Michael Fridjhon: Why hasn’t Pinotage come as far as Chenin Blanc?

By , 24 April 2024



The Absa Pinotage Top 10 2023.

Hindsight – we are told – is 20/20 vision. Foresight, on the other hand – by its very nature, is the province of the visually impaired. In retrospect it all looks obvious. However, when you stand at the threshold of something new, undiscovered, ill-defined, the way forward is not as obvious as the path which brought you there.

Roughly thirty years ago, so quite early on in my campaign to create fine wine interest in Cape chenin and to reveal its potential to the world, Beyers Truter said to me that my efforts would be better invested in promoting pinotage. At the time there was much to support his view (and very little to support mine). He had already elevated the premium end of the pinotage market, with several impressive Kanonkop bottlings. Other winemakers had begun releasing reserve selections, usually made from sites with a proven track record, often vinified in new or new-ish oak. South Africa was the darling of the wine world, and red wine was an easier sell than white.

I persisted with chenin for several reasons – other than obstinacy. Firstly because I knew its potential in the Loire. I had been importing several of the region’s most reputable wines (Clos de Coulée de Serrant, Savennières, Coteaux de Layon) for years. For me there had never really been any dispute about the intrinsic qualities of chenin blanc. Secondly, given the extent to which chenin was planted in South Africa, it seemed likely that there would be a sufficient number of great sites, many with old vines, to ensure critical mass. The geographical spread of the almost 30,000 hectares of chenin vineyards at the time would open the door to a variety of styles. In other words, given the extent of the plantings and the estimated number of old vines, Cape chenin could be more than a one-trick pony.

The rest, as they say, is history: chenin blanc has in many ways become the face of Cape wine. While the idea of red wine always seems to trump the idea of white, it would be safe to say that even Stellenbosch cabernet (potentially our red wine calling card) has been wrong-footed by chenin’s success. Pinotage, once the object of so much promise and enthusiasm, appears to be stagnating.

This can hardly be because of a lack of effort. The Pinotage Association is well-funded: ABSA has been investing in the Pinotage Top 10 for several decades. Its marketing team shares the success of the leading producers every year with an audience well-heeled enough to swallow the sometimes optimistic pricing aimed at adding prestige to the image of the cultivar. No doubt, with the upcoming centenary of Professor Perold’s fortuitous crossing of cinsaut and pinot noir, we will see an even bigger push than normal to fly the banner.

Despite these efforts, despite the larger-than-life personalities associated with its production, pinotage is weighed down by its gravitational field. Nor is it able to encourage a wider group of consumers to engage with it except as a curiosity. Sure, it has its passionate followers and influential ambassadors everywhere. There’s no doubt it’s in a better place than it was in the 1980s but it doesn’t appear set to become the next big thing.

It can’t be because it lacks noteworthy examples, an organised representative body, an annual competition to generate interest or people to champion its cause. It has a broad range of prices, from some of the best value wines produced in South Africa to some of the most expensive. It comes in light-weight bottles, superheavy-weight bottles and bag-in-box. It delivers quality in excess of its average price point, age-worthiness (if not actual evolution in the bottle). There’s less bad pinotage about than awful merlot or unspeakable shiraz/syrah. What does it need to get just a little lift-off?

It can’t be about consistency of style: chenin has always delivered to a broad spectrum. If anything, pinotage offers a slightly narrower range, from the massively oaked fruit bombs via the more layered renditions, reaching the supple easy-drinking examples which account for much of the commercial volume. Lately there have been signs that younger generation pinotage producers are experimenting with wines which are more burgundian and less blockbustery. Whether they attract a new audience remains to be seen.

But I don’t think the lack of international (and to a lesser extent domestic) traction is about the inability of the cultivar to yield wines which offer drinking pleasure. My hunch – and this is all that it can be – is that it is more about cultural identity. Part of chenin’s success is that it’s a little like the girl/boy next door – easy to be comfortable with, unlikely to disappoint, capable of happy surprises. If you apply the same personification to pinotage, the comfort zone is less easy to identify – but it is somehow reminiscent of the Doc Craven (rather than the Rassie Erasmus) era of Springbok rugby.

Perhaps what is holding pinotage back is exactly what enables its traditional exponents to sell their high-end examples for ultra-premium prices, but to a very restricted audience. In the past certainly, and still today, it plays mainly to a very specific crowd, almost exclusively male: it makes no concessions to change (good or bad): it’s stuck in the world of fight club rather than fine dining – even though there are fabulous examples which prove that it has the versatility to reach a wider audience.

The bible tells us (so this is a parable rather than an historical fact) that the Israelites were condemned to wander in the wilderness for forty years until the generation born into slavery had died out. Perhaps all we need for Pinotage to take off is to be patient – to wait a little longer for it to leave behind the dust of the desert so that it can find its Promised Land.

  • Michael Fridjhon has over thirty-five years’ experience in the liquor industry. He is the founder of Winewizard.co.za and holds various positions including Visiting Professor of Wine Business at the University of Cape Town; founder and director of WineX – the largest consumer wine show in the Southern Hemisphere and chairman of The Trophy Wine Show.


8 comment(s)

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    Andre | 29 April 2024

    Credit to the photographer?

    Erwin Lingenfelder | 28 April 2024

    In my opinion Abrie Beeslaar makes the best Pinotage in South Africa. No, not the revered and totally overpriced Kanonkop Black Label, but the wine bottled under his name. I believe he may be the injection that Pinotage needs, especially now that he is about to leave Kanonkop. Hopefully Abrie will lead the variety out of the wilderness that it has been in for 100 years.

      Mike Froud of Top Wine SA | 28 April 2024

      Must there be one? Why not the Top 5 Pinotages, or the Top 10 or 20…

      Gareth | 29 April 2024

      I’ve been buying Abrie’s own-label Pinotage since the 2014 vintage and having tried it several times now, I have to be honest – I prefer the Kanonkop Pinotage. I find the Beeslaar a bit too much – lots of tannin and even more wood.

    Greg de Bruyn | 26 April 2024

    Insightful, but I ran out of article before I found the answers. I think pinotage was/is its own worst enemy. The rusty nails and nail varnish images don’t fade readily, so the elegant new-wave Burgundian styles don’t find credence outside the annointed circles. Coffee-flavoured abominations don’t help either. It’s like trying to woo back a jilted lover without mending your ways.

    Jonathan Miles | 25 April 2024

    I used to be a fanatical fan of Pinotage, to the exclusion of almost all other red cultivars. Then over time my cellar filled up with Cabs, Shiraz and Syrah. I now very rarely purchase Pinotage. Maybe it is time to revisit the cultivar as there is plenty on offer.

    Trevor Gray | 24 April 2024

    The professor makes a number of pertinent points. One could speculate that the myriad of styles and iterations make it confusing for those seeking quintessential example of our unique proposition.
    Coffee / chocolate bombs or acetate/ banana like or even the infamous burnt rubber points to the proverbial chameleon on a smarties box conundrum for those wishing to find the brass ring.
    The likes of Lavenier,Kanonkop,Beyerskloof and Simonsig amongst others offer the best opportunity to convert the masses( if such still exists?
    Perhaps the future is an exemplary single block bush vine with judicious use of wood or a blend of Cab Sav and Pinotage which both Beyers and Duimpie RIP suggested was the cornerstone of the fine wines of SA in the bad old days of Apartheid?
    Are Bordeaux styles worthy of world recognition if competing with the French original?

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