Malu Lambert: Is Pinotage finally set to shrug off its image problem?

By , 1 August 2023



The range of Pinotage styles is expanding. All of a sudden, lighter-bodied, New Wave examples stand in contrast to the more Old School wines of greater extraction and more obvious oak. Is this a case of two camps that are so different that they cannot exist alongside each other? Or is it time for a more nuanced look at the category?

“Punchdown schedules were a part of my life from a young age,” says seventh generation winemaker Bernhard Bredell of own-label Scions of Sinai, a range of minimal intervention wines. Though the family estate as it were is now lost in the wash of time, Bredell keeps his lineage alive by looking after heritage plots in the Helderberg, some of which his grandfather planted. Once Bredell was tall enough to be let into the winery (dangerous gases from fermentation hang low to the ground) he says the first fermentation he ever smelt was Pinotage.

“There’s a nostalgic connection: my mother was a florist – and the Pinotage filled the cellar with the scent of roses and other flowers. It always had some of the best aromatics in the winery.”

Bernhard Bredell and Abrie Beeslaar in conversation.

Bredell is addressing this story to the crowd gathered for the workshop at Ex Animo’s new tasting venue in the heart of Woodstock, Cape Town. The distribution comapny , run by former sommelier David Clarke, has one of the most enviable portfolios in the country. While Clarke has long slung Bredell’s wine, newer to the range is Abrie Beeslaar’s eponymous label, Beeslaar Wines. The project began in 2011 and produces a Pinotage from a single-vineyard site in the Simonsberg. He is also, of course, the famous winemaker of premium red wine specialist, Kanonkop (also in the Simonsberg) and has been for the last 22 years.

The workshop is part of a series Clarke started a couple of years ago. The first sessions consecutively on semillon and cabernet franc.  “I want to dig into topics that don’t get explored very often,” he explains.

“Pinotage has a horrific reputation in the fine wine world,” says Clarke. “But it has so much potential, and is the first wine I have put my own name on.”

Clarke has made two collaborative Pinotages, which are served to lubricate the crowd. And, while they may sound like the mastheads of a lawyer firm, both wines – Rossouw, Gouws & Clarke Pinotage Pinotage 2022 (Swartland), and the Bredell, Bredell & Clarke Pinotage 2019 (Stellenbosch) are on the fresher, lighter side of the variety, heroing the red-berried fruit of its parents (pinot and cinsault).

Smelling roses, or rusty nails?
Following Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz, Pinotage is South Africa’s third most planted red grape (and sixth overall). There are now 6520 hectares, comprising approximately eight per cent of the national vineyard. 

Comparatively to Sauvignon Blanc which dates back to the Middle Ages, Pinotage is a fledging grape, it’s barely begun to crawl. While it was seeded in 1925, Pinotage has only really been commercially produced since 1959. That’s just 64 years. And, because of this there are currently only five clones available, compared to pinot’s 1000. With more clonal diversity, one can only assume quality will continue to rise too.

The first time the name ‘Pinotage’ was officially used on a label was the 1959 Lanzerac, released in 1961, from a vineyard planted in 1953 on Bellevue Estate (Bottelary, Stellenbosch).  The wine went on to receive the General Smuts Trophy as the overall SA Champion Young Wine of that year. It was off to a good start. Paul Sauer, late patriarch of Kanonkop, was said to have planted it quite prolifically, too.

Then, infamously a group of British MWs visited in the ‘70s. The reports on Pinotage were damning: ‘rusty nails’ and ‘rubber’ being the preferred descriptors for the wines they tried.

“It was a reputational blow from which Pinotage has never fully recovered,” says Beeslaar. “We don’t know what rusty nails taste like…” he says tongue firmly in cheek. “We needed the guys to come and tell us.”

Thanks to the soon global notoriety, plantings quickly dwindled. In 1979 there were only 66 639 vines left standing.

“Pinotage is on its way back now,” Beeslaar asserts. “There is a broader range of styles being produced, and that can only be good.”

Known for being difficult in both the vineyard and the cellar, Beeslaar with over two decades of working with the grape says: “I liked the challenge of the variety.”

The panel discuss the difficulties and rattle off a list: high pH, high nutritional levels (food for microbes that can attack the wine), high amino acid levels, high malic acids (so there can be a quite robust malolactic conversion), and it undergoes a very fast fermentation. “You need to macerate at the right time otherwise you get a wine that is over-xtracted and harsh on the palate,” says Beeslaar. “When you taste a wine like that, it doesn’t mean the grapes weren’t good. It just means it was made in the wrong way.

He presses the point: “To get Pinotage stable, you need to know what you’re doing.”

Site matters
“So far we’ve only been talking about the grape – and not about where it’s planted,” jumps in Bredell. “We’re quick to blame Pinotage as a variety. That’s pretty unjust. We don’t do this to pinot noir when it doesn’t do well in South Africa, but rather blame the climate and where it’s planted.

“Maybe the pH isn’t the problem? What about bushvine versus training on trellis; the best quality Pinotage grapes come from bushvine, it really helps to balance the variety. What about the soils or distance from the ocean?”

He has a point, Pinotage is naturally a lush grower and when planted on fertile soils, high big-berried yields and problematic shading of the grapes can be exacerbated. Bushvines deliver smaller berries and good sun interception for ripening.  The air movement through the canopies also cools down the fruit, and helps with disease pressure. Bushvines have better longevity too, as you avoid the pruning wounds from trellising methods.

“When we start adding these things up, the answer doesn’t seem as simple as it is a ‘difficult grape’,” says Bredell impassioned.

“It can be so receptive to its environment. So yes, in order to express this I don’t overwork it, or wait too long to pick it.”

Proof of its potential to speak of site are Bredell’s two Pinotages we’re tasting. The Féniks (2022) comes from an old vine parcel planted in 1976; elevage was partial de-stemming and old French oak. The Atlantikas (2022) as a point of difference is 100 per cent whole bunch and unoaked.

Beeslaar picking up a glass of the Beeslaar Pinotage 2021 to the light says: “When you look at our wines side by side like this, of course one seems heavier and one lighter. But they both have length, density and tension. That’s quality.

When considering the differences between oaking for the brands, Abrie says: “If your wine can handle new oak, it does add value. Look at some of the great wines of the world. There’s a reason for barrels,” he says laughing.

The numbers are convincing for both brands. “With Kanonkop we can’t supply enough,” says Beeslaar.  His own-label is likewise following in this success. Bredell currently exports almost 80 per cent of his production, the rest sold locally.

Beeslaar and Bredell agree that an integral route to global markets is through restaurants and sommeliers, calling Pinotage a ‘gastronomy wine’ with its red fruited-profile and generally amiable tannin structure. 

Both climbing local and export sales for these divergent brands are evidence of a maturing market when it comes to accepting different styles of Pinotage. Doesn’t chardonnay for example wax from steely and unwooded all across the spectrum to rich, buttery and oaky?

“It’s just a style difference,” shrugs Bredell on the new wave versus traditional Pinotage debate. “It’s not sport, you don’t have to choose a team.”

  • Malu Lambert is freelance wine journalist and wine judge who has written for numerous local and international titles. She is a WSET Diploma student and won the title of Louis Roederer Emerging Wine Writer of the Year 2019. She sits on various tasting panels and has judged in competitions abroad. Follow her on Twitter: @MaluLambert


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