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jeudi, 11 mai 2017



Single varietal or blending component? 

Claude Gilois 





There has never been a grape variety that has attracted so many opponents and aficionados. Even today, nearly 100 years after its discovery by the eminent professor Perold, an academic from Stellenbosch University, the debate about its relevance as a South African grape variety continues. When Perold crossed Pinot Noir with Cinsault (Hermitage in SA) and planted a few plants in the garden of his residence at Welgevallen near Stellenbosch, he could not possibly have foreseen the difficulty that this new variety would have to overcome to gain some sort of recognition 100 years later.


It would seem that the professor, like most professors, was a little absent-minded and he forgot his plants when he obtained a new job at KWV two years later, but perhaps, he himself, did not believe at the time that he had in fact created something worthwhile for the wine community. His residence remained vacant and the garden became a wasteland. The story tells us that Dr Charlie Niehaus, who happened to be cycling past as the poor plants were about to be uprooted, saved them at the eleventh hour. Nice story is it not? True or false; who cares, the wine world enjoys stories about wines, true or false.


The plants were then transferred to Professor CJ Theron’s nursery, another university professor at Stellenbosch where, for seven years, until 1935, they attracted no attention. On one of his customary visits to his old university stomping ground, Perold was reacquainted with his “babies” courtesy of his colleague CJ Theron and became enthusiastic and ordered that Pinotage be planted immediately. Wine from the varietal was made in the apartheid South Africa to the relative satisfaction of producers and consumers. That is until a delegation of Masters of Wine arrived in Cape Town in 1976 and destroyed any credibility that this unfortunate variety may have had. “Banana, nail varnish, acetone, rusted paint, disgusting, unworthy of South Africa” ranted and raved the MWs. It looks as though the short life of Pinotage had come to an end and the growers who had planted the variety in haste were as quick to uproot it except, as it is always the case, for a few obstinate growers who preferred to continue to work with it.


It is true that wines of South Africa at the time were rather poor, but sending a delegation of Masters of Wine during Apartheid, after South Africa had been banned from virtually all world organisations, was not in particularly good taste either.


Decoding: This story has to be put back in its historical context. At that time, South Africa had been under Apartheid for more than 30 years and had been ostracised and living in quasi-isolation. The massive cooperative of the KWV regrouping 95% of the winegrowers and winemakers was totally dominant, productivism the norm and the KWV was allowing yields of up to a massive 350 hectolitres per hectare. The growers did not have access to European expertise both in terms of viticulture and vilification as SA was banned from the international community for its discriminatory policies. So on the whole the wines were poor in quality and the Pinotages the worse of a bad bunch due to the lack of any real experience with the variety.


We now know the chemical molecules responsible for such off aromas and tastes, the acetates mainly isoamyl acetate for the acetone and ethyl acetate for the banana. These esters are the by-products of fermentation of must contaminated by acetic bacteria. They have nothing to do with the variety itself except perhaps that the variety has a tendency to produce more of them in the presence of contaminants.


So, the production of Pinotage dwindled down drastically and levelled at about 2% of the total production, despite encouraging results with the varietal right from the start.

It matured early, produced good sugar levels and was doing well in Stellenbosch. The first accolades came quickly in 1959 and 1961 when two Pinotages from Bellevue and Kanonkop respectively won the ‘Best South African’ wine trophy at the prestigious ‘Cape Wine Show’.


Pinotage on the whole was very poor as were indeed most South African wines. South Africa owes it to one domain, Kanonkop, to have saved the varietal condemned to oblivion. In 1991, Beyers Truder from Kanonkop was elected ‘Winemaker of the Year by the International Wine and Spirit Association, the first South African to achieve this award. It may be that this accolade was mainly for the Cabernet Sauvignon and the Bordeaux blend, Paul Sauer rather than Pinotage.


A new delegation of Masters of Wine came back and this time compliments flooded: ‘Enormous potential, a grape variety to take seriously’. James Sutcliffe from the Wine Spectactor was ecstatic and wrote ‘what is going on here, these are spectacular, spectacular’. In 10 years, the planting of Pinotage jumped from 2% to 7% of the total plantation of South African varietals, a level at which it has remained ever since.


As the Pinotage was rising from its ashes like a Phoenix, a great number of the winemakers and growers had decided to assemble it with Bordeaux varietals to make Cape blends (minimum 30% Pinotage). It is not that you cannot assemble Pintotage with the Bordeaux varietals, but at that time the move to Cape blends was purely a commercial one and one way of selling Pinotages that were not up to scratch by blending them with other varietals.

