Tim James: Pinot noir and terroir in the Hemel en Aarde

By , 30 January 2017

Newton Johnson Vineyards.

Newton Johnson Vineyards.

Where there’s talk of pinot noir, there’s talk of terroir, and the influence of soil, sun and slope on perhaps the most expressively transparent of black grapes. Inevitably, there was much discussion of this at the annual Hemel en Aarde Winegrowers Association Pinot Noir Celebration, held in the eponymous valley last Friday and Saturday.

It was the fourth such event, and the most successful in many ways: certainly the questions, answers and opinions that followed the flights of 2015 pinots from the three wards of the Hemel en Aarde went deeper and wider this year – led by Michael Fridjhon and the eminent New Zealand viticulturist James Dicey from Central Otago. In fact the very idea of having a viticulturist rather than a winemaker as the guest speaker points to the local determination to pursue terroir’s controversial claims.

So too does the tripartite division of the Hemel en Aarde. That split was frequently questioned, in fact – above all in marketing terms, and in the context of it being not easy to discern clear differentiating and binding links between the wines of the different wards (Hannes Storm, incidentally, is the only winegrower offering wines from all three). At present the stamp of the winemaker and the viticulturist still generally dominates.

But the marketing situation is not really problematic, given the unifying prominence of “Hemel en Aarde” in wards’ names. The last word for now must go to Anthony Hamilton Russell, the foremost believer that local terroir will shine through more clearly as the viticulturists and winemakers of this still youthful viticultural area learn how best to respond to their possibilities. “Give us a generation!” he pleads, and I think we should.

A place and a terroir that’s had a lot longer to prove itself was explored by a fortunate few dozen of us on the Saturday (when the various wineries host smaller events for Celebration guests). Kevin Grant of Ataraxia hosted, and presented alongside Derek Kilpin of Great Domaines, South Africa’s foremost importers of burgundy, a rare tasting featuring all five domaines with holdings in Clos St-Jacques. The sloping Premier Cru vineyard is just 6.7 hectares in total, in the Gevrey-Chambertin appellation of Burgundy’s Côte d’Or.

All five wines came from the 2011 vintage. The first flight comprised Domaines Sylvie Esmonin, Bruno Clair and Louis Jadot, all undoubtedly fine, with clear differences as well as some similarities, predominantly structural. The remarkable aspect of the tasting was really the shift to the final two: Domaines Fourrier and Armand Rousseau, for they presented an obvious leap in quality. (I suspect a vote would have gone to Fourrier, but I settled on Rousseau as my favourite.)

There was discussion about what united the wines but, really and somewhat disconcertingly, there was no question that the viticultural and winemaking skills and sensitivities of the different domaines trumped the terroir at least in what must be the most important matter: ultimate wine quality. Incidentally this truth is carried through into price, with the latter two wines markedly more expensive, and Rousseau well ahead of all of them (making Fourrier the expensive bargain of the day). It’s arguable that those two best reflect the terroir – but surely unarguable that’s what’s being paid for is sheer quality.

If it’s true, as frequently claimed, that Clos St Jacques is a terroir worthy of Grand Cru status, it is a truth sufficiently and eloquently demonstrated by those two domaines. That has some relevance for the Hemel en Aarde, too. The tasting of all the current producers (with Crystallum unfortunately standing aloof this year) revealed, as well as different styles, different levels of quality. It’s the best of them, though, not the clumsiest, that show the area’s potential. In time we might well come to see, beyond producers, differences of quality as well as character between the wards – and between individual vineyards too.

This year, the local vintage being tasted was 2015. (Incidentally, if you have some, do try to resist drinking them for another four or five years at the very least.) Those I most admired were, in alphabetical order, from Ataraxia, Domaine des Dieux, Hamilton Russell, La Vierge, Newton Johnson and Storm.

  • 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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