2002 Southern Right Pinotage, Western Cape, South Africa

I like underdogs — the scrappy runts of the litter that have to struggle to survive, the desperately pitiful teams that make up in spunk what they lack in talent. I also have a soft spot in my heart for those folks who are stubbornly persistent in the face of lousy odds and prevailing common sense stacked against them.

This may be part of the reason that, despite never really having one that I’ve enjoyed, I keep trying Pinotage whenever I get the chance.

Pinotage is the sort of red-headed stepchild of the wine grape world, brought into the world with much fanfare and celebration, but quickly fading from view and oft-bemoaned as an idea that sounded good in principle but didn’t amount to much in execution.

A cross between the delicate, thin-skinned Pinot Noir and the more robust and fecund Cinsaut, Pinotage was first developed at Stellenbosch University in the mid 1920’s. At the time the Cinsaut grape was known by the name “Hermitage” in South Africa, hence the conjoined name. Widely planted at the time, the first wine to be made exclusively from the grape did not appear until the 1960s. It’s popularity as a cheap red wine peaked in the 1970s and then it fell from favor, to the point where it now occupies no more than 3 or 4 percent of the vineyard acreage in South Africa.

Part of its decline, and part of my frustration with the grape, is that it is too easy to make into a harsh-flavored wine, bitter with alcohol and green wood flavors that dominate thin red fruit flavors and more subtle earth tones. The grape grows vigorously and produces a lot of fruit which ripens well, and many vintners simply used this tendency to make more wine. Apparently, if properly cropped to restrict yields and vinified slowly with proper use of oak, the wine can be quite expressive of the grape’s unique personality. My only problem is that I’ve never tasted one that merited much attention.

Which was why, when my friends Maureen and Cobus gave me this bottle, hand carried by them back from a trip to South Africa, I was really excited to give it a try.

Southern Right is a second label started by winery owner Anthony Hamilton Russel in 1994. Russel, the longtime proprietor of Hamilton Russel Vineyards and an n-th generation winemaker in South Africa, searched for 10 years to find the right place to found his winery, and settled on what is now the most southerly vineyard site in South Africa. Here, in an area known as the Aarde Valley, clay-rich soils seem to suit the Pinotage varietal and the maritime influence leads to a longer, slower ripening of the Pinotage grape, which Russel believes adds to its complexity and mellows its harsh tendencies.

Southern Right, named after the Southern Right whales which visit the nearby coast each September, is a project started by Hamilton to focus more or less exclusively on the Pinotage varietal (though the winery also produces a Sauvignon Blanc). In conjunction with his winemaker Kevin Grant, Russell selected and purchased nearly 240 acres of vineyard property which he felt particularly suited to Pinotage, and they released their first vintage in 1995.

Unfortunately I don’t know much about the winemaking for this wine, and I wish I did, because it is definitely the best example of the varietal I’ve ever had. I’d like to know whether that’s due to the growing practices, the winemaking, or both.

Finally, the wine has a lovely label (I really like whales) and some of the proceeds from the sale of each vintage go to fund whale conservation.

Tasting Notes:
A dark ruby color in the glass with hints of blue in the highlights, this wine has a soft barnyard aspect to its nose, suffused with aromas of cranberry, dried herbs, and sandalwood. In the mouth it is medium bodied with light redcurrant and raspberry flavors mixed with a forest-floor mustiness of mushrooms and cedar. The mouthfeel is a little light and the finish a little short, but the wine is missing all the harshness that I usually associate with this varietal. It has some of the airiness and dynamism of a good Pinot Noir, but also a woodiness that is unique.

Food Pairing
I think this wine would go really well with a dish that both had an earthiness and a sweetness to it, like these roasted sweet potatoes with mushrooms and shallots.

Overall Score: 8.5

How much?: $17

This wine is available for purchase online.