Cape blends were cleverly marketed with a message that could be decrypted as: ‘A Taste of unique South African wine without the horrible taste of Pinotage’ all wrapped up in nice packaging and clever marketing words. In domains where both Pinotages and Cape blends are produced, the pure Pinotage always commands a higher price, but the trend was set in the 1990s and most Pinotages are now sold as Cape blends and there are only a dozen major players in Pinotage of which Kanonkop in Stellenbosch is by far the largest with 400,000 bottles but shares the limelight with Rijks Cellars in Tulbagh (45,000 bottles). These two have shared more or less equally, the limelight at the yearly competition organised by the Association of Pinotage, and sponsored by a South African bank. Both domains are led by two very experienced winemakers; Abrie Beeslaar for Kanonkop (named international winemaker in 2008 and 2015 by the ‘International Wine and Spirit Competition ) and Pierre Wahl for Rijks, in charge since 2002.


The term ‘Association’ is in itself revealing and gives the impression of a defence association rather than a promotional one and indicates the poor status enjoyed by this varietal in SA, but the Association is well organised, is active and defends the variety with passion. However, with historical producers of Pinotage such as Warwick preferring to sell some of their beautiful grapes of old Pinotage and to concentrate on the Cape Blend, it is a clear indication about the lack of commitment to the grape variety.


pinotage association.png

Yet, if you look at the development of the New World countries in viticulture, they are all striving to get that elusive varietal that will put the country on the fine wine world map. Argentina did it with Malbec, New Zealand with Sauvignon Blanc and Australia with Shiraz. It is particularly important in countries where viticulture is essentially based on international varieties. Now Chile is on the path of succeeding with a unique varietal, Carmenere, which only existed in Chilean vineyards amongst a plantation of Merlot and it was not until 1991 that this grape variety was identified as Carmenere. Now the Chileans are planting it by the bucket load and it is not an easy varietal to work with; pick too early and the wine is green and pick too late, it is like jam but they are succeeding to make great wine with it. In South Africa there are still winegrowers who insist Pinotage has no place in South Africa and the country is not able to jump on the bandwagon of the unique varietal that makes all the difference when it comes to marketing  a wine producing country internationally.


What then is the problem with the varietal to attract, at best very little attention and at worst utter contempt from growers and winemakers? Peter Allan Finlayson who makes wine of great elegance at Crystallum summarises the dilemma of the varietal: “It is far bigger than the sums of its parts, namely Pinot Noir and Cinsault.”   “It can produce wines that are big, broad, heavy and difficult to vinify totally dry”. Yet the fact that the two iconic producers use different terroirs for the Pinotage is a clear indication of the versatility of the varietal. At Stellenbosch it is planted on decomposed granite and alluvial soil while in Tulbagh, hotter, it does very well on shale and alluvial soil.


A detailed analysis of the characteristics of the grape variety is beyond the scope of this article, but an interesting study conducted empirically on the Pinotages that occupied the first 10 positions in the Absa competition organised by the Association, reveals that it does better on dry farm vines that are 30 to 40 years old and bush trained and planted on slopes with good water retention and with a south-east and north orientation with plenty of sunshine.

Generally speaking the varietal is quite tannic and extractions have to be conducted skilfully and without excess. It needs long maturation in barrel, but excess wood has the tendency to give it a creamy texture. It often has residual sugar, but usually contained below 3 g/l. We may not have seen the best of the Pinotage as yet. Nobody seems to have experimented with whole bunch vinification. There has been no attempt to blend it with a white varietal as it the case of Côte Rôtie to give it a lift. The South African industry could do with one its new "stars" of the SA wine industry were to embrace the variety to put it on the wine world map. The latest news is it the Eben Sadie could be the first to tackle it. I shall finish this article on this encouraging note.



Kanonkop Black Label Pinotage 2015

This is not only a great Pinotage, it is simply a great wine. The grapes come from a 67 year old vineyard in Stellenbosch trained in gobelet and yielding approximately 2T.Ha. It has been matured for 18 months in new French oak. Surprisingly forward and already drinking rather well, it exhibits a complex array of black and red fruits and prunes with overtones of spices. The barrel integration is perfect and the vine is voluptuous with an amazing quality of ripe tannins overlaying the fruit. It is complex, harmonious and should be tasted by all those who think the variety has no place in South Africa. Worth breaking the piggy bank as 2015 was an exceptional vintage and this quality may be difficult to achieve every year.

18/10. 14,6%. RS: 2,9 g/l. TA: 5,3 g/l. Price: 105 Euros.

