pinot Noir may be, this wine from Creation has a dramatic dark broodiness and sharp-fanged edge, making it discomfortingly exhilarating.
This is Pinot Noir’s unpretty side, something not sleek nor cornily picturesque in that all-too common predictable red-berried fruitiness. It is beauty made more beautiful still by a thrilling bit of ugly. Like the features of actors such as Ellen Barkin or Eric Roberts, the wine’s seduction lies in an edginess, a disquieting presence that makes one feel alive and at the same time afraid of the consequences of what might happen if you went further with this. Red wine tannins show a slight graininess, elevating the raw appeal the wine draws from Hemel-en-Aarde shale, rock and clay. Fruit-flavours are heavy and dark, elevated by bristles of dry lavender and sage, while a bloody savouriness lurks before pouncing to complement the final flourish of deliciousness offered in an extraordinary wine.
Not a South African wine. Not a Pinot Noir. No detail or specifics. Just a wine with the universal appeal of greatness.
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