Marthélize Tredoux: The future of Pinotage?

Quo vadis?

Quo vadis?

Pinotage. The very mention strikes fear (or a dollop of disdain) into the hearts of many. And that’s a massive problem. No other varietal has stirred the level of controversy that Pinotage does in the local wine industry. Not even the Chenin Blanc epic – from lonely, shunned Steen to present-day darling of the wine scene – compares to that of Pinotage’s 90 years in the making.

The ebb and flow of the Pinotage story fits typical plot structure: Pinotage is cast as the antihero – a main character marked by ennui and alienation. The beginning is 1925 – 1941 – from inception of Prof. Perold’s arranged marriage between Hermitage and Pinot Noir to first commercial production.

The middle follows: A series of crises, building tension – the most notable being a glancing blow dealt in the 70s by British wine commentators: ‘nail varnish’, ‘rusty nails’, ‘hot and horrible’. Notorious “dikvoet” wines also propagated negativity and inhibited popularity. The anti-hero’s challenges seem endless and insurmountable – his very nature suggest certain failure. Even local winemakers turn their backs on this uniquely South African cultivar. But still some root for its success. He continues on his path, despite setbacks, and claws back popularity over the years. This comes from his flexibility – adapting into diverse styles and moving away from the archetype of days gone by.

Today we find ourselves somewhere before the climax of the story. We are looking ahead for the resolution, anticipating some sort of denouement. This final push cannot be left to the character alone. The anti-hero needs his supporting characters to come through – to nudge him towards success.

Breaking away from the storyline metaphor, the Pinotage Association is applying itself to determine the future of Pinotage. A large contingent of stakeholders – winemakers, a splash of media/PR types and other wine industry people – recently sat down to a round-table discussion on the current state of Pinotage and its prospects. Key issues under discussion included how to connect producers, advance Pinotage as a cultivar, share knowledge and improve the image (and sales).

With this in mind, viewpoints on the current state of Pinotage began flying across the table. The discussion touched on many points – too many to fully list here – but issues raised included quality of communications (both within industry itself and with trade and consumers). Cultivars have become brands in their own right. And brands don’t promote themselves. Brands demand strategy, marketing and money. They need to be communicated and someone needs to take ownership of them. At present, this does not seem to be happening with Pinotage in a very effective manner.

Another hot topic was the scope of Pinotage in SA, specifically the diverse styles: big and bold, light and elegant… and coffee-flavoured. Speaking as someone who has in the past been guilty of pulling her nose up to the high heavens at the mere mention of ‘coffee’, ‘café’ or ‘chocomochawhatwereyouthinking”, I took a step back from my bias, trying to reconcile that even that style has a place – it has people drinking Pinotage. Sure, coffee Pinotage isn’t the apogee of the cultivar’s development. But it doesn’t need to be. It is (at least partially) representative, whether we like it or not. It is extremely popular. And if we keep sweeping it aside with the snob-broom, we should probably reconsider if we are at all serious about promoting our “Proudly SA” cultivar at all.

In order to determine the plan to move forward, we need to take stock of where Pinotage is right now; take a hard look at the production, the producers, the market, trade and consumer. Then take a good long look at where we want to be. And then figure out how we plan on getting there.

Pinotage may not be as captivatingly seductive as mother Pinot Noir and it may not have the hipster appeal of daddy Cinsault but there’s no reason it shouldn’t be the crown prince of the SA wine industry. After all, it could be worse: it could have been Herminoir.

  • Marthélize Tredoux is the co-owner and editor at Incogvino. By day, she helps SA wineries sell their wine in the USA. She won a wine writing award once.

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  1. grouchoJuly 24, 2015 at 1:10 pmReply

    its all perception. i would feel far more confident walking into my local and taking the first bottle of pinotage i see that i would enjoy it with my food tonight than i would be taking the first bottle of pinot noir.

  2. EmileJuly 3, 2015 at 6:38 amReply

    Hei Kwis. You might know your Claret from your Bordeaux, but please do get a grip on your Diemersdal and Diemersfontein. Not to mention Durbanville and Wellington.