Kanonkop Pinotage 2014

A lovely Pinotage deep, dark and concentrated colour. Ripe dark and red fruits; blackberry, black cherries and blueberries. The wine is seamless, the oak perfectly integrated and brings some spice to the wine. Plenty of tannins to balance the fruit. A more rustic style than its equivalent from Rijks.

16/20. 14,8%. RS : 3,1 g/l. TA : 5,5 g/l. Price. 35 Euros.

Kanonkop Pinotage 2001

A mature Pinotage and, as is often the case with broad wines, they acquire more finesse and elegance with time and it is certainly the case with this wine. Still full of energy much more on the red fruit, slightly sweeter than the younger versions. 2001 was a reasonably good vintage and the wine still has plenty of life. Progress made in the winery have been significant, as the younger vintages such as the 2014 are better.

14,5/20. 14,5%. RS : 1,9 g/l. TA : 5,3 g/l. Sold out.

Kanonkop Pinotage 2007

Kanonkop always sells apinotage with 10 years of ageing together with the current vintage. The wine has softened with age but, the plum, cherry, spices and blackcurrant medley is there with slightly sweetish overtones. All the components are now well integrated and the wine is drinking very well. A nice example of mature Pinotage.

15/20. 14% RS : 2,3 g/l. TA : 5,3 g/l. Price : 35 Euros.

Kanonkop Kadette Pinotage 2015

A juicy Pinotage from the entry-level range of Kanonkop with all the organoleptic qualities of the varietal, blacks fruits, spice and chocolate with pretty tannins to wrap up the fruit. When one compares the Cape Blend and the pure Pinotage there is no comparison, the single varietal is much better than the blend. The price is also pretty good.

13,5-14/20. 14,5%. RS: 2,0. TA: 5,7. Price: 12 Euros.

kanonkop black label.jpg

Rijk Cellars Pinotage 888 2010

About 1,000 bottles produced and a selection of the best barrels. Matured for 22 months in 67% new and 33% second filled French oak, 60% French and 40% American. As with all Rijks Pinotages, it is dark, concentrated, silky, voluptuous and seamless. Aromas and flavours of prunes, crushed blackberries, cherry and cedar wood with fine grain tannins ripe and silky.   Spices intermingle elegantly with the fruits and the finish is harmonious, racy if a little on the opulence. It is a stylish wine that does not quite reach the heights of the Kanonkop Black Label Pinotage

16,5-17/20.Technical datasheet not available. Price : 34,5 Euros.

Rijks Pinotage Reserve 2013

It is a selection of the best 20 barrels of the cellars’ pinotage matured for 22 months in 67% new and 33% second filled French oak, 60% French oak and 30% American oak. A luscious Pinotage with bags of ripe fruits from this intense 2013 vintage. As with most pinotages the black fruits are the most dominant; blackberry, morello cherry and dark prune. It is very elegant, silky and almost creamy and the tannins just manage to keep it on the straight and narrow. An opulent but racy pinotage.

16,5/20. No technical data provided. 16.5%/ No technical data available. Price 34 Euros.

Rijks Private Cellar Pinotage 2012

A lovely mid range Pinotage extremely well made. Rich and intense on the nose. Wild fruits, black cherry and cranberry. The Rijks style of Pinotage; on the voluptuous side, always flirting with the ‘yellow card’ but always remaining within play and avoiding the jaminess with tannins of great quality to keep the whole thing together.

14.5/20. Technical data sheet not available Price 25 Euros.


Spiers 1692 21 Gables Pinotage 2013

A lovely fresh and juicy Pinotage made from grapes from a vineyard located not far from the sea. Named after the 21 gables on the house built in 1692 in a classic Dutch colonial style now housing the domain. It is luscious, elegant with ripe tannins. The wine exhibits dark fruits with a hint of chocolate and spices. The maturation in Hungarian and American oak gives it an added dimension.

15,5-16. 14,73%. RS : 2,1 G/L. 5,5. Price : 18 Euros.



Spioenkop Pinotage 2015.

A pinotage from the cool climate region of Elgin not far from the sea. With only 12.5%, it is the Pinotage with the least alcohol of all the wines tasted. It comes close to the characteristics of the parents of the varietal, Pinot Noir and Cinsault. The wine has kept its black fruits characteristics with its chocolate overtones. It is elegant, but lacks substances, the wine is meagre but the vines are young and there is a real attempt to make something different.13/100. No technical data available. Price: 17,25 euros. 




Neethlingshoff Owl Post Pinotage 2015

This Pinotage comes from a historical domain in Stellenbosch now belonging to Distell and Lusan. It gets my vote on this tasting as I did not expect this wine to be of such a high level as it costs less than 2 to 3 times the price of some others. Black fruits, mocha and spices. It is dense and concentrated but never heavy and is beautifully balanced. For less than 15 a bargain.16.5/20.14%. RS : 3,3 g/l. TA : 5,5 G/L. Price : 14,85 Euros.



