Pinotage is a wine that can be enjoyed both when young and aged. In youth it offers primary fruit with nuances of chocolate and mocha and an intriguing impression of sweetness even when totally dry that is a hall mark characteristic of the variety. With aging – and Pinotage can age well for decades – it transforms, subsuming upfront fruits for complexity, forest floor flavours and tastes like fine aged claret or burgundy.
But Pinotage is dogged in the international arena with a bad reputation that dates back to wines of last century. These opinions are so often repeated by later writers that when a modern Pinotage is tasted it is thought to be an exception. What happened was that when worldwide orders for South African wines followed the ending of sanctions a number of poorly made wines went to fulfil demand. Reviewers didn’t blame varieties they knew, but when experiencing their first Pinotage off-flavours were attributed to the variety.
Twenty-five years have since passed, with each new vintage a chance to learn more about the best ways to grow and make Pinotage. 1959 was the first commercially released varietal Pinotage vintage; the total number of Pinotage vintages has increased by 70% since and much has been learned. Winemakers hone skills in other countries’ wineries. Winery owners can access modern winemaking equipment and barrels denied them during the sanctions era. And particularly from academic study, much of it initiated by the Pinotage Association.
This producers association was founded in 1996 by Beyers Truter, who gained his reputation as a master of Pinotage while winemaker at Kanonkop Estate. One of four principles of The Pinotage Association is ‘to prioritise research needs regarding Pinotage’ and the results of this research have been published by the Association with main points freely available on their website.
There is no doubt the quality of Pinotage wines has greatly improved. So how to produce premium Pinotage from already excellent wines?
It is not generally understood by consumers that even single variety wines are a blend. Wines are made from grapes from differently aged vines growing in different blocks and vineyards, maybe with several clones and on various rootstocks. Wines aged in wooden barrels which often come from a mix of coopers and woods. Each barrel, even when seemingly identical, exerts its own influence on wine developing inside. So, before bottling, wines are homogenised by mixing in large tanks.
To make a premium wine involves holding back some from the rest. Barrels giving superior results can be identified, blended together and bottled. Grapes from a single block or vineyard can be bottled separately. Historic vines are prized, and the oldest Pinotage vineyards are now more than 65 old.
Selected wines can be given further treatment, such as longer aging and using all new oak barrels. The process can continue down to a single barrel.
Making a premium wine is costly and the amount of bottles produced is limited with scarcity another factor in raising the price.
With producers pushing Pinotage to its pinnacle and enthusiasts wanting ever more, there’s no doubt we’ll be seeing more premium Pinotages.
By Peter F May
PINOTAGE: Behind the Legends of South Africa’s Own Wine