What’s so great about Pinot Noir? By South African winemaker Mark Le Roux

Mark Le Roux, Waterford Estate, Stellenbosch, Virtual Wine Tasting, South African wine
Mark Le Roux, winemaker for Waterford Estate, Stellenbosch

There’s nothing quite the same. It can capture a specific moment in time, while giving so much freedom to the story teller. Wine.

I am Mark le Roux, winemaker at Waterford Estate in Stellenbosch for the last 11 years and founder of MARK. wines. Firmly rooted in South Africa’s winemaking heritage, Waterford Estate is owned and run by South Africans striving to create the very best wines in the country that define our piece of land. Like the country, Waterford’s property is full of variety; diverse soils, growing aspect and abundant fauna and flora, making the planting of twelve different grape varietals so fitting.

In 2017, I was given the chance to launch a side project, creating my own brand MARK. wines. I wanted to make wine without following a blueprint for consistency, with each wine standing as its own benchmark; a piece of art, a unique reflection of nature through wine. My first creation was the MARK. Pinot Noir 2018; certainly not the easiest grape to start with as I will go on to explain, but it was with a vineyard I had worked with before which gave me some confidence.


Pinot Noir vineyard, Elgin. Mark Le Roux, Waterford Estate
Pinot Noir vineyard, Elgin

Making wine with Pinot Noir

During five months in the run up to harvest, monitoring the vineyard is done at least every week; not an easy task when the vineyard isn’t on your doorstep. Once picked and in the cellar, the berries are removed from their stems for fermentation. Natural fermentation from the yeast on the grape skins usually takes a few days to get started then lasts eight to ten days to finish. It is a fast-moving process that requires hands-on monitoring throughout. At this point, the information gathered during the growing and ripening season is crucial in understanding how far I can push and trust the fermentation. 

Once the fermentation has finished, the wine is strained from the skins and transferred into old French oak barrels for aging. Aging softens the wine as some oxygen penetrates the oak barrel and interacts with the wine, causing tannin molecules to join together, forming bigger molecules that taste fuller and softer. When I am happy with how soft and full the wine is and feel the perfect balance has been reached (around 11 months for Pinot Noir), the wine is removed from the barrel and bottled. The wine will continue to age in the bottle, but as a much slower rate than in the barrel. Many factors influence the rate of aging, but I would say that the MARK. Pinot Noir would hold well until 2023 quite easily.

Pinot Noir is an amazing grape and fantastically rewarding. It is very highly regarded by wine enthusiasts and critics, although can sometimes make the average wine lover hesitant or fearful. I think this is because Pinot Noir is a little different with aroma profiles that are less typical in everyday life and therefore often described with somewhat peculiar terms that not everyone understands. Take the jargon away and Pinot Noir is a most delicious wine with an incredibly interesting offering. 


What winemakers and grape growers love about Pinot Noir

Pinot Noir sets challenges every step of the way. It’s incredibly temperamental and significantly affected by slight external changes. In heat, it quickly shrivels, it rots in moisture and the birds love to eat the fruit. In the cellar, the tiny bunches can go in many directions. Minimal skin contact and soft cool fermentations turn out a light “rose-like” colour, more savoury aromatics and a gentle mouthfeel. Warmer ferments with longer skin contact, on the other hand, offer a very different result. Despite these challenges, Pinot Noir has the potential to make great wine and this is what makes it so tempting for winemakers. 


What wine enthusiasts and collectors love about Pinot Noir

Pinot Noir is all about nuance, elegance and delicacy. Not only are some of the most expensive wines Pinot Noir, fetching prices of $19,700 per bottle at auctions (Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Romanée-Conti Grand Cru), there is something about Pinot Noir that makes it particularly enticing. You just can’t help getting involved in the history of the wines. 

Pinot Noir is most famously produced in Burgundy, in the north east of France – an area steeped in family tradition and modest living where small vineyard blocks are scattered throughout the countryside, punctuated by a flow of small villages. Visiting the region, you are really struck by the importance of winemaking and vine growing in the area. Winemaking in Burgundy dates back BC times, with some cellars seeming to operate in the same era. Quite an incredible site.


What we should all love about Pinot Noir

South African Pinot Noir wine, Elgin, Mark Le Roux, buy online
MARK. Pinot Noir 2018

Whether you typically opt for a white or red wine, or regardless if the weather is hot or cold, I think Pinot Noir has the versatility to suit any preference or occasion. In summer in South Africa it can be served slightly chilled alongside a delicious charcuterie platter with artichokes, olives and mild cheeses. On colder days, it can be poured at room temperature, pairing beautifully with all sorts of lighter meats (duck is sensational, while pork, chicken and seared salmon work well too) and savoury-earthy driven vegetarian meals.

Vibrant, light red in colour, it offers bright red fruit aromas on the nose – cherry, pomegranate, raspberry and a touch of floral perfume. On the palate, it’s refreshing and light with flavours of dried fynbos, red cherry and a bit of earthy savouriness. 

Pinot Noir’s light colour can be misleading; one would expect a wine with very little body. However, Pinot Noir has enough flavour to hold its own even against a Cabernet Sauvignon. The colour pigment of Pinot Noir is unstable (as is also the case for Nebbiolo grapes used to make Italy’s famous Barolo wines) but there is no problem with the tannins. As a result, you end up with light coloured wines that have the same structure, body and tannin grit of a full red wine.


Where to from here?

In my opinion, South Africa is, at the moment, the most exciting place in the world to be making wine; okay, maybe Argentina as well. These days we are much better at answering the question: what is a South African wine? I believe our flagship red blend at Waterford Estate, ‘The Jem’, is one of the wines we are using to answer it and that’s what we work towards achieving. 

For MARK. wines, I’m taking it one wine at a time, with a Cabernet Sauvignon coming next which I am really excited about.



About RAKQ

RAKQ is on a mission to champion the best South African wine and winemakers in the UK. We work closely with wine farms to share behind the scenes insights and the infectious passion that goes into winemaking.  For wine lovers we are a place to learn about South African wine, make new SA wine discoveries or keep stocked up with our South African wine club.