There are few wine varieties that ignite more passionate debate and illicit more fiery, heart-wrenching commentary than the P-word. Yes, Pinotage. Only a few years ago, it used to be two related topics… “burnt rubber” and “Pinotage” that occupied the minds and column inches of international wine critics trying to come to terms with Pinotage as a variety and get their heads around its significance within South Africa’s re-emergence onto the global wine stage. Thankfully, the burnt rubber debate has mostly been debunked and assigned to the history books. Whether it was a result of bad cellar hygiene, brettanomyces, virused vineyards or over charred oaking combined with reduction etc. nobody will ever probably know. The proverbial rubber bands have well and truly been flicked into the long grass. What we do know is that Pinotage and its rightful place at the vinous fine wine table is still subject to a lot of debate and conjecture by international wine buyers but perhaps less so now by end-consumers?
When it comes to consumers, the punters, the drinkers, there appears to be a universal love of well-made commercial styles of Pinotage that express quality winemaking, show the varieties blue and blackberry fruit opulence, its freshness, a certain degree of acceptable fruit “sweetness” and its ready affinity towards oak… new, old, charred or otherwise. But for the wine trade buyers, this stylistic flexibility, versatility and chameleon-like character of Pinotage present somewhat of a quandary when trying to decide what products to buy that represent the variety and “the Pinotage category” most honestly and effectively. At the heart of the dilemma are perhaps the questions of what characteristics actually define the grape and then what style or styles of Pinotage are most acceptable?
These may sound like frivolous, convoluted musing of a fine wine buyer, but in reality, these are very serious discussion points for professionals that care. Also, I have only just recently been invited to sit on the prestigious judging panel of the ABSA Bank Pinotage Top 10 Competition in July in Paarl, South Africa, compelling me to clarify my thinking on the variety more so than ever. One of the real problems I have is that when people ask me, as a long-standing international fine wine buyer, what factors are important to establish a variety, style or producer globally, my answers is more often than not that the aforementioned need to be popular or successful in their home market first before they can expect to reach fame overseas. However, I have recently come to the conclusion that for Pinotage, the reverse may in fact be correct. True international recognition and global appreciation of this uniquely South African grape may actually lie at the heart of this variety’s success and longer term popularity among local and international buyers and fine wine consumers!
Thankfully, the parameters of fine wine are an internationally established and defined construct regardless of national stigmas and historical reputations. A fine wine will necessarily encompass the vinous attributes of balance, elegance, finesse, intensity, complexity and intrigue combined with expert tannin management, quality oaking (or no oak), textural precision and to a lesser degree, a wine’s ability to age, or put another way, its longevity. These factors are universal and transcend country, varietal or winemaker personality. What we currently see in South Africa are all of the above portrayed in a multitude of characterful wines made in a multitude of styles. From Kanonkop to Beeslaar, Beyerskloof to Southern Right and Scions of Sinai to David & Nadia, the stylistic boundaries for this grape are being continuously expanded. Where older local South African proponents of this grape have pushed for the variety to be made in one style, a new younger generation has come along and decided they want to express their winemaking prowess with this variety in another, different style. No one is right, no one is wrong as long as the quality parameters are there in the bottle and international consumers continue to fawn over the various styles of Pinotage being produced.
Establishing Pinotage as a definite fine wine category is going to be a long but perhaps slightly less arduous process than many originally envisaged. But there is no reason why it shouldn’t be an enjoyable and enriching endeavour for those producers who want to passionately pursue excellence utilising this South African varietal. After all, while meagre plantings have arisen in regions around the world including in California and New Zealand, to name but two locations, South Africa will always remain the heart and soul of this grape and intuitively, this dictates that both innovation in styles and the striving for the pinnacle in quality should always lie with producers in the Western Cape. As there are still no serious internationally well-known comparative quality benchmarks for Pinotage, it continues to make international critics and judge’s scores for South Africa’s finest wines all the more important to the category. I for one look forward to the unique opportunity to immerse myself into the tasting and judging of South Africa’s finest Pinotage wines and hope that I will learn as much as I actively contribute.
- Greg Sherwood was born in Pretoria, South Africa, and as the son of a career diplomat, spent his first 21 years travelling the globe with his parents. With a Business Management and Marketing degree from Webster University, St. Louis, Missouri, USA, Sherwood began his working career as a commodity trader. In 2000, he decided to make more of a long-held interest in wine taking a position at Handford Wines in South Kensington, London and is today Senior Wine Buyer. He became a Master of Wine in 2007.