For me, winemaking and sport are similar. That may sound like a strange analogy, but they require the same qualities for success. Creating a great wine demands sustained concentration, tremendous attention to detail and the ability to conserve your energy so it lasts over the lengthy growing period and into the crucial weeks of the harvest. Like the opening batsman in a test match you have to guard against fatigue, and the desire to impress, both of which lead to mistakes. Having said that, a passionate and competitive spirit is essential if you are going to create a really great wine.
This analogy is particularly apt when South Africa is just about to host the world’s most popular sporting event. The 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ is the ultimate challenge for a footballer, and, if I may continue the analogy, my personal World Cup has become Pinot Noir.
My career began in the 70’s when I was a student oenologist at Stellenbosch University, furthering my studies at Geisenheim in the Rheingau in 1975. Between 1976 and 1979 I worked at the fledgling Boschendal winery, then I set up and began running the first winery in the Hemel-en-Aarde valley. In 1989, in the same valley, I then began the Bouchard Finlayson winery with business partner Michael Clark.
Hemel-en-Aarde roughly translates as the “Heaven and Earth Valley”. Framed by mountains and within sight of the ocean in the Walker Bay region at the southernmost tip of Africa, it is not just stunningly beautiful – it also benefits from an excellent terroir (the most perfect clay shale vineyard soil) and a wonderful climate – largely influenced by the nearby, cold Atlantic Ocean, the valley is one of the coolest wine growing areas in the Cape. It’s surrounded and sheltered by a mountain barrier, formed by Galpin Peak (810 meters) and the Tower of Babel (1200 meters), which traps the cloud cover and moisture brought in from the sea by the prevailing wind. Summer conditions are consequently warm rather than hot, and winter conditions are mild and frost-free. The sea breezes work to keep vines cool thereby encouraging slow ripening and flavour-rich grapes.
Sixteen years later and Bouchard Finlayson has become a well established boutique winery renowned for producing Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc wines of outstanding quality. I’m very proud of this fact, but we’ve become best known as pioneers of Pinot Noir, the most testing and frustrating grape of all. Season after season I’ve been battling with it on the slopes of Galpin Peak to create our flagship wine, Galpin Peak Pinot Noir. It’s been an unending struggle, but the results have won many an award and accolade.
Norman Hardie, who trained with us as Assistant Winemaker, comments that “Once you are bitten by the Pinot bug it’s all over. It’s more expensive than crack, because you’ve got to go through ten bad ones to get to one good one, but what makes Pinot so special is that it has both delicacy and richness!”
What other grape inspires such purple prose? Richard Paul Hinkle comments that “As much as the great Pinots stand apart from all other red table wines in their sweeping grandeur so too is Pinot Noir as quarrelsome as the devil.” He also remarks that “The Burgundians in their own conservatively witty way refer to red burgundy as ‘The good Lord Jesus in velvet trousers sliding down your throat.’”
Personally I liken it to opera. When it’s great, it raises goose bumps…but when it’s mediocre it’s unbearable! Truly it is the “heartbreak grape”, and many Pinot growers eventually give up in exasperation. Thankfully I’ve had, through sheer bloody minded perseverance, my share of success with it. If you can tear yourself away from the football and come see me I’ll let you have a taste!