I imagine the process of growing Pinot Noir is a bit like taming a wild butterfly.
It’s a stunning thing, beautiful to look at, and all you want to do is hold it in your hand and appreciate it. But it’s a wild thing, with wild habits – it needs the right environment, attention, patience and understanding to get it on your side.
Some have called Pinot Noir the Holy Grail of wine. Complex, captivating and almost unreachable, this grape is one of the most difficult and temperamental to farm.
Fortunately for lovers of this elusive wine, there is one place in South Africa where all the right factors combine to produce Pinot Noir. It’s here, in the foothills of the Babylon Toren Mountains, where I stand with Swiss wine-maker Jean-Claude (JC) Martin on his farm – Creation Wines – on the Hemel-en-Aarde Ridge, just outside Hermanus.
It’s an achingly beautiful afternoon in July and we are perched in a freshly planted vineyard as JC tells me about the challenges, quirks and secrets to growing his award-winning Pinot Noir.
The first secret
“Within the South African context, most places are too warm for Pinot. These grapes are very sensitive to heat,” JC says as we look out over the brown-stalk rows of newly planted vines.
“To achieve an elegant balance between acidity and fruitiness you cannot grow Pinot Noir in a hot place. That’s why our sea breezes are so important. We are only seven or eight kilometres away from the sea, and when the wind comes from the right direction, it cools the area. But it’s also the altitude. We are 325 metres above sea level and that’s important, especially in the evenings when things cool down a lot. The balance between warmer and cooler conditions is good for the fruit and the intensity of the flavours. It has an impact on the expression of flavours in the grapes.”
“I think overall it is a pretty perfect area for growing grapes,” JC concludes. “But the exciting thing is that you can actually grow Pinot Noir here.”
The second secret
We walk out over the field and JC picks up a big wet lump of clay. My first inkling is that a weed wouldn’t grow in this mush.
“You cannot plant Pinot on sandy soil,” he announces. “Pinot Noir kind of likes a clay-type soil – it gives much more structure.”
He picks up a random rock.
“This shale is 60 million years old and there are a lot of minerals in the soil. Sometimes in areas where it’s very cold and wet the minerals wash out and you have a pH level problem, but not here. Another advantage is our clay soil; it’s good at holding water, so chances are we won’t have to irrigate once the young vines have settled.”
“So the soil makes a difference to the taste of the wine at the end of the day?” I ask.
“I believe the soil has an impact,” he answers.
The Third Secret
We take a stroll around the newly planted vineyard and I can’t help but notice the steepness of the gradient. JC fills me in on another Pinot secret.
“Another thing about Pinot Noir is that the site on which it grows has a big effect on the grape. So each site will express itself in its own stylistic way. It’s also about the sun direction – how the slope stands. So that’s why you try and make the wine from grapes grown in different plots. As the vines stand here, the more south-facing slope will ripen later than the one on the other side."
He kicks at a mound of dirt and bits of rocks roll a little way down the slope.
“Some of the areas might be less vigorous and have more gravel, which will stress the plant more. But we like it when the plant struggles a bit because it means slightly smaller berries: a higher percentage of flavour-rich skin to juice. You want the plant to go really deep to find the water.”
The Fourth Secret
Interested in the intricacies of fermenting Pinot, I ask JC what happens in the cellar when it comes to harvest time.
The Fifth Secret
Of all the complexities JC talks about when it comes to growing Pinot, there’s one secret that seems to stand out among them all. However it’s not something he mentions.
A lot of people talk about the nous of the winemaker – the sense and experience it takes to grow these grapes and make an incredible wine. While chatting to JC and his farm manager, Peter, I get the sense that there’s a lot of this. The Creation team has a remarkable combination of passion, knowledge, experience and love for wine and I’m convinced that comes through in the final taste.
As we start strolling back to the Creation tasting room, I consider JC’s theory about the Pinot plant needing to struggle a little bit in order to produce the right type of grape. It’s an idea that seems to resonate with the entire Pinot Noir story.
From its wild origins in the high Burgundy region of France, to the struggle of farmers over the years to master its fruit for winemaking, to the everyday struggle of the plant trying to find water in the thick clay shale of the Hemel-en-Aarde Ridge.
They say the good things in life don’t come easily. And I think this applies to Pinot Noir.