With this year’s harvest described as one of the shortest and most intense picking seasons on record (ending rather serendipitously for most farms just prior to the national lockdown), it seems Mother Nature might have had more insight into what was in store for the rest of 2020 than anyone else. With the inaugural Mosaic Top 5 Pinot Noir Wine Awards starting this year, we touched base with winemakers and Pinot Noir Association Committee Members, Nicky Claasens of Vriesenhof Vineyards, Tim Hoek from Haute Cabrière, Andries Burger from Paul Cluver Wines, Gerhard Smith from Creation Wines and Chris Albrecht of Bouchard Finlayson Winery to look back on what was a whirlwind Pinot Noir harvest period.
Known as a notoriously tricky variety to work with, some say it takes a magician with secateurs to work the artistry of Pinot Noir. However, when made well, this famed noble grape can produce some of the most sublime wines known to man. Growing this fickle, low-cropping variety requires a perfect confluence of climate and soil, as the thin skins are particularly sensitive to temperature fluctuation and the grapes are susceptible to sunburn, rot, fungus and mildew. In South Africa, Pinot Noir tends to be produced in cooler climate regions such as Hemel-en-Aarde and Elgin. However, thanks to cooling Atlantic maritime winds, the regions of Stellenbosch and Franschhoek also yield truly noteworthy results that are gaining more notoriety year on year.
According to Nicky Claasens, Chairperson of the Pinot Noir Association and winemaker at Vriesenhof Vineyards, the weather across the board at the beginning of the season was very favourable and conducive to ripening for Pinot Noir. As Pinot Noir is a temperamental grape, conditions typically need to be closely monitored to achieve the desired floral and fruity expressions. Vriesenhof is based in the Paradyskloof area of Stellenbosch, where optimal conditions led to small, compact bunches with even ripening, providing good acidity. For Nicky, the most challenging part about the lead-up to harvest this year were fluctuations in temperature between January and March. Thankfully, the grapes “were harvested when we wanted and not because we were forced to due to inclement weather”. As a Stellenbosch-based Pinot Noir specialist, Vriesenhof is paving the way for the region. “Some people do not see the potential of Pinot Noir in Stellenbosch, so it has become a bit of my ambition to prove them wrong!” laughs Nicky. Focusing on site-specific terroir, the Vriesenhof team were able to harvest approximately 10 tonnes of grapes per hectare, which was used to craft the Vriesenhof Pinot Noir.
Over on the other side of the Hottentots-Holland Mountains and overlooking the scenic town of Franschhoek, Tim Hoek and his team worked equally feverishly at Haute Cabrière. Following a very cool December and January for the region, the pace was set for a great harvest. “The slow ripening gave us great acidity and perfect phenolic ripeness at the desired balling,” shares Tim. This said, the 2020 harvest was not without its challenges, as crop estimation was very difficult with bunch weights being very erratic. According to Tim, overall tonnes were down by 30%, which could be attributed to the long-lasting effects of the Western Cape drought which is still a fresh memory for winemakers. Despite the lower yields, the Haute Cabrière team have been proactive and innovative as ever, including working on an upcoming Pinot Noir fermented and aged in an Italian clay amphora and left for 3 months on the skin. This is on top of their flagship Haute Cabrière Pinot Noir Reserve, as well as a newly released single vineyard Haute Collection Pinot Noir that comes from a vineyard planted in 1991. Along with their unwooded Pinot Noir and two Pinot Noir Rosés, it is clear where Tim’s alliance lies when it comes to varieties.
