Steytler Pinotage 2001 and Steylter Vision 2001
Vriesenhof "Enthopio" 2000
Pinotage 2004 and Three Cape Ladies 2003
Route Pinotage 2005, Spice Route Flagship Pinotage 2002, and Fairview
Pinotage Rosť 2005
We’d all like a grape to call our own. California
has Zinfandel; Argentina, Malbec; Napa Valley and Cabernet Sauvignon
are so connected that we simply say “Napa Cab” and “New
Zealand Sauvignon Blanc” often trips off our tongue like one
word. But few New World wine regions have such an intimate relationship
with one grape as South Africa and Pinotage.
A love-hate relationship, as it happens. The argument
over whether Zinfandel should be declared California’s historic
grape is a tempest in a teapot compared to the extremes of affection
and disdain that Pinotage receives, even in its native land.
Pinotage is, in fact, a native product of South
Africa, developed in 1925 by Abraham Izak Perold, the first professor
of Viticulture at the University of Stellenbosch. This alone makes
it different from the other examples above, all of which were actually
imported from elsewhere and only later became so closely associated
with their new home. The Sauvignons are truly international varietals;
Malbec is still grown in Cahors, France, as well as serving as a
blending grape in many regions; Zinfandel has discovered roots and
relatives in southern Italy and Croatia. Pinotage, a cross between
Pinot Noir and the more obscure Rhone varietal, Cinsault, was born
in South Africa (There the latter grape was called “Hermitage,”
giving the new grape the second half of its name). The professor,
it seems, hoped to combine the virtues of the two grapes. Pinot
Noir is renowned for its aromas and flavors, but can be difficult
to grow, whereas Cinsault yields an abundant crop and is cheerfully
resistant to disease. Both could learn something from the other.
In some ways the Cinsault dominated: Pinotage is
easy to grow and ripens readily. In fact, keeping yields down is
a major challenge in making a quality wine from Pinotage (The more
grapes per vine, the lower the concentration and quality of the
juice). Making quality wine from these ripe grapes is more difficult,
and Pinotage rarely displays its Pinot parentage, tending more toward
dark fruits, tar, tobacco, and chocolate; in less appealing renditions
touches of banana and nail polish have also been noted. The grape
also tends toward high tannins and low acids, adding further complications
for the winemaker. Given these difficulties, plantings didn’t
really get started commercially until the 1960s, and, despite a
few successes, acreage dwindle from then until the 90s, and the
end of apartheid.
And the end of international boycotts on South
African products. Interest in South African wines was high, and
Pinotage in particular as it was unique to the country. However,
the boycott had not only kept South African wine from going abroad,
it had also kept international developments in winemaking from reaching
the nation’s producers. South African wines – Pinotage
in particular – were variable and unreliable in quality, leaning
toward an earthy, high-tannin style that was out of tune with American
palates in particular.
Now, after fifteen years of investment and research,
many South African wines are living up to the nation’s potential.
And Pinotage? Well, it’s still an unpredictable grape, and
there are some South African winemakers who won’t touch the
stuff. Others, like Kanonkop, had found their own way with the grape
before the end of the apartheid – old-fashioned winemaking,
with open-top fermenters and the like, resulting in massive wines
that can age for decades – and have continued forward that
way. Such wines are the most powerful examples of Pinotage: weighty,
dark fruit and tar aromas, with heavy tannins. The best will age
into elegance without losing their muscularity. The mediocre wines
in this style possess the tannins without the fruit concentration;
as the former fades with age, the curtain is pulled back on an empty
stage of muddy earthiness in lieu of complexity.
More recent winemaking approaches try to capture
the fruit aromas without the tannins and muddiness in the first
place, perhaps sacrificing intensity in favor of approachability.
It can be done, and some of the winemakers liken the results to
Zinfandel; I don’t find many similarities myself. The two
may share some brambly, dark fruit aromas and a certain weightiness,
but Pinotage is bitter where Zinfandel is sweet, and densely heavy
where Zin is big and exuberant. These takes on Pinotage also have
touches of tar and tobacco that are uncommon in Zinfandel. Nonetheless,
this is a more commercially viable style of Pinotage; it’s
still big and intense, but it’s more approachable when young
and less tiring on the palate.
