Pinotage – a love it or hate it wine

[Image] The Pinotage grape has its roots in South African viticulture.
(Image: Darling Cellars)

[Image] ‘You either love it or you hate it,’ says wine writer Christian Eedes – but Pinotage at its best can hold its own in any company.
(Image: Yvonne Fontyn)

[Image] The Pinotage flavour wheel was developed to encompass all the aromas produced by the homegrown varietal. Click here for a bigger version.
(Image: Pinotage Association)

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Yvonne Fontyn

An “incredible series of coincidences” is at the heart of the history of Pinotage, says the Pinotage Association. It was remarkable really that the original seedlings survived when gardeners were sent to clear an overgrown yard.

The man who pioneered the variety – Abraham Izak Perold, the first professor of viticulture and later dean of agriculture at the University of Stellenbosch – in 1925 famously crossed Pinot Noir with Cinsaut grapes and planted the four seeds at his official university residence in nearby Welgevallen.

In 1927, he moved to Paarl to work for KWV and the house was vacant for some time. The university sent around some workers to clean up the overgrown garden, with no particular instructions to save anything. A young lecturer happened to cycle past and knowing about the seedlings, went in and rescued them from the spades. He was Charles Niehaus, who himself later went on to make fine Cape wines and sherry. The plants were entrusted to the Elsenburg Agricultural College where, under the care of Professor CJ Theron, they flourished.

At that stage the crossing was known merely as “Perold’s Hermitage x Pinot”, Hermitage being another name for Cinsaut. When Theron grafted material from the seedlings on to two other rootstocks – Richter 99 and Richter 57 – a name was sought for the new variety. Perold and Theron settled on Pinotage, after the plants’ breeding parents.

The association presumes that an experimental Pinotage vineyard was started at Elsenburg as the first examples of the new red wine were produced there in small casks in 1941. It was made by CT de Waal, a member of the historic wine-making family, who was then a lecturer at the college.

Two years later, the first commercial planting of the variety was made on the farm Myrtle Grove in Western Cape. The next lot was grown at De Waal’s Uiterwyk farm in 1950 and then, in 1953, Pinotage grapes were planted at Bellevue and Kanonkop in Stellenbosch and later at Meerendal in Durbanville. A decade later, Bellevue and Kanonkop won trophies at the Cape Young Wine Show. Their wines were blended to create Lanzerac Pinotage 1959, released by Stellenbosch Farmers’ Winery in 1961 as the first wine with Pinotage on the label to be sold to the public.

Intriguing

“Intriguing”, “an oddity”, “robust” – Pinotage has as many labels as it has drinkers and for the most part, as wine writer Christian Eedes says, “you either love it or hate it”. British wine journalist Richard Hemming did not beat about the bush when he said Pinotage had “distinctive singed / rubbery / banana flavours that are so provocative”.

American wine critic Joe Roberts put it another way: the 2008 Kanonkop, he said, “deftly captures the entire BBQ picnic in a single bottle: toast, smoked meats, red fruits, bananas, leather purses and all. In the grand scheme of things, it’s a great introduction to high-end Pinotage and actually delivers quality and complexity levels a bit above its price point.”

Yet it is well-known the wine did not have a good start when, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, less skilled winemakers began to overproduce it, launching inferior bottles on to the market and besmirching the name of Pinotage and South African wine in general.

“Those lucky enough to have tasted Pinotage from the 1970s will know that the variety is capable of very good, even great wine,” said Eedes. “Unfortunately, during the mid-1990s, the period which saw South Africa re-enter international markets post-transformation, it did not enjoy its finest hour: at entry level, greedy producers flooded the market with very dull stuff, while at premium level, the variety proved difficult to work with, the resulting wines prone to acetone aromas, bitterness, bacterial spoilage and oxidation.”

Pinotage has had to claw its way back into the public’s good books. Hence Hemmings’ further comment that the “understanding of how to craft the grape into a more conventional red wine” was growing. But as Eedes pointed out, if more conventional was what you were after there were so many other kinds of South African wine to sample, and Pinotage should not be mistaken as the representative of the country’s wines.

Black cherry and plum

“There has been much research into how to overcome these problems since the 1990s, and the best examples are no longer quirky oddities but can hold their own in any company,” Eedes wrote. “In terms of flavour profile, Stellenbosch Pinotage typically displays black cherry, plum and black currant fruit with firm tannins. More inland areas such as Tulbagh produce wines of even more pronounced dark fruit flavour and are typically very rich and full, while more maritime areas such as Walker Bay give wines that are more red-fruited, medium bodied and reminiscent of Pinot Noir.”

