Depending on your history as a wine lover, your individual tastes, and perhaps your nationalistic pride, a mention of the grape variety Pinotage either conjures up everything good about South African wine, or makes you want to skip wine for the night and order a beer.
Before I came to South Africa I had managed to taste a couple of Pinotage wines, and the best that I had tasted was merely just decent — every one of them had a green, vegetal, slightly burnt quality to it. In the worst of these wines, this flavor dominated. In the best, it was subtlety present, and held the wine back from being something more enjoyable.
So when the opportunity arose to come to South Africa, among other things, I needed to figure out whether or not this Pinotage grape really had a future in the wider world of wine, or whether it was a uniquely tragic South African viticultural experiment.
Pinotage was “invented” by Professor Abraham Izak Perold, the first professor of viticulture at the University of Stellenbosch. In 1925 he physically brushed a flower of Pinot Noir against a flower of Cinsault and created a cross-pollinated variant of both grapes. Perold’s successor at the university successfully raised descendants of this first cross in a nursery and in 1935 these seedlings were grafted onto rootstocks for further propagation.
The first experimental wines were probably made in 1941, and winemakers tinkered with the grape for the next decade or so until the first commercial vintage of Pinotage was made for sale to the public by the Lanzerac winery in 1959.
Over the next 40 years Pinotage slowly became South Africa’s grape. The wine industry adopted it both figuratively and literally as its primary viticultural heritage, and as a unique, differentiated offering in the world of wine.
In short, the country, in many ways, pinned its hopes on Pinotage as a ticket to worldwide recognition as a major player in the wine industry. While not exactly a risky bet (winemakers in South Africa were busy competently making all sorts of other wines), this move was a gamble of sorts, and in the mid 1990s it looked like it was paying off. The world was gradually hearing about Pinotage and several pieces of critical praise and the results of some competitions had put wind in the sails of those who hoped Pinotage would bring fame to South Africa.
But that never really happened. For some reason, Pinotage has never made it over the hump to be a world-class wine. Among wine lovers, it is indelibly associated with South Africa, so that much of the story has been immortalized. But in the last decade, instead of increasing international critical acclaim, Pinotage has mostly become a moderately successful curiosity, though not without a certain number of die-hard fans worldwide, and a strong level of local support and market demand in South Africa itself.
Partially, Pinotage has been plagued with a problem that affects the larger South African wine industry — namely the presence of unpleasant aromas and flavors that have variously been described as burnt rubber, vegetable, or ash-like qualities. Apparently these flavors are not simply the result of the Leaf Roll Virus or of less than ripe harvests (two early suppositions that have been ruled out). The industry has undertaken several serious research efforts to locate the source of these flavors even as (whether through better winemaking, better wine growing, or both) they seem to be less prominent in the country’s wines each year.
One of the other challenges Pinotage has faced, from the standpoint of public appreciation of the grape, comes from the lack of a clear stylistic direction in how Pinotage wines are (or should be) made. The growers and makers of Pinotage have been experimenting for the last 15 years or so, and regardless of the degree to which this is appropriate and understandable (as winemakers have searched for the “winning” formula), this experimentation has come at the expense of consumer uncertainty about how Pinotage “should” taste, and more importantly, what a particular bottle they are about to buy will taste like.
Such experimentation continues, but I believe the industry has settled into roughly two primary camps when it comes to the wine. The first seek to treat the grape like Pinot Noir, and seeks to make wines with Burgundian weight and complexity — lighter in style, with a red berry and earthy quality. The second camp, which I knew nothing of, and indeed hadn’t even considered a possibility before my current visit to South Africa, has started to treat the grape more like Cinsault. Which is to say that many winemakers have started to make the wine in the style of the Southern Rhone — darker, richer, and more extracted in style, often with the influence of new French oak. Some vintners have even gone so far as to co-ferment with or blend in Viognier to the final wine, which has yielded some interesting, even tasty results.
Based on my tastings over the last week, I believe this more Rhone oriented style to be better suited to the individual qualities of the Pinotage grape. I found wines made in this style to be more expressive and complex, less vegetal, and ultimately more versatile in how they might be enjoyed with and without food. As you might imagine, this style has also been taken to an extreme — there are wines that are absolutely slaked in new oak, to the point that they begin to taste like concoctions of coffee and grape liqueur (a flavor profile which has become popular with a segment of the local market).
Perhaps most unexpected and delightful, I also discovered that Pinotage makes absolutely fabulous rosé. And I mean fabulous. I had perhaps a dozen or so pink wines that perfectly met my ideal for a rosé wine: completely dry, crisp, lightly floral and fruity, but with a mineral or even earthy backbone that keeps the wine grounded and complex. These wines were so delightful I’ve got half a mind to send a letter to the Pinotage Association suggesting that they change their focus to take advantage of the trendy resurgence of interest in pink wines.
My exploration of Pinotage was capped at the end of this week by the unique opportunity to taste some older vintages of the grape, courtesy of the aforementioned Pinotage Association. This was a rare tasting indeed (the first of its kind) as it included a taste of Lanzerac’s first commercially bottled Pinotage from 1959.
The purpose of this tasting, beyond the immense educational value, was obviously to explore the aging potential of the wines. And how did they hold up? Well, my tasting notes follow below, and will hopefully make it clear that the wines clearly can remain in the bottle for decades and in some cases can improve with age. It must be said, however, that while some wines clearly developed pleasing secondary aromas and flavors that are the hallmark of aged wines, none of them could compare to even lesser quality aged Burgundies or Bordeaux.
