you think you know Pinotage?
By Greg Sherwood
As a bit of a self-declared South African wine specialist, I was swiftly brought down to earth and firmly put back in my place at a recent Master of Wine student tutorial tasting in May - our weekly Monday session.
Basically, we had 12 wines of which 3 were Pinotage, and
copying one of last year’s final exam question papers, we were told they were
3 reds from the same country, same region using the same grape variety. We had
to identify the Country of Origin, Grape Variety, and Comment on the Style of
each wine with particular reference to winemaking influences.
‘Easy’, I hear you say. Well, you would have though that
out of 3 wines, we would get one ‘banker’ (the wine you pick instantly and
are certain about its identity sufficiently enough to shoe horn the other
related wines into the same conclusion)...especially with Pinotage. Not a bit of
it. So the group's answers were a bit divided to say the least, between New
Zealand – Merlot, California - Zinfandel, and even a few Rhone answers
I went for New Zealand after ruling out South Africa due to
wines 2 and 3 being just too inconsistent. Wine 1 was firmly South African
Merlot in style though, but still not Pinotage, mind you. The wines were
suitably ripe and rich, but not overblown and jammy. The retained acidity was
also high, a classic trait of New Zealand where cool nighttime temperatures
retain acidity in the fruit, while warm sunny days ripen the grapes and raise
sugar levels and resulting alcohol levels.
The moral of the story is that if you go out and buy
Pinotages to taste, make sure you buy a range of prices and taste the wines all
together as there are clearly three styles now days:
1) The soft super market low tannin, juicy acid, even jammy
strawberry fruit number that may or may not have notes of estery nail polish and
2) Next, the old style heavy Pinotages that can be jammy,
leathery, extracted, tannic, dark, dense, with a good acidity, firm tannins and
touches of estery nail polish and sweet banana fruit, perhaps even hemmed in by
American but usually French Oak. Wines that age very well incidentally.
3) Then, of course you get the 3rd category, which all three
of our bottles fell into. The prestige bottlings that are specifically made in a
style that purposely down plays the innate Pinotage characters we all know and
love (or hate as it may be for some). No estery high-toned nail varnish and
polish, no jammy strawberry fruit, no green bananas! Just clean, elegant black
fruits, dense silky mouth feel, and excellent length in the finish.
For a grape that I previously prided myself in being able to
pick out more often than not in a blind tasting, I some how managed to shoe horn
them into a much cooler country on the other side of the world - New Zealand!
And the wines in question? They were:
All wines were made in a prestige, premium style, using new
American (wine 2) and new French oak (wines 1 and 3). The one wine that fits
this description to the tee, though not tasted on this occasion, is the
Kaapzicht Steytler Pinotage that is a previous multiple ABSA Bank Pinotage Top
10 winner. But these wines do beg the question – what should top Pinotage
wines taste like these days? I am by no means a blindly converted lover, having
tasted far too many poor examples. However, the good examples out there are
excellent and worthy of their high premium price tags.
So next time
somebody tells you they hate Pinotage, pull out one of these alternative
versions and tell them it’s a ripe Merlot or an overblown, ripe, well oaked
Pinot Noir from down under - they will never know the difference and they will
almost certainly sing its praises!