Some friends who run a local wine bar have been in South Africa on holiday over the last few weeks. While I’m jealous, I’m also glad they took the trip because I have high hopes they’ll bring back with them tales of interesting wines and with any luck they will have arranged for some to feature in their establishment. So while I was in Adelaide over the holidays, I was thinking of South Africa and drinking this Oak Valley Pinot Noir 2006.
As much as I would love to cover a new grape and a new region with every post, my access to the world of wine is limited by what I can readily source. For wines of South Australia, most everything just requires a trip to a bottle shop or a cellar door, but for the rest of the world I am limited by what is imported. Those wines tend to be European and from the most sought after regions / producers, which means if I want a First Growth Bordeaux I just need to find the money, but if I want a Pinot Gris from Oregon I’m out of luck. Fortunately I’ve been able to bring back a few bottles from my travels, though they only cover the areas I’ve visited. This is just a roundabout way of saying that instead of some new grape variety and unexplored area of the world, it’s another Pinot Noir from Elgin, not so unlike the Ross Gower Cap Classique I wrote about this time last year.
Obviously this is not the same producer nor the same style of wine, but since it’s been a year some recap of Elgin probably wouldn’t go amiss. It’s a region of the Western Cape roughly 70km east by south east from Cape Town, midway between the wine centres of Stellenbosch and Hermanus. It’s among the coolest regions of South Africa, a plateau at 300m bordered by mountains. The climate is cool, with both altitude and relative proximity to the ocean (approximately 20km to the west and south) being factors. Winters are cold and harvests can be more than a month after warmer regions of the Cape. I originally described the soil as shale, which does serve as a base for the region as a whole. More specifically it’s often covered with a layer of sandstone gravel or clay, sometimes both. And as I’ve said before, baboons are a hazard in the vineyard, particularly when grapes are ripe or nearly so.
As of this post, four out of the ten wines of South Africa I’ve covered have been made in whole or part of Pinot Noir, and so one could be forgiven for concluding that it’s a popular grape in the country. However, while the plantings have almost doubled between 2000 and 2010 to nearly 1000HA, it’s still a relative drop in the bucket compared to the 18,000HA of Chenin Blanc, 12,000HA of Cabernet Sauvignon, and 12,000HA of Colombar. In fact, Pinot Noir ranks 13th in the league table of plantings, though its percentage growth over that period is rivalled only by Syrah which saw a near doubling of plantings from 5,600HA to just over 10,000HA. So while Pinot Noir is an increasingly important grape for South Africa’s cooler regions, it is perhaps over-represented on these pages because of my personal preferences.
The Oak Valley Estate was founded in 1898 by Antonie Viljoen. He was likely one of the descendants of François Villion, a French Huguenot, who arrived at the Cape of Good Hope in 1671 and married Cornelia Campenaar of Middelburg, Holland. Viljoen studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh, and was a medical officer in the Boer army, but was captured by the British and detained at Oak Valley for the duration of the Second Boer War. He was subsequently knighted for his work at post-war reconciliation. He oversaw the planting of the first commercial orchards in the region, the precursor of the apple industry which is now the foundation of the region’s economy. He also started the first winery in 1908, though it was only in use through the 1940s. The estate is now managed by Anthony Rawbone-Viljoen.
Oak Valley is unique among the producers we’ve covered in that wine is not their only business. Wineries which also distil spirits, press olive oil, or sell branded merchandise are not uncommon, but Oak Valley as a business is at least as concerned with apple and pear orchards, greenhouse flowers and beef cattle as it is with wine. The vineyards as they stand today date back only to 1985, and their first vintage was 2003. The lion’s share of their plantings are Sauvignon Blanc, with much smaller amounts of Merlot, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and fewer still plantings of another half dozen varieties. While grapes are estate grown, space is currently rented at a neighbouring winery for production. Wines currently produced include varietal Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and this Pinot Noir, as well as a Sauvignon Blanc / Semillon blend and a Merlot / Cabernet Sauvignon Blend.
As to this wine, in the glass it is clear and bright with medium minus garnet colour and quick, thin legs. On the nose it’s clean and developing with medium intensity and notes of sweet red cherries, pomegranate, dark chocolate and sweet spice, along with a little Pinot funk. On the palate it’s dry with medium plus acidity, medium body, medium plus flavour intensity, medium fine tannins, medium plus alcohol and medium plus length. There are notes of red cherries, cranberries, pomegranate, dark chocolate, a hint of iodine, and some saltiness or blood on the finish. (Either that or my mouth is bleeding from something completely unrelated.)
This is an excellent wine. I don’t break out the excellent rating often, despite trying to drink the best wines I can afford, but this one certainly earns it. The flavour profile shines - the fruit, while distinct and still fresh, does not constitute a bomb by any stretch of the imagination. It’s fairly soft in its fruit intensity, allowing the chocolate to come through, rounded out with the interesting finish. Everything is supremely well balanced. What I find even more surprising, and which I didn’t know when I wrote my tasting note and quality assessment, is that this is a relatively recent venture. Even though the estate has over a hundred years of agricultural history, I believe this is only the second Pinot Noir they produced, from vines that were only five years old at the time. I can only hope that my friends managed to bring more Oak Valley wine back with them from their trip.