    • KwispedoorJuly 3, 2015 at 9:12 amReply

      Lol, ja thanks Emile. That’ll teach me to do this while working. I like all Diemersdal’s Pinotages, by the way.

  3. KwispedoorJuly 2, 2015 at 7:06 pmReply

    Pinotage has the ability to produce really smashing wines from the ethereal (think Radford Dale Frankenstein) to the full-bodied (think Kanonkop) and everything inbetween. It’s a comparatively new variety in the world of wine and it only makes sense that it takes a bit of time to find the Pinotage sweet spot (pun intended) for different sites.

    It’s the adulteration/manipulation of Pinotage that I can’t stand. The Pinotage Association might do well to develop a clear way to differentiate the manipulated coffee aberrations from other Pinotage via labeling regulations. If SAPPA can regulate the way different port-style wines are labelled, then surely this can also be done. That way the lovers of this popular sludge may easily recognize their fix and pursue it to their hearts’ content, while other wine lovers may more confidently try out new stuff without running the risk of inadvertently picking one of these pieces of wine-poop. Everyone wins. It’ll also be much better for Pinotage’s international reputation.

    Unbeknownst to us, someone recently sneaked the father of said wine-poop into a blind tasting of my club, where we tasted ‘value for money’ red wines. It was the most expensive wine on the tasting, but it was HAMMERED. I felt that needed saying, just in case someone pulls the snob card – no, it’s all about the taste.

    It would be interesting to know if the folk at Diemersdal have any ideas on up-trading through the coffee drivel. Their Carpe Diem Pinotage is pretty good stuff, almost vintage after vintage. Do they see their customers trade up to the good stuff and leave the ‘regular’ (irregular?) Pinotage in their wake after a while, or not really? I know some people claim these coffee zombies to be ‘gateway drinks’, but I don’t see any clear evidence of that. I see more stagnated label-drinking than anything else.

    On another note, Pinotage has the ability to sometimes age exceptionally well. And it’s not limited to the likes of those ancient Lanzeracs. I recently stumbled upon a Paradyskloof Pinotage from the generally dismal 1996 vintage. Being a modest second label (Vriesenhof) wine, I was expecting it to be way over the hill and likely also affected by brett or VA or unwelcome bacterial activity (our older red wines of particularly the nineties and noughties often develop issues with these – and Pinotage perhaps more so than most). Not so! What a lovely, complex, interesting and drinkable wine it was! Smashed it. In no time.

    • Marthelize TredouxJuly 3, 2015 at 9:56 pmReply

      Hi Kwispedoor.

      Interesting comments, as always. I must admit, I’m no lover of the coffee Pinotage either, though I can happily quaff the Diemersfontein “original”. For me, part of this very much ties back to the make-up of the consumer profile in SA. You are certainly a wine lover and you have plenty of knowledge but you likely represent what I estimate to be a very tiny percentage of the market.

      My feel is, if Pinotage is to claw its way into popularity, you typically won’t be the target of the effort. Not initially, anyway. But that doesn’t mean the entire Pinotage producing industry should cater to the cadé au lait crowd either (heavens, no…). The question of ‘up-selling’ from eg. Carpe Diem is also a good one, wonder if anyone has some insights on it?

      You’re spot on in your first sentence. That should be priority: improve the quality of what is currently out there. Figure out how to get people experimenting and moving out of there coffee-comfort zones. A well-made Pinotage is eminently drinkable. We just need to bring it to a point where it sells itself.

  4. David ClarkeJuly 2, 2015 at 10:29 amReply

    Was viticulture spoken about, Marthélize?

    • Marthelize TredouxJuly 2, 2015 at 10:39 amReply

      Hi David
      It was touched on somewhat (spoke a bit about the amount of Pinotage planted, how it’s growing etc.) but not really in-depth. The discussion was just a starting point, with more such to follow and they’ll most likely be a bit more focused/structured around topics. I’m still rehashing my notes, it was a long table and I may have missed bits of splintered off conversations too.

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