MICHAEL FRIDJHON: Wine
THE more the world produces decent Pinot Noir, the more the price of the top-end French examples continues to rise. There used to be no more than a handful of wines that attracted prices in line with the Bordeaux First Growths; now there are dozens (all admittedly produced in minuscule quantities) in a price range of R5000-R15000 a bottle for a current vintage.
All come from highly specific sites in Burgundy's Côte de Nuits and are made by cult figures whose focus and wine-making methodology sets them apart from others working within the same (or adjacent) appellations and achieving a fraction of the revenue. Of course much of this depends on coincidence: nuances of nature out of which gifted growers and wine-makers get the most from their "piece of dirt". As Bordeaux has become more "commodified", Burgundy has become sexier. Since volumes are seriously constrained - the average size of land-holdings in the region are fractions of a hectare - it is the perfect environment for this kind of bubble. Of course, as the wines become more expensive, so does the land. It is not uncommon for the few parcels that do come onto the market to achieve the equivalent of more than R100m a hectare, with even more than double that amount paid for very prestigious sites.
While all this has been happening in Burgundy, more and more good Pinot is being produced elsewhere. The US (Oregon) and New Zealand (mainly Central Otago) have been making bucketloads of Pinot, which comfortably offer greater drinking pleasure than the average regional Burgundy. There are some very fine Pinots from Australia (mainly Victoria) and an increasing number of very elegant wines from the Cape.
Paul Cluver (of the eponymous winery) has been producing Pinot in Elgin since the 1990s. He addressed a symposium at Prowein in Germany earlier this year and made some trenchant points about what is happening (literally) on the ground in the Cape, as well as what we can expect in the next few years. There were two key observations in his analysis: first, that the bulk of mature Pinot plantings in the Cape are in areas largely unsuitable for the production of fine reds. Their fruit goes into the burgeoning demand for Cap Classique. The second is that there has been a significant increase in Pinot vineyards in the areas where most quality Pinot-based wine is being produced. Fruit from these sites will be coming to market in the next few years.
While total Pinot plantings in SA still represent less than 1% of the national vineyard, they have grown from just more than 100ha in the early 1980s to just less than 1000ha in 2010. Thirty years ago, Stellenbosch, Paarl and Robertson accounted for 99% of all our P inot.
They now represent 65%, with the greatest gain coming from the proven quality appellations of Walker Bay and Elgin. Unsurprisingly, these are the areas where the greatest percentage of the grapes go into making red wine - and this is where many of the new plantings are sited. If you were a Pinot producer today, you would have to modify your thinking and marketing to take into account where this is leading. The average price of a bottle of Pinot is higher than any other South African variety. This model has been driven partly by a paucity of quality examples and by limited volumes among the more credible brands.
All this - as Cluver has shown - is about to change.
No wonder the latest vintage (2009) of his Seven Flags vineyard selection has been aged for longer before release, that it is less expensive than the maiden bottling (dramatically so, if inflation is taken into account) and that it is markedly more attractive, fragrant, intense - and therefore much better value.
If I were anticipating something akin to a glut of Pinot in the next year or two, I would also be doing everything in my power to up my game and recalibrate my pricing.
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