Soil-searching for fine Pinotage
By By Samarie Smith (DipWSET) / Photographs : Courtesy of the Estates, posted on 13 June 2022
Like all inspiring wine countries globally, indigenous grape varieties are part of a quintessential blend of things to see, taste and experience. For South Africans, Table Mountain is their beacon of ancient soils, its "tablecloth" of cloud the introduction to the Cape's whimsical weather. And while the smell of Boerewors and Karoo lamb chops on a traditional open fire "braai" sets the scene for local fare, it is not fulfilled until Pinotage anoints the occasion.
Pinotage illustrates South Africa's prospering wine culture, an indigenous and enigmatic red grape variety proven to excel on the cool slopes of the Constantia Valley, into the heart of Stellenbosch and further afield, without forfeiting its seductive personality.
THE TEAM AT KANONKOP, HEADED UP BY CELLARMASTER ABRIE BEESLAAR. THE LATEST TECHNOLOGY SITS COMFORTABLY ALONGSIDE TRADITIONAL WINEMAKING TECHNIQUES AT THE WINERY
Tenacity remains the bedrock of the South African wine industry, and visionary individuals sculpted a foundation for Pinotage. By utilizing the best sites, its dynamic progression allowed a host of styles to surface from numerous soil types comprising sand to heavier clay, rocks, sandstone, weathered shale, and decomposed granite. Adaptable as bush vines or trellised vines, dryland farming also enabled old vines to dive into deep soils and sustain healthy vines for this emblematic grape variety to flourish.
Ultimately, a delicate balance of freshness, latent power and depth defines an excellent Pinotage, where the quality of the fruit guides a discerning introduction of oak, proclaiming the complexity to age gracefully without sacrificing its texture, structure, fruit purity and lucid colour.
Yet, unlike other cultivars, timing is its unforgiving nemesis. A small picking window leaves little room for error, with a rapid fermentation of three to five days demanding scrupulous attention in the cellar. The same goes for sensible extraction techniques, the time it needs to age and the optimal drinking time that will awake the finer indelible qualities.
CELLARMASTER ABRIE BEESLAAR FROM KANONKOP
Pinotage stalwart and Kanonkop cellarmaster Abrie Beeslaar confesses that it takes longer to master Pinotage than any other varietal.
"It is a variety with a thick skin like Cabernet Sauvignon, which has a ripening window of 45-50 days. However, Pinotage only needs 20-25 days between veraison to when it's ripe. Planning is vital."
As the gatekeeper of classicism, the 2015 vintage of their Estate Pinotage received 95 points in the Gilbert & Gaillard International Challenge, a wine that can effortlessly age another 30-40 years.
"People should be less concerned about what constitutes a typical Pinotage and concentrate on what substantiates quality. For me, structure, texture, and persistence come first. The character of Pinotage will follow suit, but people searching for quality don't always have a reference for Pinotage."
Adamant to showcase the versatility of Pinotage, Abrie utilized a block outside Kanonkop in 2005 under his Beeslaar brand, illustrating how soil drives style despite the vineyards being only three kilometres apart.
Made from bush vines growing on shale, the Beeslaar Pinotage 2019 (93 points) portrays Pinotage's perfumed side while Kanonkop's bush vines thrive on granite synonymous with intense, dark fruit and a firm tannin density.
"Diversity needs to be valued, but winemakers need to let the soil guide them in stylistic decisions."
DE WET VILJOEN, CELLARMASTER AT NEETHLINGSHOF
A fierce commitment to Pinotage awarded another Stellenbosch Estate's wine, the Neethlingshof Owl Post Pinotage 2020, with 92 points.
"The big shift came about when winemakers started to allow the wine to be expressive of its different terroirs," explains Neethlingshof winemaker De Wet Viljoen. "Its future is bright, constantly performing and outperforming wines from around the globe."
The late Prof Eben Archer triggered Viljoen's passion for Pinotage.
"He told us to respect the vine, work sustainably and treat it as if it was one of your children. I have adopted that motto to produce the best possible wine."
Clearly, Pinotage possesses the uncanny ability to express site with new generation winemakers bringing a keen understanding of the aesthetics of fine wine as demonstrated by the trusty Simonsberg to new frontiers like Walker Bay, Skurfberg and Piekenierskloof.
"It is as if the "ball and chain" association with the old South African wine industry has finally been struck off," says Anthony Hamilton-Russell from Hamilton-Russell Vineyards in the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley.
"We haven't had the luxury of centuries of French flair legitimizing the grape for us. However, our younger, more confident, new generation of winemakers are not only up to this but relish the challenge. Pinotage thrives under this new aesthetic regime, which accounts significantly for the renaissance of the variety."
