The Power of Pinotage

Better understanding of this oft-maligned grape is allowing South African winemakers to let its true colors shine.


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Over the past decade, emerging New World wine regions have experienced tremendous success in branding themselves with specific grape varieties. Argentina burst onto the scene thanks to its Malbec, Australia is practically synonymous with Shiraz, Sauvignon Blanc is king in New Zealand and Chile is making a mark with both Cabernet Sauvignon and Carmenère.

Not only do many estates and winemakers embrace the synergy between variety and terroir, but consumers eventually come to rely on such established connections as well. Through consistent quality and savvy marketing, shoppers absorb the branding connection between region and grape, ultimately associating a sense of typicity and character to the wines of that country as a whole.

However, if you turn to South Africa and ponder what its vinous shining star would be, the answer isn’t as clearly defined. There are many options to consider, including Chenin Blanc, Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon, but for a country so rich in winemaking history, which produces a wide array of varying types of wines, it’s tough to pinpoint a defining variety or modern-day claim to fame.

It’s ironic, then, to consider that South Africa has one of the most logical and unique grapes to claim as its own and provide a greater sense of national wine identity: Pinotage.

What is Pinotage?

Pinotage is a grape variety that was created in 1925 by Abraham Izak Perold, a chemist tasked by the Cape government to venture overseas and find grape varieties that could be cultivated in the region. Perold returned with 177 samples, yet he wasn’t completely satisfied with his findings. He decided to crossbreed two of them to hopefully evoke the best qualities of both: the robust nature and growing ease of Cinsault (known locally as Hermitage) and the delicious refinement of Pinot Noir.

The first recorded commercial planting of the grape was in 1943, and the earliest wines were deep in color with a strong vinous character. Although Pinotage wines won championships at the 1959 and 1961 Cape Wine Shows, the wines were occasionally defined as acetone-like or tasting of chemicals or rubber, which was intriguing to some but intensely unappealing to others. This characteristic tended to disappear after a couple of years of aging, but for many, the perceived flaw was just too difficult to move past. This general opinion continued to thrive for years, as more mass-produced wine perpetuated the stereotype.

Neville Dorrington, owner and viticulturist of Rijk's Private Cellar“In the late ’80s and early ’90s, there were a lot of bad examples sold in the markets, and I think to a certain extent there are still a couple of bad ones that are hurting the reputation of this variety, especially in the lower price range,” notes Neville Dorrington, owner and viticulturist of Rijk’s Private Cellar in Tulbagh. “But every cultivar has cheap and nasty producers that make ‘bulk’ wines.”

Beyerskloof co-owner and cellar master Beyers Truter, also the founder and chairman of the Pinotage Association, questions the variety’s negative image in the current market. “I don’t necessarily think Pinotage currently has a bad reputation at all,” he says, “especially in markets that are drinking Pinotage for the first time. The new, younger wine-drinking generation doesn’t necessarily subscribe to some of the negative comments which may have been made in the past.”

Indeed, Pinotage is now the fastest growing red variety in bottle for exports, according to the South African Wine Industry Information & Systems (SAWIS) for the period from August 2010–August 2011. The grape’s once-shaky reputation is certainly on the rise—but the road here wasn’t an easy one.
Changing a Reputation

“Pinotage, like any variety, is not very pleasant when it is not made properly,” allows Abrie Beeslaar, winemaker at Kanonkop in Stellenbosch.

As with any crop, there’s a learning curve to understand the best way to cultivate it. “In the past, most of these lower-end wines had a very bitter finish and no sexiness,” says Dorrington. Figuring out the best terroir for the variety, however, has resulted in better quality selections. “Low potential soils, like our Malmesbury shale, are a must,” he asserts. “It thrives in warmer conditions, as long as there is adequate water.”

Dorrington also highlights some of the other changes that have improved overall wine quality, saying that, “the biggest differences are with pH management in the cellar and canopy management in the vineyards.”

“Winemakers are much more in sync with their terroir, and they make excellent Pinotages in different areas,” suggests Truter, whose Beyerskloof Estate is located in his favorite Pinotage-producing region of Stellenbosch, though he also recognizes other top areas such as Paarl, Swartland, Darling and Wellington. “There is definitely much more attention to detail in the vineyards to produce top-quality fruit. We have strict pH control during fermentation...we also analyze weather patterns during growing and ripening season and adjust our cellar practices accordingly.”

Modern-day Pinotage producers strive to create wines of strength and balance, showcasing the variety’s intense black fruit against an earthy or spice-driven backdrop. Accents of chocolate or coffee can be found in many examples, though some producers try to avoid these characteristics for a more rustic or traditional style. Ranging from medium- to full-bodied with structured tannins and a long finish, the wines now offer great value.

Pinotage Today

Brad Rightford, consulting winemaker of DiemersfonteinSouth African winemakers find themselves in one of two camps: those who don’t like Pinotage and those who believe it is the red grape of South Africa. “It’s born out of passion, those that have had good experiences versus those that have had bad,” says Diemersfontein consulting winemaker Brett Rightford.

“Pinotage is the new heartbreak grape. We have a legacy of winemaking with other varieties that stretches hundreds of years; Pinotage is a relatively new focus that takes time to understand, and those who make the effort are well rewarded.”

“I do believe it is the iconic red of South Africa, and that the quality will prove this in the future,” asserts Beeslaar. He and fellow Pinotage producers are doing everything they can to ensure the grape, and the country’s winemaking reputation, will continue to thrive.

The establishment of the Pinotage Association in 1995 ushered in a new era of South African winemaking camaraderie. The group allowed Pinotage producers to discuss and share experiences while developing criteria to define a distinctively styled South African Pinotage. The association also organizes an annual ABSA Top 10 Pinotage competition, intended to promote benchmark varietal selections.

Although efforts are being made to define a common identity of South African Pinotage, varying styles are also emerging, ranging from the traditional and classic to modern and sultry, a style that frequently exhibits a strong mocha character. While some wineries focus on one style, many have opted to provide both. “We have been pleasantly surprised by a very positive response to our two styles,” says David Sonnenberg, director of Diemersfontein. He cites the Reserve Pinotage “and, of course, our distinctive Coffee Chocolate Pinotage, which is seen as a very accessible style and offers an interesting alternative to the consumer.”

“Obviously, you try to maintain the individual character of some styles while still refining elements of the wine,” adds Rightford.

The hope remains that with better understanding of the variety and increased familiarity with the resulting wines, consumers will continue to pay attention to what could be, and to many, what should be, South Africa’s defining red variety. “It is encouraging to see old prejudices disappearing,” says Sonnenberg.

Dorrington is quick to agree: “It is home grown, and we are extremely proud of our Pinotage. [It’s] only 80-plus years old, so it is an infant compared to Cab, Shiraz and Merlot. I think we’re on the right track.”

For Pinotage reviews from the past year, click here.

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