Tim James: On the Hemel-en-Aarde Winegrowers’ Pinot Noir Celebration

By , 2 February 2015



Some months back on this website,  I doubted whether local pinots are world class to the extent that local white blends, sauvignons and syrahs are world class (see here). Aren’t we overrating pinot here, I wondered? That was shortly before the announcement of four pinots getting five stars in Platter 2015.

All four of those came from the Hemel-en-Aarde appellations – which was less of a surprise, given the progress that area has made with pinot. That advance was underlined for me at the second Hemel-en-Aarde Winegrowers’ Pinot Noir Celebration, held in the valley this past week. But some doubts remain. I will write elsewhere more about the excellent event itself, confining myself here to this theme.

Friday afternoon was devoted to a formal presentation by the local winemakers of their 2013s – the dominant vintage among current releases. Some really lovely wines were offered, though most seemed too youthful and raw to consider drinking now. The standard was indeed good: as Burgundy expert Remington Norman commented, it rises each year, this perhaps connected to increasing vine age (there are few H-en-A pinot vines even reaching 10 years, which would make them infantile in Burgundy, condemned to the most junior wines.

Favourites? I’m not going to offer tasting notes here, let alone scores, but the wines I like most came from (in alphabetical order!) Creation (gosh – how this producer has improved over recent years!), Crystallum, La Vierge (another great climber), Newton Johnson (perhaps the most sumptuously textured), Storm, Sumaridge. Styles varied, of course – some forward-fruitier than others, some stressing tannin more in the structure and some acidity, but mostly fairly pure-fruited, with a savoury element and eschewing facile charm and sweetness. Good wines, yes, but in fact there was no single wine, even, that made me want to leap up with enthusiasm and fling my non-existent hat in the air (and I know that this feeling was shared by at least some others there).

The sweet-fruit character was more in evidence in the five North American wines presented (excellently) at dinner that evening by Canadian winemaker Norman Hardie: one of his own, two from Oregon and two from California. Frankly, they were not all entirely impressive (even the famous Au Bon Climat) and, although one can’t make this tiny selection bear too much weight, the comparison spoke well of the international standing of the locals – which Mr Hardie also affirmed, incidentally.

My report last year enthused about a tasting on the Saturday (the day individual estates offer their own smaller events on the pinot theme) when Gerhard Smith of La Vierge “presented a tasting of half a dozen Martinborough (New Zealand) pinots, all of them excellent and, I confess, the highlight of my two days in the Hemel-en-Aarde”. Same thing this year, when Gerhard offered six more, and I thought that a few of them might have sent my hat flying if they’d been on offer among the locals (which were, admittedly, two years younger). Partly it was their ineffably lovely texture, partly their non-trivial charm, and their restrained finesse.

If Cape wines suffered by that international comparison (and, it would unsurprisingly seem, from the example of a tasting of top-class burgundies that I regretfully had to miss), at another tasting six well-reputed pinots from Australia’s Mornigton Pensinsula were, to my tastes, disappointing: mostly very ripe, fruit-sweet-commercial, alcoholic, heavily extracted.

The Pinot Celebration was, altogether, a splendid and sadly rare chance to taste together some of the best local pinots, in the context of their international peers. If I’m right that local critics are over-generous to Cape pinot, it’s depressing that so few of them took advantage of this opportunity. It’s hard here to get to taste widely and calibrate our standards internationally – but without doing so we’re doomed to being somewhat provincially ignorant in our judgements.

  • 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.


3 comment(s)

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    Mark Edward | 25 February 2015

    I’m glad to hear that the SA Pinot’s were put up against the
    Martinborough (New Zealand) pinots. There is almost no point in trying to rate them against “Medium to Top-end” Burgundy. New Zealand offer brilliant new world Pinot’s at a number of price points that draws the crowds. I wish that the SA producers would price their Pinot competitively. It is only a premium product when it tastes great, and is well past the development stage in the vineyard. You can’t price it as a premium product, just because it is Pinot, and one these days, when the vines are 30yrs old, it will be worth drinking.

    Smirrie | 6 February 2015

    Tim i also read through her whole Red report and analysis. If she scored for Platter there would have been mostly only 4* wines.

    But after i read her comment of ” In a Sa context” i am now not sure what her real scores will be for every example in reference to Bordeaux or Rhone. Is Eben Sadie Columella 2012 now a better Northern Rhone Style wine as Northern Rhone self. Is that 18 actually a 17 or is that 18 actually a 18.5.

    Now i am confuse of the purpose of her honest and brutal scoring method. I am glad though that she loved the Mullineux Red Range.

    Tim James | 5 February 2015

    Incidentally and a propos: Have just seen Jancis Robinson’s recent notes on SA reds. Her highest pinot score was (understandably in my opinion!) for Crystallum Cuvée Cinéma, and she comments: “In a SA context this is 17.5 but in a Burgundy context it is probably closer to 16.5.” Of course, the idea of scoring in a context rather than giving an absolute score opens up another can of worms….

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