Pinot Noir is a demanding variety to cultivate and transform into wine, with a temperament that has earned the grape its ‘heartbreak grape’ moniker. This thin-skinned red cultivar associated with Burgundy evokes passion in winemakers and wine drinkers alike.
The annual Mosaic Top 5 Pinot Noir Wine Awards identify five South African Pinot Noir red wines to serve as a benchmark for the development of distinctive South African Pinot Noir red wines and to illustrate the quality of South African Pinot Noir red wines to the world.
The Top Five Trust, together with our generous sponsor, Mosaic Family Office, is proud to recognise and support the climate, people, soil and the multitude of other factors that go into making the best Pinot Noir red wines in South Africa.
Top Five Trust is a registered public benefit organisation, reference number 930068246.
Mosaic Family Office is proud to sponsor the annual Top 5 Pinot Noir Wine Awards.
Mosaic Family Office provides innovative solutions to solve the complex financial problems of its family office clients. The firm specialises in the establishment and maintenance of local and offshore multigenerational financial inheritance structures that allow families to manage, protect and grow their wealth for current and future generations. Core competencies include administration, fiduciary, philanthropy, portfolio management, structuring and taxation services.
Mosaic Family Office is a registered Financial Sector Conduct Authority financial services provider (#46319) in terms of the Financial Advisory and Intermediary Services Act of 2002.
Pinot Noir is one of the most ancient varieties of domesticated vitis vinifera with the earliest mention more than two thousand years ago by Columella in De Re Rustica, a 12-volume encyclopaedia on agriculture in the Roman empire.
Pinot Noir is an early budding and ripening variety that produces small grape clusters that are tightly packed with thin-skinned berries. Pinot Noir vines are less vigorous and lower yielding compared to other varieties.
The name ‘Pinot Noir’ is derived from the French words for ‘pine’ and ‘black’. The reference to a pine tree alludes to the pinecone-like shape of the grape bunches. The reference to the colour black is an acknowledgment that the Pinot family also has white and grey variants called Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris.
Pinot Meunier is another important variant of Pinot Noir, and one of the three main varieties used in the production of Champagne. The name is derived from the French word for ‘miller’ and refers to the dusty white down on the underside of the grape leaves.
There are around one thousand different Pinot Noir clones, of which approximately 50 clones are available for commercial use. The existence of the large number of clones and variants have fuelled an enduring myth that Pinot Noir is genetically unstable and that it mutates more frequently compared to other varieties. However, no scientific study has ever demonstrated that Pinot Noir is more prone to mutations compared to other grape varieties. Because Pinot Noir is so old, it has had ample time to naturally accumulate genetic modifications compared to other younger varieties.
Pinot Noir has crossed naturally with many other varieties and is linked to more than a hundred descendants including Chardonnay, Aligoté, Muscadet and Gamay.
Pinot Noir is cultivated around the world, mainly in cooler climates, and is closely associated with the Côte-d'Or (meaning ‘golden slope’) department in the Burgundy region in north-eastern France.
Pinot Noir produces light to medium bodied wines with fine tannins and a lighter colour than other red wines, due to the thinner grape skins with lower tannin content compared to other black grape varieties.
Although Pinot Noir wine is light in colour, it tends to be very rich in flavour. Quality Pinot Noir wine is universally recognised for its complex flavour composition on the nose and its soft lingering aftertaste, contributing to an unmatched overall tasting experience.
Wine made from Pinot Noir grapes tends to have aromas reminiscent of cherry, cranberry, pomegranate, raspberry, strawberry and many other small red berry fruits. These fruit aromas are often accompanied by a flowery perfume consisting of the scents of violets and roses. Maturation in oak barrels adds caramel, clove, spice and vanilla aromas and assists with the transformation of softer tannins. Some styles of Pinot Noir can also develop farmyard, forest floor, mushroom and other savoury aromas that contribute to the complexity of the wine.
Pinot Noir red wine is perfect for many food pairings due to its delicate nature and red berry profile. The wine matches well with most chicken, duck, fish, pasta, pork, sushi and vegetarian dishes.
The first mention of Pinot Noir in South Africa is by Irish novelist Laurence Sterne, who wrote in
A Sentimental Journey of a Dutchman who planted
the grape of Burgundy in the Cape of Good Hope, not necessarily to produce anything equal to Burgundy reds, but more with the aim of making
some sort of vinous liquor.