Other winemakers blend their Pinotage with other
varietals – usually of the Bordeaux variety – to fill
in the holes where Pinotage is lacking. This gave birth to the “Cape
Blend” designation, which many wineries hope will grow into
the marketing strength of a varietally-labelled wine. Many of these
wines are quite good, but so are the many Bordeaux blends from the
Cape, begging the question of whether Pinotage adds to the blend
or is just included because the grapes have to be used somewhere.
Again like Zinfandel, Pinotage is sometimes made
as a rosé (the dry variety, however), and some of these can
be enjoyable. A few South Africans I’ve met rave about sparkling
Pinotage, in a similarly pink style. One enthusiast I met went to
great lengths to track down cases of this rare stuff, but for my
part, I didn’t come across any bubbly Pinotage that I would
hope to ever come across again. One of my tasting notes reads simply,
“NO NO NO!”
So is Pinotage is too much trouble to deal with?
Well, it’s never going to achieve a mass-market, consistent
and likeable style the way Merlot or Shiraz have, and that means
South African wineries probably shouldn’t use it as their
collective spearhead into the U.S. (or other) markets (I’ve
written elsewhere that Chenin Blanc may the best choice in this
regard; while it may vary in style, at least it can be a good-value,
fruit-forward wine in a range of price points.). The grape has its
fans nonetheless. Wine drinkers with the same devotion you sometimes
see in Petite Syrah lovers here in the U.S., and the individual
wineries who have found a way to make Pinotage work for them should
be sought out and enjoyed. However, Pinotage will never be just
another varietal on the wineshop shelf.
Pinotage 2003/2004: The name in old-school Pinotage, Kanonkop
is universally admired for their success with and dedication to
the grape. These are big, full wines, with gobs of dark fruit and
serious tannins. While they’re enjoyable now, their real potential
lies in the cellar; these are wines for collecting.
Pinotage 2001 and Steylter
Vision 2001 (Cabernet Sauvignon & Pinotage Blend): These
are both massively-structured, muscular wines, and work the spice
and earth side of the spectrum with aromas of chocolate, tar, tobacco,
and spice. The Vision in particular has a long finish; it stands
out as a blend where no attempt was made to bury the Pinotage characteristics
under the Cabernet.
“Enthopio” 2000 (70% Pinotage blended with Merlot,
Cabernet Franc, and Shiraz): This Pinotage-dominated blend shows
a more modern and approachable side, with a clear black cherry center
plus tell-tale touches of tar and tobacco. It’s full-bodied
and does show some drying tannins; enjoyable now, it could also
profit from cellaring for a few years.
Pinotage 2004 and Three Cape
Ladies 2003 (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Pinotage blend):
The Three Cape Ladies exemplifies the Cape Blend style, with lots
of dark fruit plus notes of tar and chocolate. Not as massive as
many of its peers, instead it’s more elegant and food-friendly.
The Pinotage is entirely modern in style, with lots of fruit and
Route Pinotage 2005, Spice Route Flagship Pinotage 2002, and
Fairview Pinotage-Viognier 2004:
All three of these wines come from Charles Back, who got the jump
on his compatriots by scoring a hit in the American market with
his popular Goats do Roam series. His wines suit the American palate;
all three of these are fruit-forward, full-bodied, and smooth. The
first two show touches of oak (American and French, respectively)
which helps provide the velvety mouthfeel, and the Pinotage-Viognier
shows a touch more earth than the others.
Constantia Pinotage 2004: Although the winery was founded
in 1685, this wine shows all the touches of modern Pinotage style:
lots of fruit, especially raspberry, plum, and even strawberry,
but still full-bodied and well-balanced tannins. Ready to drink.
Pinotage Rosé 2005: A good example of what Pinotage
can do as a rosé, with lots of cherry, strawberry, and watermelon
aromas, light-bodied and dry.
Rhapsody 2004: An unusual blend of Shiraz and Pinotage, with
a good combination of red and black fruit, earth, and spice.
Pinotage may have started in South Africa, but
there are also plantings in a few other wine regions, most notably
New Zealand and California. Keep an eye out for bottlings from Te
Awa or J Wine Company if you’re curious to see how Pinotage
does away from home.
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