The fall and rise of Pinotage
by Rupert Millar | 12-05-2020 | 26 Comments
Members of the wine trade are cursed to forever wander from party to party and set the record straight with regards to Chardonnay.
The ‘Anything But Chardonnay’ crowd still walk among us and it must be constantly explained to them that you shouldn’t judge a grape by bad examples, that Chardonnay’s a classic, it makes Chablis and Champagne and that the bad old days of over-oaked styles have been superseded by a glorious new age of leaner, fresher wines from Santa Barbara to Marlborough.
Wine lovers are very diligent in this regard and so they should be. Chardonnay is a fantastic grape even if punters developed their ‘ABC’ tendencies in a perfectly rational reaction to a slew of wines that had, literally, become so vanilla and a byword for incredible race-to-the-bottom naffness there was even a joke certain quarters of society were naming their children after it.
Chardonnay is not alone in grapes with a maligned reputation. But while the trade is happy to welcome back into the fold wayward varieties with the right connections, like the spoilt brat who did ‘that thing’ at university but escaped jail time because mummy and daddy are wealthy and powerful, other varieties are looked on askance.
“Your least favourite grape?”
Throw a dumb question to wine trade types (of the sort you’d normally discourage in amateurs) such as ‘what’s your least favourite grape variety?’ and a good slew of the answers coming back at you will involve what seems to be the most hated variety in South Africa – Pinotage.
Desperate though they may be to set the record straight with doubters when it comes to the variety that makes Meursault and Montrachet (even as they spent all those years turning to expensive brown disappointments), parts of the wine trade would, with neither thought nor care nor feeling and a song in their hearts, throw Pinotage under a high-speed train and burn the remains in a pit before flushing the ashes down a public lavatory.
There is justifiable criticism of Pinotage but the more I’ve tasted of Pinotage over the years the more outdated many residual attitudes appear.
Yet if you make the point that it’s very capable of making some jolly good wines, all the fine words about not judging a variety on poor examples crumble into dust when discussing Pinotage. The unconvinced grimace a bit and cede you a half-point point but ultimately conclude that, be that as it may, it’s still a terrible grape and the law of averages means infinite monkeys on infinite typewriters will crank out something readable once in a while.
Yet this is the same sort of crazed irrationality and refusal to change an opinion no matter how inadequately formed that will not stand if expressed about particularly beloved varieties or styles.
Infinite Pinotage Theorem
Without going over too much old ground Pinotage was created in 1925 by Abraham Perold, the Professor of Viticulture at the University of Stellenbosch. A cross between Pinot Noir and Cinsault (the latter known locally as ‘Hermitage’ hence the portmanteau name).
Now, it has often been the case that when humans decide to ‘improve’ a grape variety the results are… mixed to say the least. Pinotage is indeed host to a gaggle of issues that have done it no favours.
Plant Pinotage in an area that is too warm and it will gallop away into a raging sugar factory if you let it. And all these jammy and overripe wines ponging strangely of rubber and bananas, with a very un-Pinot-like aptitude for massive and unwieldy tannins, have ended up tainting its reputation like nothing else.
Part of the problem is that as a ‘native’ South African grape it was a variety that was partly felt needed to be South Africa’s ‘thing’ and yet also something that not a great many producers wanted to spend much time on as they’d rather have been making red wines from more broadly popular and successful varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon.
The late 1990s also did it no favours due to the of all-pervading lust for maximum extraction and new oak at the time. Add in a great deal of virus-ridden plant material, over-cropped to within an inch of its life and the result was a hot mess of lazily and uncaringly made wines reeking of acetone. Horrible for sure.
But there are parallels between Pinotage and other varieties. Carmenere was meant to be ‘the thing’ in Chile and so planted willy-nilly in all the wrong places and just ended up tasting of pyrazines; Gamay was sold out for all that bananary Beaujolais Nouveau and Grenache in Shiraz-rules-era Australia spent decades as an after-thought and many wines were hot dollops of nondescript alcoholic jam.
Yet Gamay and Grenache have been thoroughly rehabilitated to the point of maximum coolness and Carmenere never became a by-word for varietal disaster (and can be very good in fact). Hopefully you see the point that Pinotage is a variety that, like many others, was sacrificed on the altar of expediency.
A one-country road show
Perhaps it was also Pinotage’s misfortune that it wasn’t really grown anywhere else – New Zealand is the next notable place with a whopping 38 hectares. For every trashy two buck Chardonnay from California’s Central Valley, one could always point to Meursault as a counter argument but with Pinotage the muck stuck.
Pinotage is a difficult variety to get right in both the vineyard and cellar but ultimately it wants and needs what so many varieties want and need which is planting in the right place and then proper care and attention. The results can be rewarding for both winemaker and consumer as Pinotage is a grape capable of a broad spectrum of styles from deeper, darker, almost marshmallow pillowy wines to very light, succulent examples flaunting that Pinot DNA and terroir expression to boot.
Price is not a determining factor as to what you’ll find in the bottle either. In the name of “research” I recently purchased a bottle of Radford Dale’s ‘Frankenstein’ Pinotage (2015 vintage no less) for £23 and a bottle of False Bay Pinotage for £7.99.
Both were excellent and offered considerable bang for their buck. The False Bay was a ‘fuller’ style with more plum and damson aromas backed up with a refreshing tang of acidity and an acceptable note of end-of-barbecue smokiness, while the Radford Dale was more Pinot-like, a cherry and raspberry compote and a fresh, silky texture slipping cross the palate.
Thankfully, I’m not alone in this playground of discontent idly alone with my hobbyhorse. In a sign that the wine world is taking note, Tim Atkin’s 2017 South Africa report named Abrie Beeslaar’s Pinotage as the ‘Wine of the Year’ – Beeslaar is the winemaker at Kanonkop, which has long been rated for its Pinotage.
Putting a new face on an ‘old’ grape
South African producers increasingly have a handle on Pinotage now, they know how to work with it and not make it something it’s not meant to be.
Old bush vines which naturally curtail vigour and crop levels are always good, keeping away from the hottest spots another and in the winery remember that it doesn’t need much in the way of extraction.
The results are better, vibrant and fresher wines that demand that Pinotage be treated with proper critical appraisal not just blinkered criticism.
The wheel has turned and if you want to know just how far consider this. In 2018 Emul Ross, the winemaker at Hamilton Russell (which makes super Pinotage under its Ashbourne and Southern Wright labels) teamed up with Eben Sadie, one of the hot rock gods of New Wave Cape winemaking, to make a limited-edition Pinotage for the Cape Wine Auction this February.
The wine trade talks a lot about education but is often a hive of petty prejudices that are oft repeated instead of questioned from time to time, becoming canon as a consequence. The Sadie-Ross project (called ‘Man & Soil’) in a jab–whether unknowing or otherwise–carried a quote on the label from Nelson Mandela:
‘Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.’
I don’t know about changing the world but you should certainly do yourself a favour and get a fresh perspective on Pinotage; with the rest of the cool kids.
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A small selection of notable Pinotage producers:
- B Vintners
- Black Elephant Vintners
- Bruce Jack
- David & Nadia
- False Bay
- Radford Dale
- Southern Right
If people have other suggestions, please mention them below in the comments!