Michael Fridjhon: Pinot Noir and the problem of “sameness”

By , 24 February 2016

PinotCelebrationThe first session tasting at January’s Pinot Celebration provided me with something of a light bulb moment when it came to the red wines: every one of the examples was recognisably Pinot Noir, in a way that placed the Hemel-en-Aarde production quite close in style to regional Burgundy (at least as it was produced in the 1980s and early 1990s).

In other words, the wines were authentic, fresh, quite clean, with delicate cherry notes. Mostly they were sensitively wooded: no one was trying to make shiraz or cabernet, over-extracting fruit and texture and then bulking up the resultant goo with dollops of oak. In the previous few weeks I had tasted some other Cape pinots, one from Strandveld’s Elim vineyard and one from Newstead in Plettenberg Bay – and the same held true for both of them. Suddenly we didn’t need to kid ourselves that the stressy, pongy aromas which had been typical of most of the country’s production until recently was really Burgundy in the making. Farmyard aromas are not a guarantee of anything except poor fruit and dirty wine making.

It’s a little soon for South Africa to take on the great producers and great sites of the Cote d’Or: they have older vines, a more finely demarcated terroir, skills which embody the experience of countless generations. But this also doesn’t mean that the heights that they have achieved are unattainable for us. It also doesn’t mean that the present rank of Burgundy producers aren’t also deviating from the region’s long established course.

This latter observation – which was more than evident in the line-up of young Burgundies which formed part of the weekend’s tasting modules – was something which has been increasingly evident to anyone who even half pays attention to the madness which now characterises the Burgundy market. In fact, it’s a bit of a mirror image of what took place in Bordeaux in the two decades ending in 2010. Those in favour of the process refer to it as “modernisation” while those who are more equivocal call it “Parkerisation.”

Of course, as with the Bordeaux wines which were also dramatically improved as a result of Parker’s influence, all that was old-fashioned wasn’t necessarily good – but then, nor is everything modern. Improved Parker ratings demanded better managed viticulture, properly sorted fruit and clean cellars. Prior to the 1980s too many Cru Classe clarets were dirty, green-tannined and overly dilute, especially in “off” years. The responsibility for many of them having become caricatures cannot be laid wholly at Uncle Bob’s door.

Parker (officially at any rate) has had very little influence on Burgundy, but the growers have learnt from their compatriots in Bordeaux that modern wine drinkers are an impatient bunch. They would rather the fruit spent a little longer on the vine, and more time in new oak barrels, so that the bottles would need less ageing in their cellars. There are well-reputed wine makers who now double oak their top Burgundies to give them the tannins and sweet vanilla textures so much in vogue among investment bankers, oligarchs and oriental millionaires. Riper fruit of course is sweeter, and less astringent, and is much less in need of bottle maturation. If you can make concentrated Ribena-like wine in minuscule quantities, there will be no shortage of well-heeled punters willing to drop upwards of R5k per bottle for the pleasure of owning a much sought-after label – which also promises instant drinkability.

There are several risks which are associated with this approach – for Burgundy in the medium term, and for pinot consumption world-wide. The first is that the more wines are over-ripened and over-oaked, the less they are likely to express origin and the more they will reflect the hand of the winemaker. Since the USP of Burgundy is the multiplicity of its sites and their carefully mapped uniqueness, this message may be lost in the “sameness” which will inevitably emerge. In time this may ultimately alienate long-term supporters, while the more fickle fashionistas – who we know have moved from Bordeaux to the Cote d’Or – find something else to kindle their interest. Finally it will play into the hands of pinot growers everywhere – at the expense of Burgundy: you can make bigger and juicier pinots in Central Otago than you can in the Cotes de Nuits. Soon we’ll push the envelope here – whether in Hemel-en-Aarde, Elgin, Franschhoek or the Cape South Coast. Once Burgundy loses its particularity, once the nuance of origin counts for less, it’s more difficult to justify the price premium: the top Californian Cabernets sent this message to the Medoc in little more than twenty years. Such an outcome wouldn’t necessarily be bad news for the Cape’s pinot producers, but it would be a catastrophe in the world of fine wine.

  • Michael Fridjhon has over thirty-five years’ experience in the liquor industry. He is 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 Old Mutual Trophy Wine Show.


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