Michael Fridjhon: Has SA Pinot Noir finally arrived?

By , 12 April 2023



No variety provokes as much controversy – at least outside its home base of Burgundy – as pinot noir. For those with a low tolerance of the generally excessive prices which it attracts worldwide, the first big issue relates to its price/quality status. Very ordinary pinots sell for proportionately more than ordinary cabernets, chardonnays, or sauvignon blancs. Even allowing for the subjectivity inherent in this judgement, a quick glimpse at pinot pricing will confirm that the cheaper pinots align with middling to higher priced bottlings of other cultivars.

Then there’s the question of what constitutes a great pinot (as opposed to a perfectly decent one). Here there’s a further problem, which is how many of the people ready to voice their opinions have even tasted a truly extraordinary example. British wine writer Simon Woods famously wrote “Great burgundy is like an orgasm. If you’re not sure whether you’ve had one or not – you haven’t. And if you have had one you want another as soon as possible.” 

I am fortunate enough to confirm that I have consumed sufficient great Burgundy that I can tell the difference between a respectable pinot, and the kind of wine which has turned the market into a casino for the world’s wealthiest wine lovers. Most of this inflation has occurred in a single lifetime: when I started drinking decent wines from the Cote d’Or you could buy a bottle of Romanee-Conti for the price of a case of Nederburg Selected Cabernet. Today the barter rate would be 200 cases of the cabernet for a single bottle of the undisputed apex pinot.

Great Burgundy has also changed – mostly for the better, though it’s true that in order to keep billionaires happy many of the top producers have candied up their offerings, making wines seductively attractive in their youth (possibly – but not certainly – at the expense of how they will evolve in the longer term). But there are also far fewer failures, and the old adage about “never paying for a bottle of Burgundy until you’ve drunk it” hardly applies any more.

This brings me to the question of the Cape’s territorial claims to this debate. Other than in the minds of the producers themselves, and their most loyal followers, do we even have tickets to the game? It’s a fair question, given their sometimes quite optimistic pricing strategies (which, since the wines appear to sell out, suggest that sufficient consumers agree). Certainly, there are enough examples in the market at north of R500 per bottle, and very few south of R200 per bottle, to suggest that consumers of Cape pinot regard it as interchangeable with entry and better-than-entry level Burgundy.

I don’t think there’s much debate that many of the lower priced examples are credible enough, and the most highly prized/priced justify themselves by their sales record and their status. But have we yet produced wines which would provoke even a quiver of anxiety amongst producers with landholdings in the Premier Cru sites of the Cote de Nuits? Without even pretending to conduct a survey I’m confident that the answer is “no” – even without taking into account the innate sense of superiority which comes with owning land in the most sought-after viticultural real estate in the world.

But even assuming that someone outside the hallowed zone might one day conjure up a wine to bring tears to the eyes of a pinotphile, the other question which remains to be answered is whether or not such a wine expresses site in that unerring way in which fine Burgundy leaves its footprints all over your palate. Here at least there are some answers emerging from the cradle of Cape pinot, the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley.

Newton Johnson Family Vineyards, Upper Hemel en Aarde Valley.

The Newton-Johnsons have two sites (Windandsea and Seadragon) which reveal differences which at least in part reflect the impact of climate. The former catches more wind, and this is said to thicken the skins. This contributes to a different mouthfeel – and thus to a sense of place. Likewise Hannes Storm, with virus-free sites he’s controlled pretty much since their inception in all three of the zones (Valley, Upper Valley and Ridge), has bottles to bring to the debate.

What sets Storm apart is that these landholdings theoretically address several of the Burgundian claims, with the variables of vine age, viticulture and vinification largely removed from the equation. His vineyards are now comfortably over ten years old. His latest releases (2021) appear to show visible differences, despite their obvious youthfulness (see CE’s ratings here).

Still, there are several key questions which remain: are these differences significant enough, given the distance between the sites; to what extent will they become more marked as this vintage ages, and as future vintages go to market, and emerge years later from properly managed cellars; will any of his wines (or those of any other producer with a certified single vineyard) consistently expresses origin in a way which identifies the site; finally, will any of these wines induce, in a knowledgeable and experienced consumer of great Burgundy, the same thrill described so eloquently by Simon Woods at the beginning of this article?

  • Michael Fridjhon has over thirty-five years’ experience in the liquor industry. He is the founder of Winewizard.co.za and holds various positions including Visiting Professor of Wine Business at the University of Cape Town; founder and director of WineX – the largest consumer wine show in the Southern Hemisphere and chairman of The Trophy Wine Show.


5 comment(s)

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    Michael Fridjhon | 22 April 2023

    To answer your question Mike, there’s no doubt that we are further ahead with chardonnay. As I’ve indicated it’s a more forgiving grape and there are many great expressions of it – not just from Burgundy. We might not yet be making Le Montrachet but we are certainly producing wines which would be the equal of many Premier Cru white Burgundies. In my article I also touched on my much more limited impressions of non-Burgundy pinot: we might not have the depth of the Kiwi, the Australian and the Pacific Northwest producers but I think we make wines which would not be outclassed in that sort of company

    Mike Froud, Top Wine SA | 22 April 2023

    Michael, in your opinion, if great SA Pinot Noir has yet to arrive, when would you say great SA Chardonnay arrived, or do you feel that it too is still some way off standing shoulder to shoulder with the greatest wines of Burgundy? And Burgundy aside, do you feel that great SA Pinot and Chardonnay are now comparable with the greatest expressions from New Zealand, Australia, America?

    Michael Fridjhon | 17 April 2023

    Thank you Owen and David for your comments

    David K | 16 April 2023

    I can now safely say that I have never had a great Pinot Noir, but looking forward to the day I do 😉 But to (somewhat) compensate, I can claim to have visited the great vineyards you mention. And as you no doubt know, they are very underwhelming, unless one understands what they are.

    And thank you as always for your informed and objective views.

    Owen | 12 April 2023

    I remember a well known Johannesburg restaurateur telling me that all Pinot noir was corked..lol and sold very little of it in his busy establishment. Would be interesting to find out sales between on and off consumption in SA. Good read thank you MF. Tasted some William Selyem Pinots from California a few years ago and would definitely want more as soon as possible.

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