BEYERS TRUTER AND HIS SON, ANRI TRUTER, WHO TOOK UP THE REINS FROM HIS FATHER AT THEIR FAMILY ESTATE BEYERSKLOOF
Beyers Truter, a trailblazer for Pinotage, reminisces about the first meeting in 1995 when the South African Pinotage Association was established.
"Since then, Pinotage has taken phenomenal leaps in quality and viticulture that brought the grape in sync with world trends," says Truter.
He recalls how limited experience with Pinotage in the '80s led to misconstrued interpretations of the cultivar.
"Unsure about the best way to guide this juvenile variety into what it wants to be, an organic compound known as isoamyl acetate imparted unwanted aromas at lower fermentation temperatures that were not an innate character of the grape itself. But our collective tenacity has paid off, and vital knowledge that was passed on has elevated Pinotage to a whole new level."
Truter's Pinotage pilgrimage included winning the trophy for Best Winemaker in the World at the International Wine and Spirits Competition in 1991 with the Kanonkop Pinotage 1989 to recently handing the baton to his son Anri, continuing their Pinotage victory at their family estate Beyerskloof. The Beyerskloof Diesel 2019 scored 94 points, applauded by the panel for its purity and complexity.
"I have never seen regionality expressed in so many flavours than any other cultivar. Pinotage is our value proposition, and the world's perception is very positive."
With Pinotage celebrating its centenary in 2025, South Africa launched its first Pinotage classification under the auspices of Grand Pinotage in 2020. Madame May-Eliane de Lencquesaing, the owner of Glenelly and former owner of Château Pichon Longueville Lalande in Bordeaux, corroborates that Grand Pinotage champions South Africa as the great wine-producing country that it is.
"Grand Pinotage is a collection that has set a new precedent for Pinotage. Its heroic insistence on survival makes its status as South Africa's heritage grape seem not fortuitous but fated."
The history of a charismatic cultivar
Pinotage is a tale of happenstance, heralded by Stellenbosch University Professor Abraham Izak Perold in 1925, who was vigilant about diversifying the Cape's viticultural offering and crossed Pinot Noir and Cinsault (locally referred to as Hermitage – hence the name Pinotage). Then, by mere serendipity in 1935, university lecturer Dr. Charlie Niehaus cycled past Perold's prior Welgevallen residence. Noticing the overgrown garden, aware of the crossings Perold had planted there, he rescued four Pinotage seedlings from imminent shovels.
BEYERS TRUTER FROM BEYERSKLOOF WINE ESTATE
Six years later, wine lecturer CT de Waal made the first Pinotage in 1941 at Elsenberg. Knowing his fellow Pinotage pioneers in the vineyards and on the rugby field, De Waal (on his family farm Uiterwyk), PK Morkel (on Bellevue) and Paul Sauer (on Kanonkop) planted the country's first commercial Pinotage.
Other red cultivars stepped aside at the annual Young Wine Show (then known as the Cape Wine Show), awarding current vintage unbottled wines. Bellevue's Pinotage won the General Smuts Trophy for the best wine overall in 1959, and the Kanonkop Pinotage took the trophy home in 1961. As they were contracted to do in those days, this 1959 Pinotage was sold to Stellenbosch Farmers' Winery (now Distell) and sold as Lanzerac Pinotage 1959.
Lanzerac winemaker Wynand Lategan adds that Pinotage producers are now confident about developing their own style and pushing the envelope. "The magic is to get the balance right and refine your style."
Dirkie Morkel, the viticulturist at Bellevue, kept the original newspaper clippings when his uncle PK Morkel (a Springbok rugby player) won the legendary trophy with his Pinotage. Since then, with winemaker Wilhelm Kritzinger, the estate never became complacent, with three of their Pinotages faring brilliantly in Gilbert & Gaillard's assessment. Leading the pack, the Bellevue Reserve Pinotage 2017 received 93 points for its beguiling complexity and purity of fruit.
A pinnacle era for Pinotage
GERHARD SWART IS THE HEAD WINEMAKER AT FLAGSTONE WINERY
With the advancement in viticulture, technology, and knowledge, it was inevitable that Pinotage, as part of South Africa's cultural heritage, would soar.
Where two oceans collide at the tip of Africa, a treacherous coastline will naturally equate to a rocky start but not prevent such a characterful indigenous grape variety from welling up as a forerunner of individuality and quality. The Old and the New World were merged from two distinctly different grape varieties. Its duality gave birth to exemplary fruit expression, elegantly poised on sculpted acidity with the judicious use of oak adding spice and definition. Yet today, it confidently stands its ground without necessary reference to its ancestry, apart from providing context to those new to Pinotage. Consistent quality has steered it in a proper direction with a tailwind of positive reviews signalling smooth sailing for many more centuries to come.
An ode to regionality
DURBANVILLE HILLS WINEMAKING TEAM. LEFT TO RIGHT: KOBUS GERBER, WILHELM COETZEE, MARTIN MOORE, JENNA HIGGINS
Quality through healthy vineyards remains the mantra of Flagstone Winery, harnessing altitude and diurnal temperature ranges for optimum colour, fruit, and physiological ripeness.
