South Africa, that is, where you might not expect to find such splendid pinot noirs.
In recent decades, as oenophiles awakened to emergent wine regions around the world, South Africa remained largely out of sight and mind. Blame politics and people’s preconceptions. The country’s Apartheid-era isolation didn’t help. But even after the boycotts ended, South African vintners faced stiff competition from a global market that paid their labels relatively scant attention. Asked for impressions of South African wine, outsiders were apt to mention Stellenbosch, the heatbaked region outside Cape Town that has staked its claim with such sun-worshipping varietals as granache and cabernet sauvignon—if they knew to mention anything at all.
But as with so much else in South Africa, the country’s winemaking reputation has changed. It is now seen as a hotspot for pinot noir. Actually, cool place is more like it. At first blush, that might sound unlikely. Pinot noir, after all, is a notoriously temperamental grape that performs most willingly in cool-climate settings like Burgundy, Oregon’s Willamette Valley and the fog-blanketed Sonoma Coast. It can stand some heat but doesn’t tolerate relentlessly high temperatures, and South Africa, of course, gets a ton of sun. Yet the country is also home to micro-climates with just the sort of traits that pinot noir prefers. Consider the appellation called the Cape South Coast, which stretches southeast of Cape Town over rolling terrain, close to the Atlantic Ocean, covering a collection of grape-growing wards and districts including Elgin Valley, Walker Bay and Hemel en Aarde.
The soil here, rich in clay and shale, is primo for pinot, and so are the climatic conditions, freshened by the ocean’s kiss. More than 60 wineries operate around the Cape South Coast. Many are small and family-run, and the finest of them share in the conviction that the smartest way to treat pinot noir is pretty much to get out of its way. “When you are harvesting quality fruit, it’s not necessary to manipulate the wine,” says Jean-Claude (JC) Martin, head winemaker at South Cape Coast winery Creation Wines. “What you do instead is guide it gently through the process so as to preserve the sense of place.” Like many winemakers, Martin recognizes pinot noir as “the heartbreak grape,” a nod to its fragility and beauty. But he loves it fearlessly. Born in Switzerland, he first fell for the varietal in his late teens while working his family’s vineyards on the slopes of Lake Bienne. In 2002, he and wife Carolyn, a native of South Africa, purchased the land where their winery now sits, on Hemel en Aarde Ridge, transforming what had been a sheep farm into a happy place for pinot noir. Creation’s vineyard grows at nearly 1,000 feet above sea level, less than 10 miles from the Atlantic. A combination of the clay soil and the ocean’s cooling influence gives rise to elegant wines that favor bright fruit flavors and fresh acidity over weighty oak and tiresome tannins. “That’s what we think pinot noir should be,” Carolyn Martin says. “Age-worthy wines that pair wonderfully with food.” Pinot noir of similarly splendid subtlety and structure can be found at respected estates throughout the South Cape Coast. They include venerable properties like Botanica and its Elgin Valley neighbor, Boschendal, a winery whose roots reach back to 1685, as well as relative newcomers like Stellar Winery, whose delicate, fruitforward River’s End pinot noir is made with organic grapes. Stellar released its first wines in 2003, one year after JC and Carolyn Martin established Creation. At the time, South African pinot noir flew largely under the radar. But those were the old days. The world is changing quickly. And one of the truths of our brave new age is that undiscovered wine regions don’t remain that way for long.