We can only assume that all evidence of these Pinot Noir vines were either ripped out or lost to phylloxera.
Abraham Izak Perold was a legendary botanist, ampelograph and wine scientist. He studied Mathematics, Physics and Chemistry at the Victoria College in Stellenbosch and obtained a PhD in Halle, Germany. He is tasked by the Cape government to explore new wine grape varieties in Europe and eventually returns with 177 varietals. He becomes the first Professor of Viticulture at the University of Stellenbosch, later becoming Dean of the Faculty of Agriculture. Professor Perold joined the KWV in 1927 and makes a huge contribution to the wine industry during his career.
Professor Perold is the earliest champion of Pinot Noir in South Africa and is credited with importing the Swiss Champagne BK5 Pinot Noir clone into the country. He would go on to describe the grape as
a wine of high quality, beautifully coloured, strong, full-bodied wine with an excellent bouquet, in his book
A Treatise on Viticulture.
Pinot Noir is crossed with Hermitage (better known as Cinsaut) in 1925 to produce Pinotage, South Africa's signature wine variety.
Pinotage is created as a home experiment of Professor Perold in the garden of his official residence at Welgevallen Experimental farm on the banks of the Eerste River in Stellenbosch. He harvests pollen from the early ripening Pinot Noir and keeps it in his refrigerator until the flowers of Hermitage are in bloom and then physically brushes the flowers with the pollen. This experiment yields four seeds that are planted in the same garden.
When Professor Perold left the university for KWV, it was decided to clear his garden. A young university lecturer named Dr. Charlie Niehaus happened to cycle past the garden as it is being cleared just in time to save the four Pinotage seedlings. The seedlings are re-established by Professor CJ Theron at Elsenburg Agricultural College.
Charl Theron (CT) de Waal, lecturer on winemaking at Elsenburg Agricultural College, produces the first barrel of Pinotage wine in 1941 at the winery at Welgevallen Experimental farm.
The first commercial Pinotage vineyard is planted in 1943 at Myrtle Grove on the Schapenberg in Sir Lowry's Pass.
Pinotage is used commercially for the first time on the label of the famous Lanzerac Pinotage 1959, made from grapes grown on Bellevue Wine Estate in Stellenbosch.
German artist George Paul Canitz buys Muratie Wine Estate in Knorhoek Valley, north of Stellenbosch. Canitz is a painter who lectures at the University of Stellenbosch, when his good friend Professor Perold convinces him to buy a wine farm promising Canitz to help. Muratie Wine Estate is the first estate in South Africa to plant Pinot Noir vines, in 1927. Canitz is quoted as claiming that
Muratie Burgundy is bottled sunshine, it gladdens the heart and loosens the tongue!
Researchers at the University of Burgundy's Jules Guyot Institute in Dijon, France isolates 640 different clones of Pinot Noir. Each clone is planted in a separate vineyard and vinified annually, to determine which of the clones make the best wines. The improvement of clonal material is critically important for producing high quality Pinot Noir wines.
In 1957, the Ko-operatiewe Wijnbouwers Vereniging van Zuid-Afrika (KWV) introduces a production quota system to prevent wine oversupply and to stabilise wine prices. This control prevents the expansion of the South African wine industry into production areas better suited to Pinot Noir. Additionally, the system incentivises grape growers to plant high-yielding varietals as they are paid for weight and not for the quality of the grapes produced. Pinot Noir with its renowned fickleness and demanding nature loses favour with farmers who favours high yielding wine grapes.
The first official French clones of Pinot Noir are released in 1971, numbered from 111 to 115. Collectively, the clones are referred to as the
Dijon clones, after the town in Burgundy from where they originate.
South Africa's Wine of Origin certification scheme is launched in 1973, in accordance with the Wine, Other Fermented Beverages and Spirits Act of 1957.
South African Pinot Noir finds its way into the modern era in the form of a tax break. Tim Hamilton Russell ran a successful advertising agency in Johannesburg and turned to farming to offset his personal income. He acquired the undeveloped 170ha farm Braemar in the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley near Hermanus and renamed it Hamilton Russell Vineyards. The first vines, including Pinot Noir, are planted in 1976. The first wines are made in 1981, including a Grand Vin Noir made from Pinot Noir.
