Tim James: How controversial is Pinotage really?

By , 7 August 2023



The Prescient Pinotage Report Top 10 – featuring an array of styles.

Too often pinotage is offered (by journalists and critics and the wine-snifferati more generally) as more controversial than it really is.  Malu Lambert’s informative report on an interesting recent discussion about different winemaking approaches to the grape asked if pinotage was “finally” set to “shrug off its image problem”. I reckon that if you asked the average local buyer of bottled wine that question nowadays, the answer would generally be: huh, what image problem? And I reckon it’s likely the same answer you would obtain overseas in countries where the likes of Kanonkop Pinotage, Kanonkop Kadette (blend and straight) and Beyerskloof are available in good numbers.

We continue to love quoting those damn Brit MWs, typically full of arrogance and opinion, who half a century ago invoked the supposed flavour of “rusty nails”. Really – let’s get over that; it’s been a bit boring and irrelevant for a few decades now.

Malu quoted wine distributor David Clarke, who organised the discussion and is a friend of at least the “potential” of the grape, as limiting his comment to a smarter level of wine than what my average buyer drinks. “Pinotage has a horrific reputation in the fine wine world”, David said, and merely repeated the statement when challenged in a comment to the article from Mike Froud, who pointed out that “many wine writers / critics, e.g. in the UK, are impressed with Pinotage these days” and asked in vain for justification of the remark.

I’m not denying a level of controversy about pinotage, but I doubt if “horrific reputation” is anywhere near a correct analysis any more. I’d guess that (where there’s sufficient experience to warrant any useful opinion at all) a blanket condemnation of the variety is these days mostly an internal, South African thing. Many local wine-people are eager to distance themselves from the wine industry’s murky social past, and pinotage suffers from its association with oranje-blanje-blou nationalism and, thus, apartheid. Further, I would hazard that David, for example, mixes substantially with the sort of winemaker and sommelier who, mistakenly in my opinion, think that their beloved cinsault, so well suited to fashionably light wines, is a superior grape to this its offspring (and probably to cabernet sauvignon too, for that matter!).

Anyway, I was grateful to David for inviting me to the Ex Animo discussion between Abrie Beeslaar and Bernhard Bredell. The speakers were thoughtful and illuminating about the problems involved in growing and vinifying pinotage – and the positives (such as its early ripening, its terroir transparency, its responsiveness to different winemaking techniques). If there have been, or still are, problems with much pinotage wine in the Cape, these two winemakers agreed, as Bernhard put it: “Don’t blame the variety” – the problems are with viticulture and location of plantings, and with winemaking. (Of what variety can one not say that? I always think it one sign of the greatness of cabernet sauvignon that it manages to make pretty decent wine almost anyway and in almost any cellar.)

I came away having learnt much – none of it disturbing my established respect for the grape. Nor my established preferences. Abrie articulated an important conclusion, that it is the quality and style of wines, including pinotage, that sells the stuff.

That’s not quite as simple a matter as it sounds, given how often stylistic preference is allowed to govern judgements as to quality. As a professional commentator I try to be objective, but no doubt the troubling quality/style issue does come into play (one reason I prefer not to play with tiny score differences when talking about specific wines). For example, let me tell you briefly how I reacted to the remarkably diverse pinotages that were on offer for sampling during the discussion (the wines were not actually discussed – if they had been I suspect the tone of the evening would have degenerated from one of affable courtesty quite quickly!).

At one extreme was Bernhard’s Atlantikas, which I found too light and insubstatial and lacking vinosity (there are people I respect who think otherwise); I preferred the Scions of Sinai Féniks 2022, which had more body and weight, and lacked none of Atlantikas’s charm while having more depth. I wonder how many years it will develop, but it does seem to me a wine that’s intended for delicious early drinking. At the other extreme were Abri’s two wines on offer: Beeslaar Pinotage 2021 and Kanonkop Estate Pinotage 2021. They have important differences but are essentially made in similar style, with greater ripeness, alcoholic and tannic power, and evident oak from their elevage. (Interestingly to me, I had tasted the Kanonkop the day before alongside other Kanonkops and it seemed much fresher and less oaky to me then – context can be important). These are always wines I can greatly admire, but only really enjoy when they have a decade or so behind them – and even, then, frankly, I would generally prefer a little less wood and too-sweet ripeness.

If I were scoring, I would score Abrie’s wines higher than Féniks, but I would prefer to drink Féniks tonight. In ten years time, I predict, there’d be no contest, and ageability is traditionally, conventionally an important factor when it comes to assessing “quality” in wine. There’s the best I can do in the objective versus subjective stakes. It’s probable of course that others would disagree even on the ostensibly objective judgement, and more would disagree on the subjective one.