While the distance between Franschhoek and Elgin is only 49km away by road, the regions are a world apart in terms of terroir. As a cool climate region, Elgin benefits from high altitudes and cold winters with abundant rainfall, and southeasterly sea breezes in summer. When Andries Burger, winemaker at Paul Cluver Wines for the past 24 years, first started working at Paul Cluver, they were the first commercial vineyard in the area. More than two decades later, Andries is a veritable veteran of the vine, reading his favourite Pinot Noir like a novel. In the summer preceding the 2020 harvest, the vineyards had quite a bit of wind during flowering, which resulted in a bad set with a lot of small bunches suffering from the most millerandage Andries had ever seen in Pinot Noir. This, on top of average bunch weights being down by 26% compared to the long-term average, was indicative of the other challenges 2020 had in store. Yet, thanks to Andries know-how, the Paul Cluver team were as prepared as possible. Although the initial ripening phase was slow, Pinot Noir is an early ripening variety and ripens the same time as the Paul Cluver Chardonnay. So the team invested in two off-loading stations and two sets of sorting tables and destemmers, allowing the vineyard and cellar team to harvest more per day. Aside from their classic production of Paul Cluver Village Pinot Noir, Paul Cluver Estate Pinot Noir and Paul Cluver Seven Flags Pinot Noir, Andries is constantly experimenting new wines in the cellar and new plantings in the vineyard. “We have quite a few plantings in new sites coming into production and reaching maturity. It is really exciting seeing the potential of the grapes coming from them and makes me look forward to the next couple of vintages,” reflects Andries.
Set a stone’s throw from the Atlantic coast and described as being a match to Burgundy’s conditions, the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley is widely acknowledged as the Pinot Noir capital of South Africa. At the very entrance to the valley, straight off the N2, is Creation Wines. Established in 2002, Creation has helped entrench the valley as a tourist destination, offering some of the most sophisticated and engaging wine experiences around. Gerhard Smith was appointed winemaker in early 2018 and has since set about advocating for the region’s propensity for producing remarkable Pinot Noir. For Gerhard, the lead up to the 2020 harvest was long and slow, with sufficient winter rainfall. According to Gerhard, as always, “the real trick of the trade was selecting the correct picking date”. Yet, his experience meant that the harvest yielded a promising result of 60 tonnes of prime Pinot Noir grapes in total. These grapes were then used in the making of the flagship Creation Art of Pinot Noir as well as Creation Emma's Pinot Noir and the newly released Creation Reserve Pinot Noir and Creation Estate Pinot Noir. While challenges included working at a fast and focused pace to complete harvest prior to the national lockdown (and repatriating a team member from Martinborough, New Zealand!), there was still time for Gerhard to work on some smaller parcels of older vineyards that he and the Creation team are using to push the boundaries of their style and winemaking to get the ultimate Hemel-en-Aarde Ridge expression.
Located a mere 10km away from Creation, neighbouring wine farm Bouchard Finlayson has established itself as a leading producer of Pinot noir since 1989. Led under the expertise of founder Peter Finlayson and winemaker Chris Albrecht, the duo have made great strides in pioneering South African Pinot, as well as putting the Walker Bay wine region on the map. Indeed, Peter was the first winemaker in the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley and his dedication to making the finest Pinot noir is palpable, as well as palatable. According to Peter, the 2020 season can be best described as a “non-nervous vintage.” By this, Peter goes on to explain that the close proximity of the ocean has often “presented vintages where regular precipitation has conflicted with harvesting but this was not the case during 2020”. Rather, this year’s challenges included that the Pinot bunches were very tightly packed, making them easily susceptible to botrytis rot, therefore canopy management and the prevention of ‘bunch lumping’ was particularly important. Also, the early ripening characteristic makes Pinot noir the first target for bird damage. “The net result is that one needs to be very closely committed to protecting your crop where this grape is concerned,” recommends Peter. For Bouchard Finlayson, the 2020 harvest yield was very low, at 0.5kg per vine. According to Chris, this is possibly the lowest harvest levels ever, largely as a result of keen early green harvesting in order to gain maximum quality benefit. “This does now reveal to have paid off as the 2020 vintage is looking to be of notable quality!” he ends.
Looking back with 20/20 vision, it seems that most Pinot Noir winemakers adapted readily to the changing scenarios and did their best to outmanoeuvre the year’s several curveballs. Sadly, like all wineries and businesses in the alcohol trade, the largest curveball that hit everyone was the ban on alcohol sales, which has had and will continue to have a far-reaching and long-lasting impact on the fine wine industry - an industry which employs thousands of people and underwrites an enormous tourist economy. Thankfully, since the lifting of the ban in mid-August, the hope is that normal trading can rapidly return and bring our industry into a balanced economy. After all, as 2020 has made abundantly clear - all winemakers (and people), are at the mercy of Mother Nature. Luckily, it seems she has a penchant for Pinot Noir.
|© Top Five Trust | All Rights Reserved|