Pinotage: Fence Or Marmite Wine?

Pinotage: Fence Or Marmite Wine?

Even among the most intrepid of wine industry tasters, pinotage – South Africa's very own red grape – continues to divide opinion. I heard Sebastian Beaumont, of Beaumont Family Wines in Bot River, refer to it recently as a 'fence' wine, from which I assume he was alluding to the phrase sit on the fence ('to avoid making a decision or choice'), though Beaumont's own is an excellent modern example. Others go further and term it more a Marmite ('love it or hate it') kind of a wine. Jancis Robinson MW's great book Grapes refers to it as 'South Africa's very own cross, both loved and despised'. Perhaps it is just misunderstood, perhaps still struggling to shake off its early infamy. Either way, pinotage has personality, which is one reason I like it (though to be fair there are some pinotage personalities I am less keen on!).

Beyers Truter
Beyers Truter c2006, former winemaker at Kanonkop, whose name is synonymous with the pinotage grape

On a Master of Wine visit to the Cape back in 2004 we were treated (some didn't see it that way!) to a fascinating tasting and presentation by the Pinotage Association, co-hosted by one of its founders, Beyers Truter, whose name is synonymous with the pinotage grape, and who, before founding Beyerskloof, was Cellarmaster at Kanonkop for many years before handing over the reins to Abrie Beeslaar who is now just as well recognised for his prowess with pinotage. We were introduced to pinotage rosé, a relatively new concept at the time, which most of our opinionated group found more palatable than the reds we tasted.

Punching down the pinotage at Kanonkop
Punching down the pinotage at Kanonkop

Kanonkop is probably the best known of all pinotage producers and their wines are in a refined if robust style, traditionally vinified in open fermenters which are a more modern take on the old lagares in the Douro Valley. The grapes are not foot trodden here but hand-punched, using long poles which Kanonkop maintain work more effectively than any mechanical method they have experimented with. An anonymous visitor to Kanonkop penned these words which are now displayed above the tasting room door:

Pinotage is the juice extracted from women's tongues and lions' hearts. After having a sufficient quantity one can talk forever and fight the devil
Kanonkop, Stellenbosch

They liked it, so they kept it, even if it is not very accurate! So much has changed in the new democracy of South Africa and its winelands, and around the pinotage grape in particular. Yet in its 40th Anniversary Edition, Platter's South African Wine Guide 2020's note on the variety doesn't claim pinotage as a flagship or emblematic grape, nor even recognise it officially as its own.

A 1920s cross between pinot noir and cinsaut ('hermitage'). Made in a range of styles6, from simply fruity to ambitious, well-oaked examples. (7.30%)

The 7.3% here refers to the percentage of planting in the Cape, well ahead of its parent grapes cinsaut (1.84%) and pinot noir (1.26%) but well below other internationally recognised red grapes like cabernet sauvignon (11%) and shiraz (10.21%), and way behind white flagship chenin blanc (18.54%), and sauvignon blanc (10.25%). There is very little pinotage planted outside South Africa, but you may be surprised to hear that there is a little here in the south of England, at Leonardslee Gardens in West Sussex.

The successful crossing of pinot noir and cinsault (often spelt cinsaut outside France, known as hermitage in South Africa at the time) by Professor Abraham Perold at Stellenbosch University was as recent as 1926. The name pinotage was not to appear on a label until Lanzerac's 1959, according to Grapes. As pinotage tends easily to overcropping and does not respond particularly well to vineyard trellising or irrigation as a result, it is easy to see why a lot of early pinotage was not really a great credit to a celebrating Rainbow nation. The vines also seemed particularly susceptible to virus, or perhaps it was a chicken and egg situation where growers accepted virus-infected vineyards in exchange for the naturally lower yields that result, as an easy way to keep potentially high yields under control. Tannins can be high, so care is needed in vinification, especially the more traditional vinification such as that practised at Kanonkop. Fermentation temperature can be a challenge – not least in a hot country like South Africa (where thankfully power cuts during harvest are now much less common than they were only a few decades ago). Pinotage loves oak and many producers lavished it with American oak, which combined with the natural sweetness and generosity of the fruit became just too much, a bit like commercially produced zinfandel or petite sirah in the US.

