My epiphany with South African pinotage

I had long wanted to visit the astonishingly beautiful wine country of South Africa and finally got the chance for a short stay last year. But I knew that a trip to South Africa would also mean tasting a lot of pinotage, a signature grape for the country but one that I had never much cared for.

Pinotage is a cross between pinot noir and cinsault, created in 1925 in South Africa by Abraham Perold, a professor at Stellenbosch University. It was designed to combine the flavors of pinot noir with the reliability and easy ripening of cinsault. Or, as Abrie Beeslaar, the winemaker at Kanonkop in Stellenbosch, put it, Perold “tried to get around the needs of the pinot noir,” which is notoriously finicky.

Unfortunately, a lot of pinotage over the years has tasted more like burned rubber than Burgundy, made worse by the fact that many South African reds used to be plagued by Brettanomyces, a yeast that can leave a flavor and aroma signature of sweaty leather and barnyard.

Kanonkop in Stellenbosch has some of South Africa’s oldest pinotage vines. (Photo by Steve Jankowski)

As it turns out, pinotage, which had been my biggest trepidation, turned out to be the happiest wine surprise of the trip. Vintners have learned to keep yields low and handle the grapes more carefully in the cellar, with vastly improved results. Good pinotage comes in a range of styles, from light and fruity to more structured, complex and spicy.

Debbie Thompson, cellar master at Simonsig in Stellenbosch, tied much of that improvement to the creation nearly 20 years ago of the Pinotage Association, which encourages winemakers to share information and identify problem areas. “It was a huge turnaround,” she said.

Dirk Coetzee, general manager and winemaker at L’Avenir in Stellenbosch, who makes a couple of very good pinotages, said, “We had to find out what works with this varietal. It’s making so much progress. … This is just an amazing grape.” He’s optimistic about the grape’s future with U.S. consumers because he thinks most of them haven’t been exposed to the bad versions and will come to pinotage with an open mind.

The astonishingly beautiful scenery of Stellenbosch wine country. (Photo by Steve Jankowski)

Pinotage is the sixth most planted variety in South Africa, accounting for just over 7 percent of vineyard acreage, and it’s No. 3 among red grapes, trailing cabernet sauvignon (11 percent of planted acreage) and syrah/shiraz (10 percent). Pinotage vineyards are spread over multiple growing regions, and some of the vineyards are fairly old. About 6,200 acres of vines – more than one-third of the total pinotage plantings – are more than 20 years old. That’s important, because the best pinotage wines generally are made from old bush vines.

Just a brief aside about another factor that led to some pretty dreadful pinotages in the past: Brettanomyces, also known as Brett. Brett used to be quite common in South African reds. “I think there was a lot of South African palate,” said Carl van der Merwe, chief executive and cellar master at DeMorgenzon in Stellenbosch, explaining Brett’s acceptance in the old days. But improvements in quality, including stricter winery hygiene, since the end of apartheid have led most winemakers to clean up their wines.

Pinotage is a focus at the aforementioned L’Avenir, along with chenin blanc. The 2016 L’Avenir Provenance Pinotage ($24) is structured and still quite tight, with spicy red berry fruit. The outstanding 2017 L’Avenir Single Block Pinotage ($45) is also structured but more generous, with sweet, lively red fruit, hard spices, a lot of depth and concentration and polished tannins.

Simonsig also has a couple of pinotage tiers. The 2016 Simonsig Pinotage ($18) is ripe and fruity, with medium tannins, while the very stylish 2016 Simonsig Redhill Pinotage ($38) displays plump, ripe red and black fruit, a hint of mocha and firm but manageable tannins.

Kanonkop has some of the country’s oldest pinotage vines, and Beeslaar uses the grape in single-variety wines as well as in a “Cape blend,” a common type of South African blend that usually features pinotage. The 2017 Kanonkop Pinotage ($48), made from old, dry-farmed bush vines, is concentrated and lively, with red berry fruit, a hint of smoke and a long, drying finish. There’s also the easy-to-drink 2017 Kanonkop Kadette Pinotage ($20) and the 2017 Kadette Cape Blend ($18), which is slightly earthy, with a hint of leafiness.

A couple of other good, affordable pinotages are the 2017 Lievland Bushvine Pinotage ($19), with its rich berry fruit, hint of forest floor and supple texture, and the 2017 MAN Family Wines “Bosstok” Pinotage ($12), which offers smoky, lively strawberry. (“Bosstok” refers to bush vines.)

As for other reds, cabernet sauvignon is the most-planted. The best examples I tasted are ripe yet savory and elegant.

“Cabernet is a marvelous variety if you handle it correctly,” said Ronell Wild, winemaker at Bartinney Private Cellar in Stellenbosch, one of the regions known for cab. “You need that purity of fruit. We don’t want any stalkiness.” Bartinney, when I last checked, was between importers, so the wines may be hard to find, but Wild makes some bright, savory, classically styled cabs.

Kanonkop, in addition to pinotage, is known for its cabernet. The 2014 Kanonkop Cabernet Sauvignon ($50) displays lively red fruit, black olive and firm tannins. One of Kanonkop’s top wines is a cab-dominant Bordeaux-style blend called Paul Sauer, but I haven’t tasted the current vintage.

Another cab-dominant blend, Botmaskop (Boatman’s Peak), is “the heart and soul” of the Delaire Graff estate in Stellenbosch, winemaker Morné Vrey said. The 2017 ($30) is structured and savory, with black fruit, notes of anise, cedar and cracked pepper, and good concentration.

The cabernets from Stark-Condé in Stellenbosch also exhibit a lot of savory notes. The 2017 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon ($27), for example, is dark, dense and ripe, with black fruit, anise and wild herbs, and firm but approachable tannins, while the 2016 Three Pines Cabernet Sauvignon ($38) is a little more concentrated and adds a wet stone note.

If you have the budget, you’ll also find some pretty pricey South African cabernets. Vilafonté in the Paarl region is a partnership that involves winemaker Zelma Long (one of California wine’s pioneering women) and her husband, viticulturist Phil Freese. The estate is planted with cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cabernet franc and malbec. The Series C, which is based on cabernet sauvignon, was sold out when I was there, so I wasn’t able to taste it, but it retails for $95. I did taste the 2016 Series M, based on malbec, which is not yet available; it’s juicy and plump, with lots of black fruit and notes of anise and cedar. The current vintage is $75. Both are made in very small quantities.

I’ve also enjoyed the 2016 Boekenhoutskloof Franschhoek Cabernet Sauvignon ($67) from an area about half an hour east of Stellenbosch. The wine’s name is a mouthful, as is the wine: savory and elegant, with lively black cherry, a note of black olive and fine tannins.


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