Jamie Goode: Making peace with Pinotage

By , 1 June 2021

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Diemersfontein in Wellington is home to the original Coffee Pinotage and the annual Pinotage on Tap festivals.

It’s great to be doing a new column for winemag.co.za. So how should I kick this off? I asked editor Christian Eedes for a steer. His response? ‘1 June is the release of our second annual Pinotage Report,’ he said. “It would be great to get your thoughts on this always controversial variety. A vain pursuit? Unrealized potential? Better than most people give it credit for?” It took me about five seconds to agree that this is actually a great idea.

The real problem with Pinotage is that we are made to take a polarised position on it. So often, we are asked: are you for it or against it? A Pinotage fan or a Pinotage hater? But what exactly is it that I’m supposed to have a position on? I’m not really sure that there is such a thing as a typical Pinotage.

Pinotage is a commercial success story. According to the latest SAWIS statistics, the 6 637 hectares planted puts it 7th in the league of grape varieties, sandwiched between Chardonnay in sixth and Merlot in eighth. 161 hectares of Pinotage were planted in 2020. If it was truly problematic, there wouldn’t be so much of it. Some people really like it, and there’s something about this variety that resonates with a subset of consumers.

But if we are to make sense of the mess that is a wine trade discussion of Pinotage, we need to do a few things. The first is to group Pinotage into styles. The second is to segment the marketplace: what works for one set of consumers fails to interest another. And then we need to ask the question: where Pinotage goes wrong, is this because of a characteristic intrinsic to the grape variety?

I’ll begin with the last question first. Anyone who has tasted a lot of Pinotage over the last 20 years will have come across quite a lot of dodgy wines. Of course, this is true of many varieties, but there’s an actively unpleasant character that is associated with Pinotage. It’s hard to describe, but it’s a sort of sweet and sour character, together with a certain bitterness, green herbal notes and sometimes a hint of acetone. There are some theories as to what is to blame. First, it’s a variety where there’s often heterogeneous ripeness in the same bunch. All varieties have a bit of this, but Pinotage seems to suffer excessively from it under some viticultural regimes. Then there’s the association of Pinotage with acrolein: this is a compound indirectly produced by some lactic acid bacteria that associates with polyphenols and then confers bitterness to a wine. For some reason, Pinotage seems to have more of this.

One response by winemakers has been to try to get rid of the green characters by picking later, and then adding structure and masking any negative qualities with new oak. The result is the blockbuster Pinotage, packed with ripe fruit, dark in colour, and bolstered by spicy oak. These often dominate Pinotage classes in competitions, but I have a suspicion that they are yesterday’s wines.

Then we have the infamous coffee Pinotages. The recipe for these wines was devised by Bertus Fourie (mokinkered “Starbucks Fourie”) when he was working at Diemersfontein, and he took it with him when he moved to KWV, and now makes the Barista Pinotage. It involves using specific yeast strains that produce high levels of fufurylthiols (volatile sulfur compounds) when fermentation is done in the presence of new oak (usually staves or chips). The coffee-like aromas that result only come from Pinotage, which seems especially gifted in this regard. I’ve no problem with a product like this, which resonates strongly with some consumers.

But Pinotage really seems to work well when it is handled gently and made into elegant, Pinot Noir-like wines. Think of David and Nadia’s excellent example, or Scions of Sinai ‘Feniks’ Pinotage. These are excellent wines: made from grapes picked at the right time, infused rather than extracted, and no new oak insight. Ethereal and fine. This has to be the future for this variety.

But then we need to segment the market. The ethereal, elegant style is Pinotage’s future for the fine wine segment. Lighter, fresher styles might work well in other segments, but there are also consumers who want a bit more flavor, and there are consumers who think that coffee Pinotage is amazing. 

For many people, the flavor of the wine is one element, and as in the wine trade we can be guilty of fussing too much over the taste of the wine – it’s just one factor in a normal person’s enjoyment of wine, along with the consumption occasion, the packaging, and any emotional associations they have with the producer, variety or region. I taste a lot of Pinotages in my roles as a wine judge and a newspaper columnist, and cheap Pinotage is usually quite good these days. We are no longer in the era where you’d taste a Pinotage and immediately know it was a Pinotage for all the wrong reasons.

In conclusion, Pinotage isn’t the easiest grape to work with, but it’s a commercial success. Stylistically it varies, and for the fine wine segment, the lighter, less extracted, more Pinot-Noir-like direction seems the obvious way forward. Most of the top producers in South Africa leave it well alone, but the success a few have had might make some of them want to reconsider. And my position? If I was offered a wine given no other information than the grape variety, I’d avoid it, but this doesn’t make me a Pinotage hater.

  • Jamie Goode is a London-based wine writer, lecturer, wine judge and book author. With a PhD in plant biology, he worked as a science editor, before starting wineanorak.com, one of the world’s most popular wine websites.