Walker Bay is recognised as a Ward in October 1981, in terms of the Wine of Origin certification scheme.
Meerlust Estate releases its first Pinot Noir in 1981, made by Italian winemaker Giorgio Dalla Cia.
Dijon clones of Pinot Noir series 665-668, 777-780 and 828, 871 and 943.
Anthony Rawbone-Viljoen of Oak Valley Estate plants the first experimental vineyards in the Elgin Valley in 1985. Shortly thereafter in 1986 and with special permission from the quota authorities, Dr. Paul Cluver of Paul Cluver Wines plants a Riesling vineyard on De Rust Estate as the first commercial vineyard in the Elgin Valley.
Gunter Brözel of Nederburg Wines forms a joint venture with Oak Valley Estate and Paul Cluver Wines, establishing wine production in the Elgin Valley.
Arthur Pillmann plants the first Pinot Noir vines in Bot River in 1985 at Goedvertrouw Wine Estate. In 1989, Achim von Arnim of Haute Cabrière becomes a Pinot Noir pioneer in Franschhoek.
Elgin Valley is recognised as a Ward of the greater Overberg District in 1989, in terms of the Wine of Origin certification scheme.
After being awarded the Diners Club Winemaker of the Year award for his efforts with Pinot Noir, Peter Finlayson partners with acclaimed Burgundy wine négociant Paul Bouchard to establish Bouchard Finlayson Winery in the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley, in 1989.
The scrapping of the KWV's quota system in 1992 and South Africa re-entering international markets after the first democratic election in 1994, gives the local wine industry the freedom and opportunity to innovate and experiment with new cultivars and areas, benefitting Pinot Noir.
The apple industry suffers a major price decline in the 1990s because of large increases in the global supply of apples from China. This price decline prompts many Elgin Valley farmers to switch from apple production to wine grape production and stimulates the establishment of new vineyards, including Pinot Noir, in the region.
Dijon clones of Pinot Noir becomes available in South Africa and starts to replace the Swiss Champagne BK5 Pinot Noir clone. This significantly improves the potential quality of locally produced Pinot Noir red wines.
The 341ha plantings of Pinot Noir in 1990 increases to 487ha by the end of the millennium, with new areas like Darling joining the Pinot Noir ranks with Groote Post Winery releasing its first Pinot Noir in 1999.
It's a hard grape to grow, as you know. It is thin-skinned, temperamental. It is not a survivor like Cabernet that can grow anywhere and thrive even when neglected. Pinot needs constant care and attention, you know? Miles Raymond's words from the 2004 movie Sideways spurred a global surge in Pinot Noir sales, known as the
Sideways Effect. The movie causes a 170% increase in the production of California Pinot Noir, and the enthusiasm for Pinot Noir also spills over to South Africa.
In May 2004, Walker Bay is reclassified as a District and is eventually spilt up into three new Wards: Hemel-en-Aarde Valley (recognised August 2006), Upper Hemel-en-Aarde Valley (recognised August 2006) and Hemel-en-Aarde Ridge (recognised June 2009).
Elim is recognised as a Ward in April 2007, in terms of the Wine of Origin certification scheme.
Strandveld Winery in Elim releases its first Pinot Noir, while new Pinot Noir vines are planted in Stanford by Sir Robert Stanford Estate and in Plettenberg Bay by Packwood Wine Estate.
Total plantings of Pinot Noir in South Africa increase to 962ha by 2010.
Pinot Noir production in South Africa continues to expand into new cool areas including the southern Cape, West Coast and Ceres Plateau. There are currently 1201ha of Pinot Noir in South Africa, making up 1.5% of the total area planted to wine grapes.
South African Pinot Noir red wines garners international praise from wine critics and publications. British Master of Wine Tim Atkin notes that
the high quality of the best Cape Pinots is the single biggest achievement of the modern South African wine industry. UK-based wine critic and author Neal Martin states that
South Africa produces some of the finest New World Pinot Noir. If I had to select a country that comes closest to achieving the heights of the Côte d'Or – and why not compare yourself with the apparent best – then it would probably be South Africa.
The Mosaic Top 5 Pinot Noir Wine Awards is established in 2020 to recognise and support the continued improvement of South African Pinot Noir red wines.