Beeslaar Pinotage 2015

It is the Pinotage from Abrie Beeslaar, the winemaker at Kanonkop since 2002. There is a lovely concentrated and dense juice on black fruits, prune, tobacco and cedar wood. At this stage, the wood is preeminent and dominates the wine a little. I am not entirely sure that it will subside but I hope it will so as to let the fruit shine through. The wood makes the finish dry. 14/20. Technical data sheet not available. Price : 32 Euros



Beyerskloof Diesel Pinotage 2014

This is one of the most expensive South African Pinotages. It has been vinified conventionally with certain rusticity. It is powerful, dense and concentrated but never heavy. Its aromatic spectrum is that of the varietal on black fruits, spices with a touch of cedar wood overtones. The wine has absorbed its 18 months maturation without batting an eyelid. It is a little on the austere side at this stage of its development but it has fruit, density and classy maturation in barrel to make a very good wine in years to come.

16/10. 15%. RS : 3.0 g/l. TA :6,0 g/l. Price : 41.50 Euros.


Beyerskloof Pinotage Reserve 2012

Despite its 14.68% alcohol, this 100% Pinotage from 15-20 years old bush vines is not a heavy wine and the winemaker has made a real effort to vinify with finesse, elegance and gentle extraction. Focus on red black fruit, morello cherries, prune and cedar wood, it offers a good glass of wine. It is a shame that there is slight asymmetry between the physiological and the sugar maturity, which gives the wine a hint of greenness on the palate, which penalises it.

13.5/20. RS: 6,2. TA: 6,2. Price: 14 Euros.



DeWaal Pinotage top of the Hill 2014

A 100% Pinotage made from 66 old bush vines on the north facing slopes in Stellenbosch on gravel and loam. A very classy wine indeed on black fruits (blackberry, dark cherry) with slightly spicy overtones developing slightly chocolaty aromas and flavours on opening. It is well balanced, harmonious and only 13.5% of alcohol. It is what Pinotage should be even if it is has been vinified very traditionally and is slightly on the austere side.

16,5-17/10. 13,5%. RS : 1,5 g/l. TA : 5,6 g/l  Price : 41,4 Euros.


dewaal pinotage.jpg

L’Avenir Pinotage Single Block 2014

A classy wine made from 100% Pinotage, from a dry land vineyard of 1.2 hectares planted in 1985 and 2007 on slopes and only 20 kilometres from the sea. It is lively and focused and as usual centered on a core of black fruits with plums with chocolate overtones. It easily supports its 14 % of alcohol and shows no sign of heaviness. The wood handling is judicious and there is no new wood on this wine.

16/20 RS: 3,4 g/l . TA: 6 g/l. Price: 26,75 Euros



Diemersfontein Carpe Diem Pinotage 2014

A lively Pinotage, juicy and moreish from 10 year old vines in Wellington, without the depth and dimension of the L’Avenir or the DeWall Pinotage, but at 7 tonnes per hectare, the yields are certainly higher than on the other two. The tannins are soft and ripe and the wine is seamless with lovely black fruits. A good glass of Pinotage for an introduction to the varietal. As the vines age, the grapes and the wine will acquire more complexity.14,5-15/20. 14%. RS: 3,2 g/l TA: 5,4 G/L. Price: 13,75 Euros.



diemersfrontein pinotage-700.jpg


Kaapzicht Pinotage 2015

A Pinotage from a dry farmed, low cropping vineyard (4.2 T/Ha) from 20 year old vines. A classic example of what Pinotage can deliver in competent hands. On wild berry fruits with spices and smoky overtones. The wine is concentrated and the judicious wood handling (30% new wood) and long maturation (24 months) give it the extra length.15.5/20.  14.53 %. RS : 2,4 g/l/ TA : 5,9 g/l. Price : 23 Euro





Simonsig Red Hill Pinotage 2013

First released in 1970, this 100% Pinotage comes from a vineyard on a slope with high proportion of ferrous oxide hence its name Redhill. The extraction was pushed hard giving the wine a coarse texture. I was not sure whether the coarseness of the wine came from a lack of physiological maturity or the roto-fermenters used to vinify it; I think the latter. This is a shame as it has good concentrated fruit qualities and a judicious and cautious wood maturation.

13/20. 14,4%. RS : 2,5. TA : 5,1. Price : 18,95.


simonsig redhill.jpg

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