Pinotage loves oak
Pinotage loves oak

This is all beginning to sound as if I mean to put you off, which I would hate to do. I would challenge most people who say flatly that they don't like pinotage to at least give it another try, perhaps with a bit of guidance about the different styles available today, many of which lean more towards the pinot parent and are vinified accordingly.

A memorable moment of triumph came some years ago during our Wine Championship tastings of that year, when the winners of the day were revealed and included The Society's Pinotage. A couple of my colleagues could not believe they had voted for it, such is the reputation that goes before this most divisive of grapes. Impartial they were not, but when you taste blind neutrality steps in. And I am delighted to report that pinotage has been an occasional winner since, including this year in the form of Kaapzicht's juicy 2017, which appears on the podium in our current (October 2020) Fine Wine Champions List.We will be offering a selection of six of the best in 2021.

Styles vary enormously: full-bodied – robust even - made with traditional vinification techniques and often using oak maturation (the more subtle French oak, or sweeter, spicier flavour of American oak), or a growing trend towards lighter styles, expressing the pinot noir side of the grape's heritage.

  • Top producers of the more robust style include Beeslaar, Bellingham, Beyerskloof, Delheim, Diemersdal, Diemersfontein, Fairview, Flagstone, Kaapzicht, Kanonkop, Meerendal, Chateau Naudé, Painted Wolf, Simonsig, Spice Route, Spier.
  • Top producers of the fresher, more modern style include Beaumont, Cape Chamonix, Neil Ellis, Radford Dale, Southern Right, Spioenkop.

And there are numerous wines which sit somewhere between the two, more often than not evolving from robust traditional towards a more modern interpretation. There is also a fad for a distinctly sweet, more commercial style, using oaking techniques to bring the chocolatey or coffee character of pinotage to the fore. Another fad is for white pinotage but I have yet to taste one worth the detour. Today the classic style, probably the most famous and celebrated of which comes from Kanonkop's Simonsberg-Stellenbosch vineyards, is better than ever.

Simonsberg Mountain
Simonsberg Mountain

This range of styles, and the range of flavours the pinotage grape can express, make it incredibly versatile. It will complement a wide range of dishes from grills and roots to sweetly spiced and even seriously hot curries. Chunkier versions even respond well to being served cool with a summer barbecue.

At a superb Indian restaurant in London some years back hosted by Bruce Jack, then at Flagstone, the (quite hefty but sweet-fruited) pinotage was far and away the best match with the wide range of refined but flavourful dishes.

Young pinotage typically expresses berry or black cherry fruit, sometimes with a hint of banana, smokiness, spice or chocolate – even coffee or mocha. Over time it will develop more spice and a gamey complexity (revealing its pinot noir parentage). The best examples have great cellaring potential, as Kanonkop's regular 10-year-old release attests to.

And there are always those delicious rosés. We prefer the dryer styles, which can have a similar weight to some of the more serious southern French pinks (Kanonkop Kadette Rosé 2019 ticks that box, currently at the special price of £7.95 as it featured in our Backing our Best Growers offer in September), or a more delicate, fresher profile such as Painted Wolf's Ros 2020, also currently £7.95), both of which are great food wines. You may find others on the market a little sweeter, but these should be a good match for a stir fry or other lightly spiced dishes.

So, to quote my colleague Martin Brown, who writes elsewhere in these pages:

It hurts that this grape still gets a bum deal: the sins of a few producers for a finite period have left a concerning mark on many of us and attracted some of the most colourfully scornful phrases I've heard directed at fermented grape juice.

… perhaps it's time to give pinotage another try?

Jo Locke MW

Society Buyer

Jo Locke MW

Joanna joined The Society in 2004. Her buying responsibilities include Alsace, Loire, South Africa and Portugal, including Port and Madeira.

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