Pinot Noir

Pinot’s real home is Burgundy and if you know the grape you probably harbour the desire (as I do) of one day driving through the Cote de Beaune, stopping at every small and large estate and speaking with the growers and winemakers there and tasting their wines. And then doing the same thing in Oregon and South Island New Zealand as well! Oh, and Chile as well!
If you look at a map of the earth, you will see that the places I’ve mentioned in the previous paragraph are all similar distances from the equator. They all lie on the outer limits of the areas which produce most of the world’s wine. Kind of “marginal land”. Pinot Noir achieves its best expression when grown in a cool climate. However, it mustn’t be too cool or you won’t get your grapes to ripen. It’s very like Goldilocks. Here in Plett we seem to have the ideal climate and soil for Pinot and I’m convinced that the strong focus on whites in this area is going to change over the years.

Anyway, back to the characteristics of the cultivar which make growing Pinot a real challenge (and the most expensive wine in the world). First off, the grape has a really thin skin. (This is why Pinot is lighter in colour than the heavier reds like Cabernet and Merlot – all red wine starts out white and it takes its colour from the skins of the grapes). The thin skin means that there is the threat that if the grape gets too hot, the flavours in the juice flatten out, resulting in a wine that lacks complexity. That is to say, too much hot sun makes the wine flat and boring. But this is not the only danger that a thin skin brings. It also is more prone to the dangers posed by bunch rot. Bunch rot can be caused by fungus but also when after a dry-ish season you get a down-pour, the grapes swell very quickly. Many of the thicker-skinned cultivars cope well enough, but others split and the bunch becomes a soggy mass in a haze of fruitflies. In the growing season, Pinot is more sensitive to wind than other cultivars. And to damage caused by fungus. The Burgundian conditions are such that their harvests are often disastrous – they have three good or great years in ten.
I mention these things in passing – they are documented exhaustively elsewhere. Suffice it to say, we gradually awoke to the fact that growing grapes (and Pinot in particular) was not going to be the rural idyll we had hoped for. But that was OK because the bug had bitten and we gradually warmed to the challenge. It is a high-stakes gamble involving an enormous amount of work, multiple variables (any of which can ruin a season), and for salaried people like us, a huge amount of money. Input costs per hectare are about R450,000- and this does not mean that you are then in a position to make some wine – it may be four, five or even six years before you have wine in a bottle. Bottling, labelling, the cork, cartons, capsules, the cellarage costs, tax and so on are all waiting down the road. And of course, once you’ve made and bottled the wine, you still have to sell it!

The first harvest
At the end of the first and second growing seasons you don’t get a harvest because you strip the grapes off early so that your vines spend all their energy building structure. This means that you want them to concentrate on developing a thick upright stem and two sturdy “arms” that rest on the cordon wire. Each vine looks like a capital “T”. The pruning protocols are difficult to explain but there are numerous you tube videos which do a good job.
At the end of our third season we picked about 600kg of the most miserable-looking grapes that I’ve ever seen. Many of the bunches were shrivelled to the point where they had no juice at all and even in the better-looking bunches, some of the berries were wrinkled. We had left the bunches on the vine too long and the sugar levels were over 25. Despite this, Anton Smal, the winemaker at Bramon, managed to make a delightful wine. It had great colour (the high ratio of skins to juice in the must ensured this) and the structure was good. There was good fruit, spice, and hints of the forest-floor. It began to become clear to us why, despite the finicky nature of the cultivar, growers and winemakers see Pinot as the “holy grail” of wine grapes.