by Lafras Huguenet
A recent talk on the Cape’s leading wine region of Stellenbosch to a few remaining Spitfire pilots who had seen action during the Korean War had some of the old-timers turning-up their hearing-aids in disbelief. Surely, a croaky old voice ordered with clipped military cadence, one area cannot be performing so well with all God’s wine grapes? “You, Sir, have gone batty about Stellenbosch Cabernet Sauvignon, praised its Chardonnay and flushed with excitement over the Chenin Blanc wines there,” the gent said. “Next thing you will be telling us the Stellenbosch mountains are stuffed with gold and if we were to sip of that region’s waters, all of us gathered here would once again have uninterrupted urinal flows and raging Morning Glories.”
This is true, that an abundance of riches can, too, be a tad embarrassing. And although my discussion was led by only three grape varieties, there were others still to embroider upon. But the squadron had to be prepared for their afternoon nap, so I did not even have time to tell them of Pinot Noir, and that this also grows well in Stellenbosch and, yes, makes a fine rendition of the Burgundian royal red.
Many commentators, including my editor for this communication channel, deem South African Pinot Noir to only indeed come to its fore in the cooler Elgin and Hemel-en-Aarde regions. Yes, there are fine wines there, pools of perfumed silk and vivid fruity Pinot flavour. But it would be irresponsible to ignore the fact that while Stellenbosch might not hang its flying cap on the Pinot Noir peg, it does offer some extraordinarily good wines made from this captivating variety.
The Stellenbosch soils, dominated by decomposed granite, are far more acidic than the aforementioned regions, which obviously plays hell with the fruit pH. But careful soil preparation involving the adding of lime – up to 50 tons per hectare – has softened the earth’s sharp, tart edges, the lime-chalk combining with the granite and clay to create wide open spaces of superb growing matter. Pinot Noir loves it here, and it flourishes.
One must remember, as well, that Stellenbosch is the ancestral home of Cape Pinot Noir. Manie Malan planted it on the slopes, heady and steep, of Alto Estate in the Helderberg in 1919. Muratie, out Simonsberg way, was growing Pinot Noir in 1928, a time when the Hemel-en-Aarde was still overrun by sheep, escaped convicts and farmers whose wives and sisters bore uncanny physical resemblances.
That Meerlust Estate, one of the Cape’s classic vinous addresses, makes one of the most commercially successful Pinot Noirs in South Africa, might surprise some whose thinking is corralled into regions further south and colder. Yes, the power of the Meerlust brand does ensure that any bottle of anything bearing the marque will be snapped up. But as a wine, this Pinot Noir offers a clear glimpse into the soul that be Stellenbosch Pinot Noir.
The Meerlust Pinot Noir 2020 is a fine example as the vintage was cool and even, with some wet muddy patches during growing season and harvest. Here on Meerlust the soils are less granite driven, with loam and gravel resting on an expansive bed of cool clay. The country is wide and big with relaxed undulations set in the breezy land only some seven kilometres from the Atlantic Ocean at False Bay.
Firmness and palpable tannins are a feature of Stellenbosch Pinot Noir, although at Meerlust this structure is slightly more relaxed as a result of the site and the earth into which the vines be rooted. The wine is aged in 40% new and 60% second-fill 300 litre barrels, the wood marvellously integrated, even in this stage of evident – yet pleasurable – youth.
Although Meerlust’s former owner, the late great Nico Myburgh, was an obsessively keen student of Bordeaux – as his introduction of the Rubicon blend continues to show – he did predict his farm’s suitability to Pinot Noir. As well as he himself having a soft spot for the variety’s feminine grace.
It has all come true, as this is truly a top-notch wine, worthy of a place in the best of what the Cape has to offer and a proud showing of the New World’s ability to translate all those attributes and prophecies the Burgundian Monks were chanting about 900 years back.
Meerlust Pinot Noir 2020 is comfortable with its lack of bottle maturity, confidently running into the glass with a mauve, nutty colour and greeting the drinker with a waft of dew-damp cedar, an autumn bonfire in the country and a brisk stream of dried flowers and pulped blue-berry. The entrance on the palate is without drama but with an easy-going, likable charm. A succulent edge of sour cherry and 36-month cured jamón introduces delicious enticement, which is furthered on the mid-palate, and wonderfully so.
As the wine lies, wet and cool, the mouth draws delectable flavours from the liquid. There is fig-paste dried in a low Mediterranean sun, a grate of mace and a sliver of ripe quince presenting a moreish tartness along with the characteristic spread of berry-fruit. A subtle hint of porcini, plucked under a glowing Stellenbosch harvest-moon, adds a flavour of earth and savoury that should evolve as the wine progresses.
But it is now apt for unbridled enjoyment of the revered, classic variety.
On the other side of Stellenbosch, there by the Stellenbosch Mountain, is a two-decade old vineyard supplying grapes for another great Pinot Noir from the region. Camino Africana Pinot Noir is made by David Finlayson, and the 2020 vintage of this solid bottle of Pinot purity is also doing the rounds.
The vines are set on lines of decomposed granite, some surface shale and dark, deep layers of clay. In the cellar, Finlayson does not stuff around, deploying new 300l French oak barrels for 18 months, a regime such dense, big Pinot Noir fruit from the Stellenbosch Mountain demands.
Again, this wine underscores Stellenbosch Pinot Noir as a unique expression within the Cape Pinot space, being unashamedly full, broad and at ease with its sense of place. Not big and brash, by any means. Just a wine that offers the lesser-espoused feature of Pinot Noir to come to the fore, namely that expressive tannic grip and excitable, low-pitched tone this grape offers when the sunlight radiation has thickened the skin and the soils have pumped vividly energetic tannins into the fruit.
Like a line-out jump by Springbok Eben Etzebeth, Camino Africana shows that fierce beauty and supple muscularity are aspects that add to Pinot Noir’s heady heights – a welcome addition to the perfume-feminine-strawberry narrative that dominates too large a part of the conversation surrounding the grape of kings, the drink of the gods, the whispers of angels.
In the Camino I find pebbles grating one another in the stormy waters of the Eerste River, comforted by a just-baked raspberry tart before the weight of big juicy plums take over, leaving a memory of dried pimento. All wrapped in a silk cloak that is dark and foreboding before it opens to reveal light, colour and song.
Stellenbosch, you beautiful thing.
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