One thing occurred to me in the course of the evening, when Bernhard spoke of the influences on his approach, including Beaujolais (and I imagine he was thinking at least partly of the radical “natural” winemakers there). Pinotage suffered, I think, from its patriotic importance not least because many winemakers thought it needed to be treated like great cabernet from Bordeaux – hence the overuse of wood, for example. Many of the new wave, whose knowledge of Bordeaux is often lamentably small, prefer to invoke the likes of Beaujolais and Burgundy (the latter of which they try to imagine as lighter, less oaked and altogether more peasant-like than it has been for quite a while now). Happily, Cape winemaking is growing in self-confidence and responding to its own conditions (and best traditions), and that is affecting pinotage too.

Let me conclude with praise for an intermediate style of pinotage, one that has freshness without sacrificing the vinosity, depth and complexity that comes with what I consider proper grape maturity; one that eschews lavish oaking but is not scared of even some new wood and even of some extraction; one that is deliciously approachable in moderate youth but is likely to develop over at least the middle term.

I was pleased to see Christian Eedes recently amply rewarding one of my favourites in this style, Bruwer Vintners Liberté Pinotage 2021. Maturation in oak, 10% of it new; 13% alcohol. Neither new wave or old-style – probably a bit closer to the former, which I confess I would also prefer, if it were a choice forced on me. Angus Paul Transient Land is in a similar space. Tilting slightly in the other direction, the two Spioenkop versions. Springfontein pinotages can be quite big, but are always fresh and light-feeling, with little oakiness, and there are also some fascinating, innovative blends from them including pinotage (a category that is very important, I think). Radford Dale Frankenstein was one of the earliest modern pinotages (along with the sadly abandoned Lam from Lammershoek made by Craig Hawkins). Sun Spider from Giant Periwinkle I haven’t had for a while, but it too has belonged to the category. Thomas se Dolland, from Pella, is another firm favourite of mine, one that fits nicely between the extremes in terms of oaking and alcohol level.

There are not a lot of such pinotages about – no doubt more than occur to me right now – but I do hope it is a growing category. As the recent public discussion, and commentary on it, has further made clear, there’s a range of valid responses to pinotage. That’s great, and let’s air our preferences, but let’s not raise the stakes by making difference of approach mean more than it does with regard to other grape varieties and insist on invoking controversiality.

  • 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.


15 comment(s)

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    Riaan Smit | 10 August 2023

    The greatest strength of Pinotage is in its ageability. It does retain a remarkable amount of fruit and freshness. No MW – with the exception of Greg Sherwood (because he knows Pinotage well) – will pick the age of a 10-year old Kanonkop Pinotage (always available for sale in the tasting room) in a blind tasting of a line-up of various cultivar wines up to that age. I will bet one of my Paul Sauer 2015’s on that.
    Also, Pinotage does work well blended with some varietals. I am yet to drink a Pinotage/Shiraz I enjoy. Pinotage works well with Carbernet Sauvignon and Merlot: Kanonkop Kadette Cape Blend has been selling well for two decades now, and sales keep on growing. Although made as a lighter-style wine, most vintages easily mature up to 10+ years. Remarkably, no other South African producer makes a Pinotage/Cab Sauv/Merlot blend (that I am aware of).

    Robert Joseph | 9 August 2023

    I have watched Pinotage over many years – both from the UK and in visits to SA, where I ran a few wine competitions. And, as a competition chair of events like the IWC and MundusVini and the Tri nations, I’ve given trophies to some really impressive Pinotages.

    Skilled winemakers can make very good wine from Pinotage. But skilled cooks make great meals out of second rate cuts of meat.

    And, to be honest, I really am not convinced that Pinotage is a top class cultivar to be used by itself (I feel the same about Cinsault and most Carignan by the way). It is not in the same class as Malbec or Syrah or Tempranillo, for example, and it is no coincidence that in a world full of producers looking for new varieties to plant, Pinotage has caught remarkably few eyes

    If S Africans want to go on producing various styles, of course that’s their prerogative and I’m sure that – like Kanonkop – many will be delicious.

    But, do I think that it should be a major string in the S African bow? No. Any more than I think Carmenere should fill that role in Chile, or that Carignan should do so in Languedoc where I make wine.

      Kwispedoor | 10 August 2023

      Hi, Robert.

      In matters of taste (and I suppose opinion), there can be no dispute, but I think a few things about pinotage are noteworthy.

      It takes time for any region/country to “work out” a cultivar. Being such a new variety, I think our winemakers are only now beginning to suss it out properly. One cool thing about pinotage is that, almost always – whether it’s made in a lighter or heavier style – there seems to be both red and dark fruits present. This combination of fresh juiciness and deep fruitiness is often quite irresistible. But for me, the biggest argument for the merit of pinotage’s is its ageability. When we’re talking about proper maturation ability (up to 40-50+ years’ worth), it’s noticeable how pinotage can often surprise – especially when tasted blind. Compared to wines from other esteemed “long-term” cultivars, it’s often the one that manages retain some fruit after such a long time. With all the recent viticultural and oenological improvements, I’m excited for what’s to follow.