It’s also worth noting that these wines were all clearly made in the Burgundian style, rather than the more modern Rhone style that seems to have emerged over the last five years or so. I wouldn’t imagine this more modern style to age as well, as the wines don’t often have the acidity of their Burgundy styled brethren.
TASTING NOTES FOR OLD PINOTAGE
1998 Kanonkop CWG Pinotage, Stellenbosch, South Africa
Medium ruby in color, this wine has a nose of cedar, dried cherries … On the palate it is lightly tannic, clean feeling on the tongue, and has primary flavors of red apple skin, dried cranberries, and coffee. Score: between 8.5 and 9.
1997 Vriesenhof CWG Pinotage, Stellenbosch, South Africa
Medium ruby in color with a hint of orange at the rim, this wine has a beautifully gamey nose with hints of pine. In the mouth it is gorgeously smooth and polished with nearly imperceptible tannins, and flavors of red apple skin, dried apples, and cedar, that aren’t quite as complex as the nose might anticipate. The finish is long and impressive. Score: around 9.
1997 Beyerskloof Pinotage, Stellenbosch, South Africa
Medium garnet in color this wine has a somewhat subdued nose of dried cherry and cedar aromas laced with a hint of pneumatic rubber. In the mouth it has soft suede-like tannins, and a core of dried fruit that has leaned a little bitter in its old age. The finish has an edge on it that unsettles a little. Score: around 8.5
1996 Meerendal Pinotage, Durbanville, South Africa
Dark garnet in color, the darkest of all the wines on the table, this wine has a nose of roasted meat, dried cranberries and black cherry. In the mouth it is tart and dry, with light tannins, still excellent acids and very nice structure overall. Flavors of red apple skin, redcurrant, and cedar move across the palate blithely and with great life. Lovely. Score: between 9 and 9.5
1995 Simonsig Pinotage, Stellenbosch, South Africa
Dark garnet in color with significant sediment this wine has a shy nose of dried cherries and dark soy sauce. The body of the wine is muted as well, with dried cherries, leathery tannins, and potentially some cork taint which is depressing the wine’s potential full expression. Score: Not Rated.
1993 Simonsig Pinotage, Stellenbosch, South Africa
Light ruby in color with fine sediment this wine smells of mulling spices and red apple skin. Over time it gets a fennel seed quality that is quite compelling. In the mouth it is lightly tannic with flavors of red apple skin, dried apples, and hints of nutmeg on the long finish. Score: between 8.5 and 9.
1989 Kanonkop Pinotage, Stellenbosch, South Africa
light blood red in color with significant sediment, this wine smells rubbery and musty and is unfortunately probably has some sort of cork taint. There is a slight industrial quality to the body of the wine which also has spices and dried red fruit character. Score: Not Rated.
1982 Zonnebloem Pinotage, Paarl, South Africa
Burnt orange in color with a center of brick red, this wine has a nose of prune and dried fig aromas laced with sherry and toffee aromas. Dried fruits and leather predominate on the palate, but the wine lacks dynamism and life. The finish has shortened over time and comes across a little flat. Score: around 8.5.
1974 Zonnebloem Pinotage, Paarl, South Africa
Blood red in color with orange at the rim and throwing a lot of sediment, this wine has a nose of sweet coffee and prune aromas. In the mouth it is smooth and thick with nice body of dried cherry and a coffee/caramel quality that lingers through the finish with a taste of marijuana smoke. Score: around 9.
1968 Lanzerac Pinotage, Stellenbosch, South Africa
Brick red in color this wine smells of sweet sherry with vanilla, cedar and burnt sugar. In the mouth it is wondrously alive with flavors of caramel, red apple skin, mulling spices, and still a hint of fruit. Lovely balance, great finish. Beautifully aged. Score: between 9 and 9.5.
1959 Lanzerac Pinotage, Stellenbosch, South Africa
Light blood red in theglass with significant bricking on the edge this wine has a nose of rich coffee with milk, dried orange peel, and spices with a hint of piney. In the mouth it is soft in texture, with basic flavors of cinnamon, spices, coffee, and not much hint of fruit left. It has a long finish, but it must be said, has probably seen better days. What a piece of history, though — this is the first commercial bottling of Pinotage in the world. Score: around 8.5.
A COUPLE OF MY FAVORITE NEW PINOTAGES
2006 Beyerskloof Cape Winemakers Guild Pinotage, Stellenbosch, South Africa
Medium to dark garnet in the glass, this wine has a bright, pungent nose of cherry, cinnamon, and spice. In the mouth it is juicy, spicy, and beautifully textured with high toned notes of cinnamon and cherry. The wine has great acidity, long length in the mouth and a lovely finish that brings in notes of redcurrant. Likely the best Pinotage I have ever had. Score: between 9 and 9.5.
2006 Diemersfontein “Carpe Diem” Pinotage, Wellington, South Africa
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine has a nose of cherry, raspberry, vanilla, and spices. In the mouth it is smooth, rich, and wonderfully round. Primary flavors of cherry, black raspberry and cassis dominate the lively, even juicy body of the wine. Hints of coffee with milk and mulling spices sneak in as the wine heads for a very nice finish. Score: around 9.