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Tim James: Pinotage on the up

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These are good times for pinotage. Believe it or not, of the top ten most-planted wine grapes, pinotage is the only black one to have a larger hectarage now than it had ten years ago. This was pointed out in a press release from the always-energetic Pinotage  Association entitled “Exceptional growth in Pinotage as South Africa’s national grape”.

I’m not quite sure about that “national grape” claim, whatever it might mean – nationalistic fervour around pinotage hasn’t done its image all that much good, as it somehow still smacks of the old South Africa  – but yes: as the whole Cape vineyard continues to contract year by year, cabernet, merlot, syrah are all down on what they were, while pinotage is up. In total it still lags behind cab and syrah, but it’s moving in a better direction than they are. Interestingly – and this isn’t pointed out by the Association, of the red-wine varieties, the hectarage of pinotage that’s more than 20 years old is by far the greatest. A potentially exciting point.

One might have thought that this older-vine status, plus the historical interest, might have helped endear the grape to the youthful avant-garde (the chenin-and-cinsaut brigade, as it were), but no. There are few examples coming from them, including in the Swartland, where pinotage is recognised by the Swartland Independent Producers as among the varieties “particularly suited to expressing Swartland conditions”.

I was thinking about all this at the launch last week of the latest David & Nadia wines, including their characteristically elegant and understated Pinotage. (It’s about as far as can be from another Swartland pinotage, the Weathered Hands from Dewaldt Heyns, which is made in the style of his much more successful Saronsberg Shiraz, with lots of ripeness, bigness and oak.) The only other examples of new-wave Swartland pinotage I can think of are the one from Dragonridge (which I earlier mentioned here), and the Wightman, Gouws and Clarke, also available only in tiny quantities.

Pinotage generally is too large a topic to tackle here, but I do get the impression that many pinotage producers across the Cape are lightening up somewhat (as they generally are with red wines) – to the great benefit of the wines. And there are more that are approaching, or sharing, the David & Nadia style, to which I think pinotage is clearly marvellously well suited. And I do wish that more of the avant-gardists would try their hands at it. And so should the Association. A Sadie Family Ou Wingerdreeks Pinotage would do more for the brand than any number of Best Value trophies on the Trophy Wine Show.

Actually, I am pretty certain that David & Nadia [Sadie] wouldn’t be producing pinotage at all if it weren’t for the fact that it’s planted on the Paardeberg farm that is now their home. I loved this 2017 Topography Pinotage, just as I liked the 2017 Grenache and Elpidios very much more than the 2016s. It’s perhaps worth noting, given that we share a website, that Christian Eedes and I are completely at odds over all these judgements! He rated the latest Grenache and Elpidios a little lower than the 2016s, where I’d rate them much higher, as I find much more substance and character in them.

The 2017 Pinotage Christian dismisses as “fun to drink”, with a score of 89, versus 95 for the 2016 (there’s a vintage jump!). I also liked the 2016 Pinotage best of all their reds last year, but the 2017 seems to me at least up to standard. My scribbled notes read: “Charming perfume with earthy, savoury undertone. Delicious but not simple. Lovely acid; chewy but light. Marvellous Swartland tannins. No hint of bitterness [a character I find on the otherwise admirable Wightman, Gouws and Clarke]. Just 12% alcohol.

So, whether you too find it merely fun to drink, or as special as I did, you’re not going to go wrong if you try a bottle or too. Except that if you agree with me about its quality, you won’t think R220 per bottle is in any way excessive. Happily, Christian and I are in full agreement about the excellence of the David & Nadia 2017 whites, especially the single-vineyard chenins.

  • Tim James is one of South Africa’s leading wine commentators, contributing to various local and international wine publications. He is a taster (and associate editor) for Platter’s. His book Wines of South Africa – Tradition and Revolution appeared in 2013.

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