Elgin Vintners Pinot Noir 2020

What an amazing achievement for Marinda Kruger-Claasen and her team – a Mosaic Top 5 Pinot Noir Wine Award two years in a row!

Marinda Kruger-Claasen is the winemaker at Elgin Vintners, a private company with its cellar on Valley Green on the Viloenshoop road in Elgin. The main shareholders are Kruger-Claassen herself, together with James Rawbone-Viloen and Dr. Max Hahn.

Kruger-Claassen and the team could not contain their excitement on hearing the news that the Elgin Vintners Pinot Noir 2020 placed in the 2021 Mosaic Top 5 Pinot Noir Wine Awards. “This is so exciting, especially to be awarded with the honour two years in a row”, says Kruger-Claassen, smiling from ear to ear: “For me Pinot Noir is a wine with charisma – attractive with an aura – and it lures me everytime. It does not appear as masculine as many other red wines, but elegant with a definite strong character.”

Investing in Pinot Noir

“We are planting more Pinot Noir on the farm this year. The ground was already prepared last winter, and the cover crops planted in the early spring last year. We ordered our rootstocks and clones and we are very excited to increase both these cultivars on the farm. I am also going to experiment with planting density and stok-by-paaltjie to see how Pinot Noir reacts, and have planted one hectare from plant material propagated in our own nursery.

In the cellar we have acquired four more open wooden fermenters for the 2021 harvest. This is where I experiment with Pinot Noir, I like to do a combination of natural and inoculated fermentation. I also add a portion of whole grapes with stalks attached. The tannins in the grapes and the stalks ripen completely in the Elgin Valley, leading to a beautifully refined tannin structure in the final wine. I am very gentle with the grapes, and perform a single pump-over per day during fermentation. Our special terroir is so perfect for Pinot Noir, that I don't have to do too much to it!”

Grapes packed with flavour

Only an hour east of Cape Town, the high-lying cool-climate Elgin district, cradled in the ancient Hottentots Holland mountains, was traditionally an apple-growing region. Now award-winning wine showing exceptional poise, finesse and elegance are produced here, with Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir and Shiraz doing particularly well in this later-ripening, cooler terroir. The average annual rainfall is 1011 mm with 366 mm falling in summer, and parent soils comprise of Table Mountain Sandstone and Bokkeveld Shale. Due to vineyards elevated between 260 and 600 meters above sea level and the unique terroir, the grapes ripen on the vines for longer than local in-land and many of the world's most famous wine regions. The slow ripening and the mist from the Palmiet River that cover vineyards till late morning contribute to perfect Pinot Noir growing conditions.

“Pinot Noir is a challenge with every single harvest. We nurture the vines during the growth season, and believe me, we titivate these grapes in the vineyard! The cool climate of the Elgin Valley results in a long ripening phase. The prevailing winds during ripening ensures that all the energy of the vine is translocated into the grape bunches and that all disease is blown away.

Our soils are not heavy, and we do not have any clay, just sandstone and shale with good drainage potential. So the roots of the vines have to dig deep in search of water and nutrients, and this is what gives the final structure to our wines.

Every new harvest is a new beginning and I approach each new harvest with an open mind and use my knowledge and experience to handle the conditions of that particular harvest. Pinot Noir can never be made according to a recipe. I have a passion for winemaking and in the end, it is always the ‘problem children’ that make the most beautiful wines. And that is Pinot Noir in a nutshell.

Our Pinot Noir vineyards are planted on Ridgelands (Dr. Hahn's property) and Drumearn and Blaukrantz (Rawbone-Viljoen's property).

We have a deep connection with and understanding of our vineyards and terroir. We take meticulous care of our vineyards which produce balanced grapes packed with flavour. This process takes a whole season and our role as vintners is to capture this flavour in every glass.

Terroir – where vines are planted, what varieties are planted, how they are planted – if all of this has been successfully executed, the winemaking is the easy part of the process of putting a beautiful wine in the bottle. I believe in minimal interference in the cellar, but that can only be achieved when the vineyard is in balance. I have worked in many wine areas and one cannot achieve the same style everywhere, and once I understood that, I always strive to get the best from the terroir: terroir-driven wines.”

The road less travelled

With a Bachelors degree in Food Science and a Masters degree in Wine Biotechnology from Stellenbosch University, Kruger-Claassen did not walk the usual path that most winemakers do: “I first started making wine in my mid-thirties at Namaqua Wines. I felt that I had a huge handicap and loads to learn, so I worked myself to a standstill because I finally felt that this was what I was destined to do. This was not an easy road, but when I look back, a very necessary one. Wine is in my veins! I live, sleep, eat winemaking and the wine industry. I love every moment in the winemaking process, from the dirty hand, the sticky grape juice, the noise of the crusher, the sighs of the press to the boring (but necessary) paperwork. Because it all forms part of the creation of a product, where the winemaker plays a role. Grapes are the starting point and that is so important.

I was first exposed to Elgin grapes when buying in Sauvignon Blanc for Boutinot more than ten years ago, and thought at that time that Elgin was a stunning area for grape-growing, and in my mind, totally underrated. The unique position, cool climate makes this area ideal for grape growing. The soil also has a naturally high organic nitrogen content, and this ensures that I mostly do not have to add organic nitrogen during fermentation, assisting me in my minimal intervention philosophy. I have also seen with my research that when one has high organic nitrogen in the grapes, there is also a higher concentration of the higher alcohols, leading to more flavour in the wines – and that is a hallmark of Elgin.

Much of my time throughout the year is spent in the vineyards, especially during the growing season. When one sees and tastes, one understands the chemistry of the grapes and that follows to what happens in the cellar. I start every harvest from scratch – each vintage has its own personality, and no two are the same. I like to do natural fermentation because it is slower and more flavour components develop to add to the complexity of the wine. And Pinot Noir also likes that.”

Kruger-Claassen is modest about her academic achievements and has just completed her PhD in Agri Sciences at the University of Stellenbosch with the topic ‘Bioprocess monitoring of wine alcoholic fermentation: Data driven modelling strategies’. Says Kruger-Claassen: “I don't often talk about my academic achievements, but the sciences have always fascinated me, and I have to understand why things happen the way they do! I undertook the PhD on natural fermentation and the impact on the chemistry and sensory characteristics because I took the view that I already had a Master's degree and may as well continue. I finished before the harvest this year (thankfully a late one!) and received my feedback from the external examiners after harvest, with not too many changes. Being a winemaker and doing a PhD is no easy task and for me it was as big an achievement as receiving a Mosaic Top 5 Pinot Noir Wine Award two years in a row!” She laughs when she says “I had regrets along the way because the standard is incredibly high, and time is of short supply. But, I stuck to my topic, because that is what I implement in my winemaking. I am not saying that all fermentations should be natural, but it is a very important component of the process. So far I have had and incredible journey with wine as my travelling companion, and I believe that this journey is far from over – long may it continue,”

Visit the Elgin Vintners website to learn more about the award winning Elgin Vintners Pinot Noir 2020.