Tim James: Looking for modestly priced Pinot Noir
By Tim James, 14 February 2023
In recent years Cape pinot noir has shared in the large price increases common to most top-end wine, perhaps especially reds. It hasn’t reached, though, the stratospheric levels of, especially but not only, the cab-based Stellenbosch wines that have been particularly vulnerable to ego- and greed-driven producer ambitions (oh, all right, let’s credit “the market”). Actually, I wonder if this isn’t going to be changing soon for pinot, with the best examples getting ever pricier. Why not? Cape pinot reputations are good, locally and internationally, and there are many red burgundy-lovers being pushed aside into the (relative) gutter as the price juggernaut there moves on relentlessly.
The most illustrious top local versions are already keenly taken up, it seems from a glance at what’s available online, even as prices edge towards (and occasionally past) R1000 per bottle. Names like Storm, Crystallum, Newton Johnson, Hamilton Russell, Paul Cluver and a good few others seldom seem to even reach the shelves (locally at least) before they are eagerly grabbed. Even among the slightly less lauded labels, prices over R500 per bottle are common.
Modestly priced alternatives are not easy to find, however – unlike with, say, cabernet sauvignon and shiraz. Probably, I suppose, because most of the somewhat lesser pinot fruit goes to support the huge and lucrative demand for sparkling wine. So when, feeling in the mood for a coolable cinsault the other day, I called in at Woolworths to get a few bottles of Marras The Trickster (R99), I was surprised to notice on an adjacent shelf two bottles of pinot for little more than that, one from the rather grand DeMorgenzon estate, the other from Haute Cabrière.
It seemed a good idea to see if I could find a few more at that sort of price to report on. The Pick n Pay supermarket in the same shopping mall gave me the cheapest one I found in my admittedly brief survey, from Southern Road (a label which I’d never heard of). (Incidentally, and with not untypical incompetence for PnP, which is undoubtedly the poorest of the supermakets in their wine offering, the few pinots were jumbled up with the pinotages, under big placards, one of which announced “Pino Noir”.) And at my excellent local independent, Constantia Wine and Craft in Plumstead, Cape Town, where there was a good selection of pinots, I found one from Kruger Family Wines – always an impressive and good value range. All but one of these from 2021.
The result of the little tasting was not without some impressive results. Unfortunately, the Southern Road (R95) didn’t shape up to the other three. As far as I can tell, Southern Road is a brand connected in some way with Nuiba Wines and with an out-of-date website, which says their wines are from the Swartland – though this one is WO McGregor – not the first place where one would expect to find pinot vines. It’s not a bad cheap anonymous red, both a touch sweetly confected and a little green and lean, with not a lot of pinot character.
The most expensive of my quartet was Haute Cabrière Pinot Noir Unwooded 2022 (R115). A pleasant everyday wine; clean and light-feeling, with decent pinot character, balanced and flavourful enough, though a touch more raw than the others – ascribable to its being so young, I suppose. I should mention that I tasted the wines twice, rather more chilled on the second day. None had enough tannin for that to cause any problems, though a herbaceous note on this Haut Cabrière only emerged when cold.
Like that wine and the Kruger, the DeMorgenzon DMZ Pinot Noir (R110, a Woolworths exclusive) is WO Western Cape, so I guess the grapes were at least partly bought in. Deeper, darker fruit aromas and flavours here (varietal cherry/raspberry with a hint of undergrowth, which is nice), softly textured but well structured. A very acceptable example for the price, I’d say. It’s not as fine, of course, as another Woolworths exclusive, the also good value Catherine Marshall, but that is closer to R150.
Undoubtedly the standout of this little tasting was the Kruger Western Cape Pinot Noir 2021 (R110). There’s a good deal more aromatic and flavour intensity than on the others, but with a characterfulness that goes beyond mere fruit-forwardness, a good structural balance, and a bit of tannic grip to the velvety texture that I enjoyed. A wine I’d be more than happy to drink, and would do so with respect for itself and for the way it over-delivers on the price.
Arguably, some of the expensive, terroir-expressive Cape pinots also over-deliver on their price, especially in international terms. I’d certainly say that that is true for the splendid, ageworthy (age-demanding, in fact) Storms. But, to repeat, I’m pretty confident that those prices are going to be rising inexorably. This modest Kruger is a bit of consolation, but don’t expect to find many real pinot bargains at this price level – now or in the future. If anyone can suggest others, I’m sure we’d all be grateful.
- Tim James is one of South Africa’s leading wine commentators, contributing 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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