Kanonkop is regarded as one of the top Pinotages and the Pinotage Association believes it was this estate which, in the 1980s, restored people’s faith in the variety after the first couple of false starts. The prestigious Diners Club Winemaker of the Year in 1987 was Beyers Truter at Kanonkop for his Pinotage.

“Wine lovers went back to their cellars and opened the old bottles of Pinotage that they had stored right at the back,” says the Pinotage Association. “They were very pleasantly surprised at how well the wine had aged. Pleasant berry, banana and chocolate flavours had developed.” Kankonkop won again at the 1991 International Wine and Spirit Competition in London, when it was named the world’s best red wine.

Apart from Kanonkop, the South African Pinotage Wine Guide 1995-2011 rates its top 20: Altydgedacht, Anura, Beyerskloof, Clos Malverne, De Waal, Fairview, Kaapzicht, L’Avenir, Laibach, Longridge, Lyngrove, Moreson, Rijk’s, Simonsig, Spier, Stellenzicht, Tukulu, Wellington, and Windmeul. According to Truter, 276 cellars in South Africa applied for certification to make Pinotage this year.

Though Pinotage is regarded as peculiar to South Africa, it is not only here that it is grown and made. The variety was planted in New Zealand soon after Perold began experimenting in the Cape and there are commercial vineyards and winemakers today in Australia, Brazil, Israel, Switzerland, the US and even Canada. According to Peter May of the international, cyber-based Pinotage Club, L’Insitut Francais de la Vigne et du Vin this year gave legal approval for Pinotage to be planted and used for wine production in France.

The numbers

Though France is an importer of South African red and white wines, larger overseas markets that enjoy the particular flavour of Pinotage made in South Africa include the UK, Germany, Sweden and Denmark.

According to the South African Wine Industry Information and Systems (Sawis), 455 484 tons of red grapes were crushed for wine-making in 2012. Of this, 64 603 tons, or 4.6%, were Pinotage. The grapes yielded 310-million litres of red wine but Sawis does not provide the breakdown by variety. It says, however, that 162.6-million litres of red wine were exported last year, with 14 811 279 litres being Pinotage. This figure is down from 15 854 794 in 2011 but up from 14 806 377 in 2010. Predictably, more Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon is exported, at 19 463 750 litres and 16 172 868 litres, respectively, last year.

The total area dedicated to red varieties is 44 963ha, with Cabernet Sauvignon at 11 823ha and Shiraz at 10 457ha, according to Sawis. About 6 921 hectares, or 6.9%, is under Pinotage, with Malmesbury being the main producing area, at 23%. Paarl is second at 19% and Stellenbosch third at 18%.

The Pinotage camp is growing and there is no shortage of awards and accolades for this variety. Kanonkop remains perhaps the most highly rated producer, in 1991 receiving the Robert Mondavi Trophy as the Best Red Wine at the International Wine and Spirits Competition in London. Truter, at the time the winemaker at Kanonkop, was nominated International Winemaker of the Year. According to the South African Pinotage Wine Guide, the judges said the grape variety and wine had tremendous potential and were “the future of South Africa”. “Pinotage should be taken seriously,” they emphasised. Since then a separate category has been created for this variety, putting it on the same level as the traditional European varieties.

A Pinotage date to keep in mind is Friday, 30 August when Absa, in conjunction with the Pinotage Association, will announce the winners of the Absa Top 10 competition for 2012. Last year’s winners were: Beyerskloof Reserve 2008, Diemersdal Reserve 2010, Fairview Primo 2009, Kanonkop Pinotage 2006, KWV The Mentor’s Pinotage 2009, Laibach 2010, Naledi 2009, Rijk’s Private Cellar 2007, Schalk Burger & Sons Meerkat 2009, and Windmeul Reserve 2010.

But awards aside, the proof of any wine remains in the tasting. A confirmed Cabernet drinker, sipping on a bottle of Simonsig Pinotage 2011, pronounced it a little tart when sampled soon after opening, but the next evening when it had breathed, he liked it much more. “Robust” was an adjective bandied around, along with “full-bodied” and “fruity”. Pinotage is not for the shy, but then there are so many other beverages on the market if that is what you are after.