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Whither Pinotage?

Kanonkop Pinotage 2003/2004

Steytler Pinotage 2001 and Steylter Vision 2001

Vriesenhof "Enthopio" 2000

Warwick Pinotage 2004 and Three Cape Ladies 2003

Spice Route Pinotage 2005, Spice Route Flagship Pinotage 2002, and Fairview Pinotage-Viognier 2004

Groot Constantia Pinotage 2004

Delheim Pinotage Rosť 2005

Stellenzicht Rhapsody 2004

 

By Jim Clarke

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.

Seek Out:
Kanonkop 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.

Steytler 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.

Vriesenhof “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.

Warwick 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 spice.

Spice 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.

Groot 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.

Delheim 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.

Stellenzicht 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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       Published: May 2006
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