Tim James: How controversial is Pinotage really?
By Tim James, 7 August 2023
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.
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