Tim James: Are Cape pinots world class?

By , 6 October 2014

"Elegant, comparatively light and youthfully charming."

“Elegant, comparatively light and youthfully charming.”

Paul Cluver (PC The Younger, that is) came as close to agreeing with me as he decently could. He was giving me and a few others lunch recently, tasty Italian food washed down with his pinot noir flagship, Seven Flags – the elegant, comparatively light and youthfully charming 2011.

The question I asked him, as one of the leading local producers of pinot, was this: While we are right to be pleased with the progress made with the “heartbreak grape” in recent years, are we not expressing that pleasure by exaggerating its quality? Surely extremely few, if any, of our delicious pinots are comparable with the top end of Burgundy, as well as a largeish number of pinots from New Zealand, Germany and the American Northwest? I suspect, for example, that most local examples will be moribund by the time serious burgundies are shaking off their gawky youthfulness.

Well, said Paul carefully, when he looks at the scores given pinots in Platter, for example, and compares them with the scores given to sauvignon blanc, maybe pinot noir is treated a bit more leniently….

That’s a good way of putting it. The Cape does now produce some categories which are undoubtedly world class, with at least a few examples to compare with the international best. Not just sauvignon, but also white blends (Bordeaux-style and what we should call Swartland-style), chenin, and shiraz and shiraz-based blends. Chardonnay is up there too – certainly closer to world-classness, with more top examples,  than pinot.

Arguably, cabernet (sauvignon and franc) and blends based on them also constitute a local category that is stronger. With the Cape’s sparkling wines, we are more circumspect than with the comparable pinot case – recognising ever-improving quality, but not making too large claims.

As to international opinion, it seems a little more muted. Tim Atkin, in his 2014 Special Report on South Africa, notes great improvements in Cape pinot, partly thanks to better-chosen sites and clones. He adds that “We’re not talking Grand Cru Burgundy yet, but these are very good wines”. He gives one pinot 95 points (Newton Johnson Family Reserve 2012 – also the sole 5-star pinot in the 2014 Platter, although seven others had been nominated for top Platter honours), and a few not far behind.

Personally I think Tim Atkin even a bit generous – but so too was Tim No 2 (as Atkin cheerfully calls me) in what I’ve tasted for Platter in recent years. Now I’m wondering why I, and just about everyone else, is being rather over-kind, and I’m thinking it’s time to recalibrate. Partly, there’s a need for more local judges to get more experience with the best the world has to offer – a dreadfully expensive busines, unfortunately.

Let me repeat that I’m far from decrying local pinot. I enjoy and admire it. But, as Paul Cluver hints, I do think that we are over-generous to it compared with our assessment of the Cape’s highest achievements.

That said, Paul did add an incontrovertible truth about Cape pinot’s place in the international market: it can offer great value for money. But do let’s be a little more modest in our other claims.

  • Tim James is founder of Grape.co.za and contributes to various local and international wine publications. He is a taster (and associate editor) for Platter’s. His book Wines of South Africa – Tradition and Revolution appeared in 2013.


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