Miguel Chan on South African Pinot Noir

Miguel Chan

In the Bouchard Finlayson coffee table book, Peter Finlayson writes: “Pinot Noir is like opera! When it is great it is pure seduction almost hedonistic. There is no middle road.”

Although he was writing his note about Bouchard Finlayson Galpin Peak Pinot Noir, several winemakers and sommeliers unite in their agreement about Pinot Noir, the tempestuous grape that is alternatively referred to as ‘Red Burgundy’ in France, in reference to its birthplace.

Miguel Chan, Group Sommelier at Tsogo Sun says, “Pinot Noir is site sensitive, as such, it prefers either a continental climate with a long, cool growing season or alternatively a cold, maritime-influence climate.”

While Pinot Noir might prove to be a challenge for winemakers around the world, a South African winemaker was recognized in the 1980’s for his prowess with the grape. In the 1970’s, Peter graduated as an oenologist from Stellenbosch University, furthered his studies at the Geisenheim in the Rheingau, was at the then fledgling Boschendal and subsequently worked on starting-up and running the first modern winery in the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley. In 1989, Peter Finlayson was awarded the Diners Club Winemaker of The Year Award for the 1986 Hamilton Russell Pinot Noir.

“South African Pinot Noir has come a long way in the last four decades,” Miguel expands, “South African Pinot Noir has many fine examples to show the world, with styles benchmarked alongside the greatest, with new planting material, as well as Burgundian clones that have contributed significantly to raising the quality.”

To illustrate, Miguel says, “the Hamilton Russell family’s site in the Hemel-en-Aarde is regarded as one of the finest in the Southern Hemisphere - and world - to grow the variety. That being said, emerging new terroirs that didn’t exist prior to 1994 have produced Pinot Noir with structure and longevity.”

“For instance, Elgin, driven by the Cluver family, or, of late, the Ceres Plateau where the Graaff family of De Grendel have been pioneering unchartered territories with outstanding results, Ceres benefits from both the continental climate as well as altitude,” Miguel explains.

“Off-the-beaten-path Outeniqua’s high elevation slopes outside George shows its affinity to Burgundy,” Miguel says, “closer to the Southern-tip of Africa, in Elim, David Nieuwoudt of Cederburg-fame have crafted stunning Pinot Noir from maritime-influenced vineyards, while further inland, valleys such as Franschhoek – where the Von Arnim’s Haute Cabrière with single-vineyard old vines planted in the 1980’s - are delivering exceptional Pinot Noir.”

Jan Boland Coetzee

Miguel considers other noteworthy Pinot Noir, such as, “a handful of select pockets in the Helderberg in Stellenbosch, for instance, Vriesenhof under the visionary eye of Jan Boland Coetzee.”

While winemakers have made substantial strides in the vinification of Pinot Noir, consumers are often cautious about the wine.“As a ‘light’ skin variety, it does not have the colour pigments of a Merlot or Shiraz, for example, as such, the wines are not deeply coloured, yet, generally speaking, Pinot Noir, on average, fetches higher prices in many countries,” Miguel says.

“Because of its light colour and the uninitiated, rather inspid look, the airiness and delicacy are often confused with light-bodied wines,” Miguel explains, “it is often misunderstood by consumers as they associate opaque colours with quality. However, appreciation of Pinot Noir is finally changing as consumers are getting to know Pinot Noir as an intellectual variety.”

“Pinot Noir reveals a succulent side, with delicate red fruit profiles such as red cherries, strawberries and cranberries where freshness, savouriness as well as the ability to pair with a broad variety of subtle cuisine, from fish to red meat, alongside vegetarian delights such as mushrooms. This makes Pinot Noir a red wine of choice for special occasions,” Miguel says.

Pinot Noir is renowned for special occasions, as one of the three grapes that generally go into the production of high-quality sparkling wine in South Africa, alongside Chardonnay and occasionally, Pinot Meunier.

On pairing Pinot Noir with food, Miguel says, “Pinot Noir is a food wine of excellence, it is one of the most versatile red wines. Be it with a mushroom risotto or roast duck breast, it is the perfect wine to compliment seafood such as grilled line fish, sashimi-style raw game fish or simply perfect with grilled meat and sushi, as long as Pinot Noir is served at the right temperature – that is, slightly chilled.”

“Pinot Noir’s versatility in pairing wine with food is due to its freshness and naturally low tannin – it is a red wine that is firm and yet not hard or tannic, there is an underlying savouriness in quality Pinot Noir that makes the variety a charm to pair with a broad variety of cuisine. In the context of South African weather, it is an ideal red wine all-year-round, as it is so refreshing,” Miguel says.

While the Pinot Noir grape is a versatile accompaniment to a variety of cuisine, it is also another noteworthy bastion of South African wine history. In a lab in 1925, Professor of Viticulture at Stellenbosch University, Abraham Perold crossed Pinot Noir and Cinsault, which resulted in a unique South African variety, Pinotage.

While there are many wines and many varieties that cross Miguel’s path, the task of selecting and listing Pinot Noir can be a precarious pleasure. “Selecting wines as a Sommelier is a humble job,” Miguel says, “especially when dealing with Pinot Noir. One has to factor in all of the qualities and characteristics of a wine, while, most importantly make the customer feel as though they are getting a bargain.”

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“Pinot Noir is often perceived in the customer’s mind as being expensive. Quality will always prevail as the listing criteria. Second, value for money – as there are bargains out there. And trade price point from the winery. It’s important to take freshness into account, as well as the ability to enjoy a wine on its own,” Miguel explains.

With regards to making the list, Miguel says, “a smashing glass of delicate red wine that pairs well with a range of cuisine styles is crucial. Last, but not least, the brand perception of the winery or producer is the determinant factor for consistent and growing sales.”

Miguel recommends the following South African Pinot Noir red wines:

About Miguel Chan

Miguel Chan is a respected wine judge, skilled wine-taster and Group Sommelier for the Tsogo Sun Group.

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Published: 08-09-2020