    Lisa Harlow | 8 August 2023

    Thanks James and Christian for those recommendations. I have been on the look out for Wolf and Woman but not found it in the UK. Maybe I’ll be lucky when I’m back in the Western Cape at the end of the year
    I also have a carbonic maceration version from Radford Dale/Land of Hope to try

    Lisa Harlow | 8 August 2023

    I completely agree with David’s comment about the international reputation of Pinotage. Here in the UK, it is dreadful and it doesn’t help that cheap supermarket Pinotage is a jammy mocha mess! I can think of one that even has chocolate in its name. It will take some marketing effort for many people to even buy a bottle.
    I’m also not a fan of the more robust/oaky styles and I do keep trying them. I probably need to try more aged samples but reluctant to buy a wine that I really don’t like in it’s youth
    However, I tried Bernhard’s Atlantikas in a restaurant in Cape Town on my last visit, just out of curiosity. I called it the miracle wine! A Pinotage that I absolutely loved and have also bought now in the UK and persuaded some friends to try. So maybe this is the style that could change deep seated perceptions

      Tim James | 8 August 2023

      Lisa, you should also then look out for the Wolf and Woman Wines version, very much in the ultra-light style, and a lovely one yet to be released from McFarlane Wines. The Bruwer Vintners and Angus Paul wines I mentioned are close in spirit.

      Kwispedoor | 8 August 2023

      It’d be great if we can channel more of the coffee/choc juice to Brakpan and send more of the new wave stuff overseas in its place.

        Tim James | 8 August 2023

        Well, Kwisp, I remember back in 2009 Richard Hemming, then a fairly newly qualified MW, as I recall) wrote an article on the Jancis Robinson website called “Pinotage – misunderstood?” (I know it was 2009 as I’ve just checked, though unfortunately the article is protected by the financial curtain.) I remember that it was markedly enthusiastic about coffee-style pinotage. I wrote angrily at the time to Jancis about this subversion of proper pinotage ambitions on her site. Can’t remember how she replied, but I’m sure she took my point. Perhaps if that unfortunate style had been around when the previous MWs made their animadversions against pinotage, they too would have liked the grape….

    David Clarke | 8 August 2023

    Thanks for the article Tim. I always enjoy your writing, even if I don’t agree with everything you write.

    My opinion on the international reputation of Pinotage has been forged over a 25 year career selling and communicating about wine. The first 15 years in Australia and the UK working in and managing top end retail and restaurant wine programs selling the likes of top Burgundy, 1st Growth Bordeaux, Barolo, etc to people whom money is no object, their only criteria are quality and maybe what their other rich friends think of them. The next ten years I have spent actually selling Pinotage (not solely of course) in distribution, export, and retail capacities in South Africa.

    I think I have a decent handle on the actual market realities of the variety. Obviously there are always exceptions, and Kanonkop has historically been one of those. Notable because it is an exception.

    Pinotage has a bad reputation internationally. Mike and yourself are free to try and call me out, but I wonder about the narrowness of your collective perspectives as you analyse the global market reputation of Pinotage sitting in the Cape Town suburbs.

    In my experience, in general Pinotage is much more welcomed and accepted here in South Africa than it is elsewhere.

    It seems you were tentative in making your prediction on my opinion on Cinsaut, and you were right to be. I think Cinsaut is a very useful component of the South African wine palette – but is it capable of grander wines than Pinotage or Cabernet? No, I don’t think so. My view is that part of Cinsaut’s attractiveness (when grown and made well) is the combination of joyful fruit and spice encased in a light-medium-bodied structure – at a good price.

    I hope that has cleared a few things up. I always enjoy your perspective, as it often conflicts with mine, and I learn a bit more about the subject.

    Lunch soon?

    Cheers 🙂

      Tim James | 8 August 2023

      Good letter, David, thanks, and pretty convincing. We don’t disagree too often, I think? (Mostly about whether “RSVP” is a verb and “invite” is a noun….)

        Aaron Meeker | 8 August 2023


        Have to say that in the US it is an entirely polarizing but still unknown grape, especially by key gatekeepers. Retailers/distributors still ask for Pinotage from us (though our options don’t necessarily fit the bill as much with Mother Rock’s petnats, Intellego’s petnat and carbonicy sort of goodness and lastly Wolf & Woman (referenced above by Tim).

        We have explored the idea of a value (sub $20 retail) pinotage in order to satisfy the requests but I feel most of this stems from retailers feeling they ‘need’ one, not that they actually want (or sell) one.

        It’s an interesting thing here and as we deliberately built our book around the nü-gen of The Cape, Pinotage wasn’t in the producer’s arsenals and therefore not in ours. I do believe that not having too many Pinotages (or what people have expected) has been part of our success with South Africa as a whole.

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