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Pinotage – not the enemy

By Jamie Goode |

Pinotage is the one uniquely South African red grape variety. And it’s the marmite variety, capable of inspiring the full spectrum of responses from love and devotion, to derision and hatred. On the one hand, there’s a Pinotage Association working hard to promote the grape, and on the other there are comments such as the now famous quote in 2001 from the colourful André van Rensburg of Vergelegen: ‘Don’t steal, rape or murder—or make Pinotage.’

Whether you love it or loathe it, the story of Pinotage is a remarkable one. The tale begins back in the early part of the last century, when Abraham Izak Perold , a young professor at the University of Cape town, was charged with a scouting mission to bring back to the Cape promising grape varieties. The 177 varieties he returned with formed the core of the collection at the Welgevallen Experimental Farm, which was part of the University of Stellenbosch, and Perold duly accepted the position as the university’s first professor of viticulture.

In 1925, Perold did a remarkable thing, and to this day no one knows why. He crossed together two varieties that seem unusual bed-fellows: Pinot Noir and Cinsault, the robust Mediterranean variety known at that time in the Cape as Hermitage. And the measly four seeds resulting from this cross were taken by Perold and planted not in the university’s experimental nursery, which would have been the usual place, but in the back garden of his university residence.

The 1927 Perold took up a position with the KWV, and seemingly forgot about the new Pinot/Hermitage cross. The four plants were rescued from his overgrown garden by Charlie Niehaus, a young lecturer who knew about these seedlings, and planted in the nursery of the Elsenburg Agricultural College by Professor CJ Theron, who in 1935 grafted the vines, as yet still unnamed, onto some rootstock. Theron showed these promising-looking vines to Perold, and they came up with the name Pinotage.

But it wasn’t until quite a bit later that the variety achieved widespread popularity. It 1961 the world saw the first wine with the name Pinotage on the label was the 1959 Lanzerac, which was made from vines at Bellevue Estate. This was the wine that in 1959 had caused a stir when, without being labelled as Pinotage, had been declared champion wine at the Cape Wine show. When it was revealed that this winning wine was a varietal Pinotage, they were mightily surprised. The message that Pinotage had potential was reinforced when two years later a Pinotage from Kanonkop repeated the feat.

There are currently just over 6000 hectares of Pinotage planted in South Africa, which places it fourth in the red grape league behind Cabernet Sauvignon (12500), Shiraz (10000) and Merlot (6600). Remarkably, there’s almost none planted abroad, which makes this a uniquely South African variety. It is partly because of this that some of its loyal fans are pressing for it to be promoted as the South African wine industry’s calling card—its Unique Selling Point (USP). Others are reluctant, citing the somewhat divisive flavours of the variety to make this sort of strategy just too high risk.

So what can you expect when you taste a wine made from Pinotage? What is its flavour profile, and why is it controversial? One of the strengths of Pinotage is that it seems to be capable of making wines in a number of different styles, and this makes it difficult to give a simple answer. First, I’ll try to answer the first bit: why it’s controversial. Some Pinotage wines show an unusual, rather bitter aroma and flavour combination that inspires descriptors such as herbs, acetone, rubber and banana. Critics suggest that this is a flavour endemic to the variety, making it easy to spot blind, while defenders point to Pinotage wines that lack this character as evidence that Pinotage is not flawed. Instead, they insist that if viticulture and winemaking is done correctly, Pinotage is capable of greatness—and not just quirkiness.

There seem to be five equally successful manifestations of Pinotage on the market, although there are, of course, exceptions to this. The first is the joyful, inexpensive easy drinking, vibrantly fruity style of red wine that this variety seems to be capable of. In this guise, Pinotage is the Cape’s answer to Beaujolais: gluggable and full of joy.  A great example would be Ken Forrester’s Petit Pinotage, or Asda’s own label fairtrade Pinotage.

The second is the big and burly style, with very ripe dark fruit married to spicy new oak, to create a dense, sweetly fruited, seductive style, very much in a new world mould, but with the capacity to age. Kaapzicht’s famous Steytler Pinotage would be a good example of this style.

Third we have the style that I prefer: Pinotage as a more elegant, expressive red wine—midweight and aiming at finesse rather than power. Candidates for this category would include Scali and Diemersdal.

Fourth, we have the newcomer: the coffee Pinotage. This is a style that was first devised by Diemersfontein, where winemaker Bertus Fourie experimented with various oak alternatives, such as barrel staves, in combination with certain yeast strains, and came up with a ripe, sweetly fruited Pinotage which had a distinctive roast coffee character. This was an incredible hit with consumers, who loved the wine, but was less popular with some in the trade who felt that this was a somewhat artificial product that had more to do with winemaking than the grape variety. But coffee-style Pinotage has taken off. KWV have one that they call ‘Café Culture Pinotage’, while Fourie, who has since left Diemersfontein, currently makes one labelled ‘Barista’.  It’s here to stay!

Finally, there is the Cape Blend, which is a blended red wine that includes between 30 and 70% Pinotage. Pinotage seems to work well in blends like this, and a good example would be Warwick Estate’s Three Cape Ladies, where Pinotage is joined by more or less equal parts of Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon, with just a dash of Merlot.

While all these very different takes on South Africa’s unique variety can be a little confusing, they demonstrate the versatility of Pinotage. And, with its passionate advocates, and recent improvements in viticulture and winemaking, it’s likely that over the next few years the ranks of world-class Pinotage wines will grow. It’s a variety with an interesting past, and a promising future.

 

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