Revisiting South Africa's Pinotage

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  • Tuesday 2 November 2010

Many wine lovers treat Pinotage with a degree of scepticism – if not outright disdain. A decade ago they’d have been right to, but today’s crop is worthy of a fresh look, says Christian Eedes

South Africa doesn’t have a single ‘icon’ wine. One that is recognised and sought after the world over. At last not yet. But could its first icon wine be a Pinotage? Johann Krige, owner of Stellenbosch winery Kanonkop thinks so. ‘If Jesus had served Pinotage at The Last Supper, Judas wouldn’t have betrayed him,’ were his provocative words at the launch of his ultra-premium Pinotage in January. Kanonkop’s Black Label Pinotage 2006 was made from vines over half a century old and saw 100% new French oak. Only 1,000 bottles were released, initially priced at 1,000 Rand (US$91) a bottle.

Each bottle is individually numbered and labelled with a hologram to ensure authenticity, with buyers limited to 36 bottles per person. One of Krige’s motivations behind Black Label, though, is to kick-start the secondary market for South African wine, and to that end, sales are exclusively via two negociants who are given the mandate to buy back stock from willing sellers to sell on to parties prepared to pay a higher price. The maiden vintage sold out in a few days, and there was no delay on the 2007 either, released in September.

Rocky road

This is just one indication of how far Pinotage has progressed. The variety was born in 1925, when Pinot Noir was crossed with Cinsault (then known as Hermitage) to give a wine with the nobility of the former and the profligacy of the latter. The first commercial bottling was by Lanzerac in Stellenbosch in 1959; it has had a chequered history ever since.

The suggestion that Pinotage stands at the dawn of a golden era might come as a surprise to those who encountered it in the mid-1990s and were probably justified in not wanting much to do with it. After South Africa’s political transformation, its wine industry enjoyed a very receptive world market. Having not being exposed to Cape wine as a result of long-term sanctions, international consumers were curious to see what was on offer. With Pinotage being unique to the country, it seemed like this would be the variety that would allow producers to cash in.

Alas things did not run as smoothly as they might have. At entry level, greedy producers flooded the market with dull Pinotage, while at premium level, the variety proved difficult to work with. The critics did not hang back in passing judgment. Cue a grape in crisis.

What were the specific issues? Anthony Hamilton Russell, co-owner of Walker Bay property Southern Right (and proprietor of Hamilton Russell Vineyards) is blunt, despairing of ‘the sad stage of sweet, soft, over-ripe, low acid, high pH, alcoholic wines’ made in the mid 1990s. The ‘democratisation of wine’ was in full swing and these wines were designed to please ‘less developed palates’, he says. Out went wines with ‘austerity, higher acids, tightness, vibrant tannins and hard-to-identify savoury characters’.

In line with how global red wine styles evolved, the ‘90s saw producers working with riper grapes to achieve fruitier wines with less aggressive tannins. Fine in theory, but trouble lay ahead. Riper grapes meant wines with higher pH levels, and to make matters worse, Pinotage is a variety with unusually high malic acid content, making the process of malolactic fermentation fraught. These factors made the average Pinotage in the late ’90s ‘a very favourable medium for bacterial growth’, as Kaapzicht winemaker Danie Steytler puts it.

Micro-biological spoilage led to all sorts of undesirable characteristics in the final wine, including bitterness (associated with a bacterial by-product called acrolein reacting with tannins) and wild flavours and aromas (brettanomyces). In addition, the inherently high pH combined with winemakers adopting fashionable but misguided lower sulphur dioxide regimes, left the wines at risk of oxidation.

Fixing the problems

What was required was more careful management of the pH levels, done via the addition of tartaric acid (a common winemaking practice). ‘Getting your pH levels wrong is not a shortcoming of the variety but a winemaking mistake,’ says Abrie Beeslaar, winemaker at Kanonkop.

There have been other improvements too: Pinotage’s notorious acetone aroma was found to be the product of too cool a fermentation; winemakers now ferment up to 30°C, says Christo Versfeld of Springfontein in Walker Bay. Once it was appreciated that the variety’s thick skins made it prone to overextraction, hence arshness, more gentle extraction methods were introduced prior to and during fermentation. And as a further precaution against bacterial spoilage, sterile filtration is done before the wine goes into barrel.

For those who still believe in the grape, the hard work is paying off. Steytler is a leading proponent: he was rewarded when his 2006 beat off competition from Malbecs, Grenaches and Carmeneres to win last year’s International Trophy at the Decanter World Wine Awards for the Best Single Varietal Over £10 wine. The accolade, said Steytler, ‘proves this grape can make world-class wines – if you respect it like a Cabernet, it will reward you in the same way.’

As for who drove the improvements, the Pinotage Association, a producer-driven body formed in 1995 to promote and advance the variety, deserves credit. The Top 10 Pinotage competition, launched in 1997 by the association, has done much to increase public awareness.

Getting serious

So where to from here? If producers in the mid-1990s were unjustifiably cocky about just how wonderful Pinotage was, they are now more technically proficient and world-wise about marketing.

‘In the past 15 years, wines have come to be made a lot more for enjoyment and a lot less for contemplation,’ says Guy Webber of Stellenzicht in Stellenbosch. ‘Pinotage was made to be quirky. Now it’s being made to be compared to any other good wine on the international market. It’s a lot more friendly and a lot less of a South African oddity.’

This might imply that modern Pinotage is very much in the fruit-forward, inelegant style stereotypically associated with New World wines, but there is very much an appreciation that finesse and complexity need to feature too. ‘We’ve moved away from thin, weedy wines with harsh tannins to wines with riper, more concentrated fruit,’ says Wynand Lategan of Lanzerac. ‘The next step, the holy grail, is balance: even better fruit expression, more subtle tannins and a more elegant finish.’

Hamilton Russell believes Pinotage is ‘not very appealing’ when it expresses merely basic varietal characters and needs a site where it goes beyond this – hence Walker Bay with its clay-rich soils which he believes give a ‘more refined, classical’ version of Pinotage. As new wine drinkers become more sophisticated, they will increasingly not settle for the more simple wines, he says. ‘When it comes to simplification and mass appeal, the New World has overplayed its hand,’ he says.

Taste of terroir

Regional typicity is intriguing: most of the top Pinotage performers come from Stellenbosch. The wines are typically rich and concentrated and it’s no coincidence this district has a high occurrence of old-vine Pinotage – half the grapes at Kanonkop, for instance, come from vineyards 40 years or more in age.

In terms of flavour profile, Stellenbosch Pinotage typically displays black cherry, plum and blackcurrant fruit with firm tannins. Beeslaar reckons Stellenbosch is particularly suited to the variety. ‘We’re not too close to the ocean and not too inland. We get warm days and cool nights which allows for optimal flavour development.’

While Stellenbosch Pinotage is the benchmark, there is another emerging style that should not be overlooked – being more red-fruited, medium bodied and reminiscent of Pinot Noir. Such wines usually come from cooler, more maritime areas such as Walker Bay and it will be interesting to see if these gain a popular following in years to come.

As for the ageworthiness of modern Pinotage, the jury is out. Some believe that as long as the wine has the fruit concentration to carry the significant amounts of new wood now in vogue, as well as sufficiently low pH levels, there is no reason why they shouldn’t mature well. Others fear that with greater ripeness and new oak, the wines will lack the inherent energy to go the distance.

‘Making top-end Pinotage is a challenge,’ says Beeslaar. ‘Most consumers want whatever they buy to be accessible when young. Then there are the die-hards who want the stuff to last 30 years.’ Noone said getting Pinotage on the world stage would be easy. But at least the stage is set.

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