Parade of pinot noir pitted against Highlands Road 2010

PINOT noir is often seen by wine-makers as their Holy Grail – difficult to get right in both vineyard and cellar, but well worth the effort when it hits the mark.

Get it wrong, and you have a pale, watery imitation. Get it right, and you have a classic red wine – lighter in colour than South Africans expect from a red and, says Woolies wine-master Allan Mullins, “the best food-pairing wine”.

In a good pinot noir, expect velvety smooth texture and “forest floor” tastes. Think organic, mushrooms, truffles, and earthiness; often savoury and sometimes lightly spicy flavours; all balanced by clean, delicate red berries.

Elgin wine farmer Michael White offered his Highlands Road 2010 Pinot Noir in a challenge against the output of some well-known wine names.

Wine writers like the UK’s Tim Atkin and Neil Pendock of the Sunday Times agree the cool regions of Hermanus and Elgin are the best places in South Africa for pinot noir, so first up was the 2012 Felicité from Newton Johnson in the Hemel-en-Aarde area of Hermanus.

With pinot noir generally priced in the R90-upwards bracket, White reckoned this “accessible and unsophisticated” sample delivered great value at under R60 a bottle. It’s a light, clear red – the lightness not to be confused with a summery rosé though – well-rounded, soft, with gentle nutty and fresh berry flavours and a lingering finish.

It got my vote over the much pricier Nature in Concert 2009 Pinot Noir from Danie de Wet, which immediately reflected its warmer climate of Robertson in jamminess, murky flavours and an abrupt finish.

Back to Elgin with Paul Cluver’s 2010 Pinot Noir, we found cool, light flavours, that lovely red fruit again, and more body than the first two.

The Highlands Road offering demonstrated why Pendock had given it four out of five hearts on his scale and declared it “superb”. Soft and rounded, smooth with a lingering finish, it clearly delivered characteristic “forest floor” savoury tastes and made a great accompaniment to White’s boeuf bourguignon.

Don’t be fooled by pinot noir’s light colour – its savouriness means it stands up well to full-bodied tastes like wild or porcini mushrooms, seared salmon or tuna, and the French classic, coq au vin.

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