Pinot Noir was my teacher.
In fact, it was my first real foray into the wine world. After being granted a scholarship to study wine business in Burgundy, naive but ambitious me and my Glou Glou partner-in-crime, Kristen, packed up our bags and moved to Dijon for 9 months. Any prior experience with wine was laughably limited (to put it gently) up until that point, with my measure of understanding lying somewhere between the hues of red and white.
So, when I found myself in the heart of Old World Burgundy, being taught all about Pinot Noir in my ‘Sensorial Analysis and Appreciation’ course, I was baffled by just how much I really loved the grape. When it came to red wine, anything I had previously tried had always been too tannic and bold for my fledgling palate. But whoa and behold, here was a light-bodied red wine with subtle tannins and delicate aromas that had me swooning with every sniff. In fact, it acted as a bit of a gateway to the dark (red) side. I’d assess and obsess over the different bottlings we’d taste, and pride myself on the fact that it was one of the varieties I became very efficient at picking out of a blind tasting line up.
Naturally, by the time I returned to South Africa and emerged from what felt like a wine boot camp, I began a hunt to find local versions of my new favourite variety. Only, it didn’t take me long to discover I had quite literally entered a whole new world …
While Burgundy quite famously falls within the ‘Old World’ category, South Africa is very much in the New World. So, what distinguishes these worlds?
Put simply, the most basic difference between ‘Old World’ and ‘New World’ wines is geographic: ‘Old World’ refers to the traditional winegrowing regions of Europe, while ‘New World’ refers to everything else. Besides inciting Botticelli-esque images of Florentine Renaissance buildings and women with free-flowing hair, old world wines are from countries or regions where winemaking using the Vitis viniferagrapes first originated. Think countries like France, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Greece, Austria, Hungary, and Germany i.e. Europe.
On the flip side, New World wines are from countries or regions where winemaking and Vitis vinifera grapes were imported during (and after) the age of exploration. So really, this includes the rest of the world, with countries like the United States, Australia, South Africa, Chile, Argentina, and New Zealand.
As I began the hunt for locating my perfect Burgundy-style Pinot Noir within the Cape, I soon found that New World can also refer to differences in style. The climates of New World wine regions are often warmer, which tends to result in riper, more alcoholic, full-bodied and fruit-centered wines. My memories of lighter-bodied Pinot, exhibiting more herb, earth, mineral and floral components wasn’t as quick a find as I thought it would be.
So, it was with welcome happenstance that I opened my inbox recently to receive an invitation to a Bouchard Finlayson Tasting of New World Pinot Noir. Presented by revered Bouchard Finlayson’s winemaker Chris Albrecht, the tasting was held at the perpetually prestigious 12 Apostles Hotel one mid-April evening.
“Which country, besides France, do you think has the most plantings of Pinot Noir?” opened Chirs. Suggestions were murmured around the room of guests, ranging from New Zealand to South Africa. “Where South Africa has around 1000 hectares of Pinot Noir, and New Zealand and Australia 5000, Germany has a staggering 11 500 hectares of their beloved Spätburgunder,” revealed Chris.
In fact, Germany is now the third largest producer of Pinot Noir in the world, with Spätburgunder becoming the third most-planted grape variety in Germany, after Riesling and Müller-Thurgau. So, what does this mean? Chris explains: “Although Germany is regarded as an Old World producer, their oak-matured, dry and quality focused Spatburgunders aren’t.”
The point here is that while Burgundy is still the reigning Prince of Pinot, there is a steady evolution within these two worlds, blurring the line between old and new. This really set the scene for the evening, which consisted of 2 blind flights of 4 different Pinot Noir wines each. With tastings ranging from Bouchard Finlayson’s own range such as Galpin Peakto wines from Australia, Germany and New Zealand. As I hunted for my favourite Burgundy characteristics, I discovered that all the wines were made in a similar style, with the key difference being region.
“Typically, I believe New World-styled wines to be more fruit-driven and aromatically pleasing, whereas the Old World Pinot’s are texturally focused,” said Chris.
Zooming in on a local scale, our ‘New World’ Pinot-producing areas like the Hemel-en-Aarde and Elgin valleys are releasing more and more exceptional and interesting versions of the variety.
In fact, the Hemel-en-Aarde region is actively becoming a stronghold for Pinot Noir. This is all thanks to the ideal maritime climate and ocean breeze influence, with the ancient clay-rich soils creating a perfect bed for the vines to rest in. “The absence of extended heat spikes during the ripening months in summer is especially important,” adds Chris.
The Region even holds the annual Pinot Noir Celebration, a two-day affair that highlights local Pinot Noirs from producers in all three wards of the valley, including Bouchard Finlayson, Hamilton Russell, Creation and Ataraxia Wines. While the vineyards in the area are still relatively young, the potential for these sites is immense, with Master of Wine Greg Sherwood claiming that “the foundations are being laid for a region that can, in time, produce world-class examples of Pinot Noir that could rival its international counterparts”.
Meanwhile, the Elgin Valley has steadily climbed up the ranks. The region’s topography is bowl-shaped, sporting the 4th highest altitude in South Africa. It lies approximately 20km away from the Atlantic Ocean, meaning the Maritime air is trapped under an almost permanent cloud cover that keeps the average temperatures cooler than the rest of the wine growing region - a perfect treasure trove for Pinot Noir. Excellent examples are continually emerging from this area, including Radford Dale, Iona, Paul Cluver and Oak Valley Wines.
As the Bouchard Finlayson New World Pinot Noir tasting came to a close, I reflected on the purpose of the evening. Chris had explained it was to elevate and benchmark Bouchard Finlayson’s style among international wines, in order to continue improving and learning. While it seems that the bench is continually being raised higher and higher on both a local and international scale, what was clearer is that the terms ‘Old World’ and ‘New World’ have taken on even broader connotations in recent years.
Sure, where ‘Old World’ tends to imply tradition and history, ‘New World’ invokes technology and science. But moreover, I found that I had enjoyed all the versions of Pinot Noir more than ever. They all harked back to various aspects of my Pinot Noir pedagogy. After all, as a variety, Pinot Noir has a zero-tolerance policy for mediocrity. The grape itself acts a filter, as the sheer focus it demands from winemakers means only the best can keep up. And it’s starting to show in the tastiest way possible.
As Chris concluded on the night: “Obviously, there are exceptions, but as vineyards age and producers better understand their sites, the differences between Old and New continue to erode.”
I look forward to the watershed moment.