Never giving up on Pinotage

By , 13 September 2019



Pinotage being a cross between Pinot Noir and Cinsault, it is always curious to me that it is typically the former rather than the latter that gets called to mind when the grape is under discussion. Winemakers that work with the variety, and indeed its proponents in general, often insist that wines from this variety can be very “Burgundian” while detractors ask why it can’t be more like this.

If “Burgundian” is shorthand for “elegant and refined”, then claiming that this is what defines Pinotage seems wrongheaded. If Kanonkop Black Label is the acme of the variety, and it’s difficult to argue otherwise, it’s certainly not underdone, whatever else you might say about it. Similarly, wines like Beyerskloof Diesel, Kaapzicht Steytler and Rijk’s Reserve, to name three other prominent examples, have never been exaggeratedly shy.

To elevate Pinotage’s Pinot Noir “parentage” above that of Cinsault also doesn’t make sense when Cinsault is currently making some of South Africa’s most exciting and, yes, elegant wines. Think Pofadder from Sadie Family Wines, Geronimo from Van Loggerenberg and Rall for starters but the list goes on…

The problem with Pinotage is the template which is most commercially successful at the top end and, it could be argued, typically most rewarded by the well-established Absa Top 10 competition is wines that are bigger, darker and thicker, precisely at a time when opinion-makers are in love with fresher, brighter wines.

The thought of a wine-producing country having a signature grape variety might be fraught but if it were to be anything, then Pinotage must be in with a shout. Unfortunately, the debate around the variety has pretty much gone cold, and consequently, the category is stagnating.

Wines that I believe demonstrate that Pinotage need not become stuck in a rut and can be pushed in a more contemporary direction include B Vintners Liberté, David & Nadia Topography, Eikendal, Longridge, Radford Dale Frankenstein, Southern Right and both the 1900 and Elgin bottlings from Spioenkop.

Right now, Longridge is a particularly interesting case study. Jasper Raats, current managing director, relates that a condition of him taking permanent employment in 2011 was that he be allowed to move Pinotage in a more elegant direction even though the property had a strong following for the variety. He relates that their Dutch importer, an important customer until then, threatened to cease purchase unless there was a return to the old, bolder style resulting in “a nervous couple of months” but then a few positive reviews were forthcoming and the new style has become “a huge success story”.

It subsequently dawned on Raats that even though South Africa is the home of Pinotage, there remain precious few ultra-premium examples of the variety – Black Label 2017 from Kanonkop sells for R1 850 a bottle and the somewhat unsung Ashbourne 2017 for R750 and then there’s not much else.

Shooting for the stars.

Enter Maandans 2017 from Longridge, total production 1 100 bottles and selling for R1 200 a bottle. Grapes from a 45-year-old vineyard that is 0.87ha in size on the Helderberg property, vinfication involved spontaneous fermentation before maturation lasting 18 months in French oak, 50% new.

The nose is enticing with notes of red cherry, cranberry, raspberry and under-ripe plum plus some floral fragrance and herbs while the palate seduces with both its delicacy and intricacy – pure fruit, plenty of zip and fine, crunchy tannins (alcohol: 13%). It’s just about the antithesis of Black Label and properly re-iginites the Pinotage debate. Rating: 95/100.  


5 comment(s)

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    Peter F May | 18 September 2019

    I think there is too much talk about the parentage of Pinotage. ALL grapes, like all people, have two parents.

    Yet we don’t hear makers of, say Petite Sirah, going on about trying to express the Syrah side of parentage, just to make the best wine they can that expresses the grape, terroir, winemaker’s skill……

    Until the (very) recent explosion in single variety South African Cinsauts, very few people there had even tasted a Cinsaut, so knowing that was in Pinotage’s parentage offered them no guidance at all.

    I can’t see the point of a winemaker saying they are making the wine in the style of PN as the obvious response is that it’s easy enough to get a Pinot Noir.

    There is also no one view of what Pinotage should taste like. The coffee/chocolate style has many devotees

    Jono | 14 September 2019

    Yes! I felt like Black Label and Maandans bookended the reds that I had at the Tim Atkins last night. Such extremely different expressions of the same thing. I feel that spectrum liberates winemakers to play anywhere within that spectrum.

    Hennie Taljaard | 13 September 2019

    opened a 1980 KWV Pinotage today salvaged from a barn in the Swellendam district. that nose! pronounced meat, undergrowth, harmonious and gobs of fruit with fine tannins and lots of other mysterious things. Burgundian? Hell yeah!!

    Neil Tabraham | 13 September 2019

    Ah! The wonders of Pinotage. At the end of the day, good quality fruit paired with skilled wine making will produce a good wine, whatever the style. Using heavy oak to mask poor quality fruit and mediocre wine making is a recipe for dreadful wine, whatever the grape.

    As a wine professional, I watch with great interest as we see winemakers understand how to get the most from their good Pinotage juice at the same time as lighter wines are gaining admirers. These are the interesting wines we all hope to find by chance on our travels but rarely do. Now, it doesn’t take much to find excellent wines in this style that are fruity, crunchy and fresh with a new found elegance which competes with many a Pinot Noir or Cinsault. That doesn’t mean the big, shouty wines are not good, they are fantastic, but it demonstrates how adaptable and wonderfully balanced and complex Pinotage can be when treated with respect. The greatest hurdle, however, will be changing perceptions that Pinotage can make premium wines, especially those who wrote it off as cheap, hollow and characterless in days gone by.

    With Pinotage now being planted across the world from New Zealand to England (I kid you not), it’s time to revisit this uniquely South African varietal to truly appreciate this renaissance before its identity is lost to being just another international grape. Do yourself a small favour though, the lighter, more elegant styles will sing in your glass if served around 14 degrees with richer and fuller wines no more than 18 degrees. Serving temperature really does make a difference to Pinotage so you can really enjoy them at their best.

    jason mellet | 13 September 2019

    Mostly unknown grape in the states… a few people will know of it but the average consumer won’t have any idea!

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