Head winemaker Gerhard Swart says: "Working with Pinotage from warmer and cooler regions taught me how multifaceted this grape is. Regionality always triumphs, allowing me the freedom to use a combination of French, Hungarian and American oak for our respective styles.
Groot Constantia is one of the few producers of Pinotage in a cooler wine-growing region where wines show remarkable restraint in these ripening conditions. According to its cellarmaster, Boela Gerber, the varietal produces intense and forward fruit wines, as evident in tasting their Groot Constantia Pinotage 2019 (94 points).
Durbanville Hills cellarmaster Martin Moore concurs that the proximity to the ocean enables Pinotage to retain its elegance.
"Many lessons were learned by being sagaciously decisive about open canopies and planting directions to invite sunlight throughout a block. I have learned to regularly taste for ripeness and not fall back on analysis when working with cool climate Pinotage."
Their Collectors Reserve Range aptly connects consumers to the Cape Town culture, boasting prominent landmarks on the labels, The Promenade Pinotage 2019 (92 points) featured with the much-loved seafront promenade.
The diversity of styles
CELLARMASTER DONOVAN ACKERMANN JOINED RICKETY BRIDGE IN 2018. HE BELIEVES PINOTAGE KEEPS HIM ON HIS TOES AND THAT HE NEVER STOPS LEARNING
Stylistically, Pinotage has elicited strikingly different opinions and preferences, which concluded that different styles need to be embraced. At the same time, fine Pinotage will always be prudent of terroir and not chasing trends.
Shaun Page, marketing manager at Rickety Bridge, says a preference for lighter style red wines was another point of entry for Pinotage into the market. "And explaining the parentage of Pinotage remains a good point of departure for us," adds Donovan Ackermann, winemaker at Rickety Bridge. "Consumers relate better to Pinotage if you explain that they can expect the tannin of Pinot noir and the bountiful fruit of Cinsault."
Even the controversial "coffee" Pinotage has paid its dues. Hate it or love it, says Rudiger Gretschel, technical director of Vinimark, who believes Bertus Fourie (who pioneered this style at Diemersfontein in Wellington) created a style that opened an arena for Pinotage to be recognized. Adding another colour to the Rainbow Nation, this much-debated style continues to percolate into previously non-wine drinking SA households, with a solid following in the United Kingdom and Northern America.
Gretschel also pursued his own project in the Piekenierskloof with his Sangiro Pinotage.
"Expect a harsh, unirrigated yet holistically dreamy environment where Pinotage vines reap the benefits of sandstone soils, cool breezes and altitude (600m above sea level), resulting in a lighter, linear style with high natural acidity."
Francois Roode joined Diemersfontein as winemaker 18 years ago and has since seen many faces of a varietal "that can give Cabernet Sauvignon a run for its money. Now we also create serious Pinotage. Changing seasons required a paradigm shift with stylistic adjustments, leading to better canopy and water management and planting to heat-resistant rootstock."
MAN FAMILY WINE FOUNDERS
Riaan Moller, winemaker at Lievland and Man Family Wines, remains in awe of Pinotage's versatility." The Lievland Pinotage 2020 (91 points) was created from two blocks. The low-lying Agter-Paarl block has its heart anchored in shale, producing aromatic aromas. The Paardeberg vineyard grows on granite which adds grip and tannin. If you stay involved throughout the process, you will experience excellence.”
The future of Pinotage
HARVESTING AT MAN FAMILY WINES
L'Avenir means future, which is also the message this estate wants to bring across with Pinotage.
Its Advini chapter started when the winemaker Dirk Coetzee convinced the new French owners that its quality stretches beyond the limited vision of "just another hybrid."
Its owners subsequently bought into a property and a cultivar they knew very little about, tells Edo Heyns, Strategic Development and Marketing Director at Advini South Africa.
"It intrigued them to deal with a quality cultivar that originated outside of France."
A fundamental mind shift is palpable in the way consumers react to Pinotage when presented in international tastings as a fine wine, Heyns continues, evoking excitement as something authentically South African with the ability to masterly express terroir.
"Until now, little emphasis was put on climate and soil types, and this contributes to Pinotage's intrinsic qualities to stand beside world-class red wines, channelling the conversation to the world's best sommeliers and opinion makers."
When Pinotage enters the conversation, quality is unequivocal. Its merit persists in an enormous spectrum of styles keeping the world engaged. Be it an elegant Provence-inspired style, a whimsical and fruity wine like Beaujolais, echoing Chateauneuf-du-Pape in a blend with Mediterranean varieties or rubbing shoulders with the power of St. Joseph, Pinotage has risen as a raconteur and a dignitary example of fine wine on the world's wine podium.
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