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  • Dirk7 June 2021

    Very Good article
    We have to realise that a big part of the SA wine industry still relies on commercial farmers that do not own their own cellar. It is absolutely essential for the broader SA wine industry that we keep these guys profitable. Pinotage together with Ruby Cab has played a major part in keeping these guys producing. I can assure you most of the 160 odd hectares planted in 2020 have been by these type of producers. Ask the vine nurseries and they will confirm most of these Pinotage vines are crafted on Ramsey to realise high yields. So I agree it is an huge commercial success and if you are at all concerned about the longevity of the SA wine industry you need to support Pinotage whether you like what it put’s in your glass or not. And if you really don’t like it pour something else 🙂 but you can still support what it does for the broader wine industry.

  • Mark von Bentheim5 June 2021

    Great opening article.
    However, what of exploring other styles of Pinotage?
    Pinotage as a rose wine? Where the skins are removed from the juice as soon as a little colour has extracted into the juice. None, or reduced levels, of the skin effect (as I refer to it as).
    Or even going a step further and making a White Pinotage like Mellesat. That’s the true future of Pinotage.
    Cause making a Pinot Noir style of Pinotage one may as well use the Pinot Noir grape and make a Pinot Noir.

  • Dave Jefferson3 June 2021

    An exceptionally well balanced, perceptive and fair discussion of Pinotage. One question, however: what exactly do you mean by “there’s something about this variety that resonates with a subset of consumers?” I believe you want to indicate that some subset of wine consumers do not care for Pinotage (certainly a true statement), but usually when we hear “resonates” it implies approval. Which do you mean?

    Incidentally, my company (Silkbush) grows grapes in South Africa, and we are very successful with Pinotage as well as numerous other cultivars. Continue calling the balls and strikes as you see them, as any good umpire does!

  • Raymond2 June 2021

    I was ushered into wine via the 1984 Kanonkop ( ‘ Paul Sauer ‘ batch ) and I’m still looking for Pinotage that comes closest to that ( and the 1989 CIWG ).

  • Rioja2 June 2021

    Pinotage is so typical Saffer – controversial , maligned , ridiculed but still there it is !
    i have to say that if i have to stop at my local for a bottle to have with my meal tonight and i am offered a random bottle of Pinot Noir or a random bottle of Pinotage i will choose the Pinotage.

  • RH2 June 2021

    Welcome, Jamie 🙂

    If I may, an additional category to consider must be the pinotage-led Cape Blend(s)?! Some oddballs and novelties but also some unambiguously good wines.

    Large volume offerings in this genre such as Kanonkop’s blends are reliable and make for a useful introduction to the variety – especially for visitors and new palates. This extends go to the use of the variety in the biiiiig meaty blends – Brink Family produces the Louisa, which I’ve laid down in my own cellar with a promise not to touch for at least another year or two.

    With hesitation, I also note that it can be used to produce rose or blanc De noir styles. As to whether it *should* be used for this purpose, well… I’m open to suggestions, but I did not care for the few that I have tasted.

  • Kwispedoor1 June 2021

    Thank you, Jamie – I really enjoyed this.

    A few thoughts to add: when one talks about Pinotage’s shortcomings, one has to keep in mind that many other varieties have their own (flabby, blowsy Viognier; overripe but green Bordeaux cultivars, overly acidic Sauvignon, etc.) Ideally, one should look at the best a cultivar can yield. For example, Burgundy defines Pinot Noir and Piedmont defines Nebbiolo, but Pinotage has had scant opportunity and time to be defined in this way. Thers is, however (arguably), an inherent magic in the best that Pinotage can provide (the likes of old Lanzerac and Kanonkop). Perhaps Pinotage needs more time to settle into a spot – or several spots, seeing as it’s so stylistically versatile?

    You say that “… Pinotage really seems to work well when it is handled gently and made into elegant, Pinot Noir-like wines.” and “… for the fine wine segment, the lighter, less extracted, more Pinot-Noir-like direction seems the obvious way forward.” but, looking at the alcohol levels of the Top 10 in the recent Prescient report, there seems to be a certain amount of discord regarding that. Either that, or it’s the old adage that power tends to win in comparative tastings. Or perhaps most producers of the more elegant Pinotages just didn’t enter for whatever reason.

    I like the same style you like, but I also like the bigger styles, provided they are well-made, clean and well-matured. There’s merit in segmenting the styles of Pinotage, as you recommend. How would one go about that in a practical way?

    • Christian Eedes3 June 2021

      Hi Kwispedoor, The panel for Prescient Report tried hard to accommodate the broadest possible stylistic spectrum and, tasting blind, De Grendel, Du Toitskloof, Nederburg and L’Avenir were much appreciated for their apparent lightness, clarity of fruit and freshness – that these wines subsequently proved to have high alcohols was frankly a surprise but that said, the oaking regimes are remarkably light – new oak kept to a minimum, staves and tank.

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