Tim James: Looking for cheapish but lightish new-wave pinotage

By , 19 March 2024



I’m always irritated by the easy invocation of the “wine ladder”, and the similar concept of “entry-level” wines. Or, I suppose, I’m irritated by what seems to me the misuse of the idea. Which seems to be that people start with 4th Street Sweet White, after a year or two “move up” to Perdeberg Chenin, and then progressively climb till they’re lifting their pinkies while sniffing and swirling Palladius. And I daresay that might well be true for some, but the vast majority of Sweet White drinkers do not have their foot on a bottom rung from which they might hanker after dizzy heights (woozy heights perhaps). They don’t wish, and are never going to “advance” except perhaps to Sweet Red, perhaps mixed with cola.

There is, for that large majority, no significant link between 4th Street and Sadie. It’s more of a gulf, a matter of taste and very much a matter of price. The “entry” is into ladderless cheap liquor. For others, mostly from a more privileged background, the entry is into the price and style of wine to which they are introduced – and from where, yes, a small number take in the more recondite pleasures and interests of wine and might discover the ladder and eagerly climb it when they can afford to.

Take Tassenberg by contrast, a cheap wine easily discovered by people who know they don’t want sweet wine with or without coke, and one which would not be enjoyed by the 4th Street drinker. And one which any honest serious drinker would probably be happy to drink at a braai – while they would spit out the 4th Street and turn to beer or water. There’s actually no gulf of taste between Tassies and Paul Sauer – mostly there’s the prohibitive matter of income, and the Tassies drinker will experiment with more expensive wines as and when he or she can afford them. It’s not a matter of the snobbishly invoked ladder, it’s a matter of money and (as for most of us) how they choose to spend their discretionary budget.

None of the above should be really controversial, perhaps. But a lot of wine ranges seem to be structured by the idea of a wine ladder constructed, of course, primarily by price, but also by style. It seems to be too often assumed that the cheaper wines in a range should – apart from anything else – be sweeter and with less structure than the more expensive wines. And that’s what irritates me: the comparative shortage of cheaper wines that are at least as well built and drily respectable as Tassies.

Again, the ladder is one of style rather than just price or inherent quality. It’s certainly not always the case, of course. I have always thought of Buitenverwachting here, where Meifort is such a good “second label” to Christine; or Kanonkop’s less pricey Kadettes; or Mullineux’s Kloof Street. There, it’s basically a question of what you can or want to afford: the cheaper ranges are not in the least dumbed down, which is the crucial matter. They might be “easier”, but I don’t think that should really be the point. Of course, though, even these “entry-evel” wines are not cheap.

My irritation needed scratching again this past week. I decided, after a lot of recent writing about lighter reds and some especial enthusiasm for new-wave pinotage, that I should do one of my occasional forays into the sort of wine that seldom gets a look-in on this website. I would venture into the world of pinotage that is both cheapish (preferably under R100) and lightish (a declared alcohol level of 13% or less, but avoiding those declaring themselves to be no-alc or low-alc – a very different game). I was even rather surprised to find some, but didn’t know what to expect from them. I also indulged in a rather pricier one for the sake of comparison and, just possibly, much-needed relief.

I can’t say my foray was really successful. The cheapest I tried was the Organic Pinotage 2023 made by Stellar Organics for Woolworths at R70. The lowest alcohol too, at 12%. I wouldn’t be surprised, given the ripe, almost stewed and slightly musty character, if the alcohol had been reduced (though it’s an expensive process). So, definitely light, but vaguely vinous. Smooth and frictionless and rather sugar-sweet. Not a cheap way out for anyone that likes proper wine.

Scarcely more expensive at R75 from my local bottle-store, Constantia Wine and Craft, is the much better Ken Forrester Petit Pinotage 2022. Good value, I’d say, for a slightly too easygoing wine, with a touch of spice and banana to the sweetish berry fruitiness, juicy and well balanced, with a little grip (but why not a bit more?). Just about possible for a wine snob in a tolerant mood at a braai.

From Praisy Dlamini and team at Adama, the Her Pinotage 2022 (13% alcohol; R90) would have been so much better if it were less sweet. I suppose it is made for a market. There’s a modicum of structure and a bit of spiciness to the forward fruitiness and it’s deftly made. But, like the others, there’s no real connection to the new-wave, lighter style, with perfumed charm and lively freshness, that I was hoping to find at a modest price.

I did find all that on my little shopping spree, but only at twice the price, when I couldn’t resist buying a bottle of Natte Valleij Nat Pinotage 2022. Darling grapes, natural ferment, maturation in concrete and old oak, 12.5% alc. Delicious, fresh and different. The other three are not going to convert anyone who is commitedly grumpy about the rainbow grape, but this one might. Just a pity it cost R170 – decent value for money, but not the cheapness I sought.

  • 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.


1 comment(s)

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    Kwispedoor | 19 March 2024

    I think the False Bay Pinotage is quite lekker, although it usually clocks in at around 13.5% ABV. It’s technically dry at around 3.68 g/l RS (so says the Internet of the 2022), so a gram or so less sugar will arguably improve the wine. However, at a regular price of just under R70, only staunch fundamentalist Pinotage haters will not think it’s great value. It’s made from coastal vineyards – some nearly 30 years old – by organic/biological (I’m not sure if they’re still certified biodynamic) producer Waterkloof. Wild ferment, avoiding additives, matured in old oak. Finding such an unmanipulated “honest” wine at this price is refreshing indeed.

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