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Top ten Pinotage: Pinotage Club tasting of award winning Pinotage

Peter May is aiming at a niche market with his wine website. It’s devoted entirely to the charms of the Pinotage grape, and acts as a meeting place for aficionados of South Africa’s ‘own’ grape variety (you can access it at www.pinotage.org). Peter recently put together a tasting of the winners of the 2000 ASBA bank/Pinotage Association competition. I have to confess that I’m no great fan of Pinotage. Its name gives a clue as to the somewhat flawed origin: back in 1925 someone had the bright idea of crossing Pinot Noir and what was then called ‘Hermitage’ in South Africa (believed at the time to be Shiraz, but later shown to be the lesser Cinsault), hence ‘Pinotage’. What’s the problem? Often I’ve detected a cheesy, rustic character in wines made from it, coupled with a slight metallic edge. It seems that the favoured way of overcoming this innate rusticity has been for winemakers to smother it in new oak, which is what often happens in more expensive examples. But I’m an open-minded sort of chap, always eager to throw off my prejudices (aside: in wine, prejudices just seem to creep up on you and catch you unawares, and they need regular and active discarding), and so I was delighted to take the chance to taste some leading examples side-by-side.

The tasting was held under ideal conditions, and very well orchestrated by Peter, who’s obviously experienced at these events. The 16 attendees varied in their wine knowledge, but everyone’s opinion was carefully solicited and no one was made to feel daft (even me!). I attend a lot of tastings, but this one comes high up on my list of enjoyable evenings, partly because it combined the almost academic study of the wines (on the part of some, at least) with some convivial drinking and banter. It’s also instructive to note that even with a group of people motivated enough about wine to pay to attend a tasting, there was quite a spread of opinions. That’s the way it is with wine.

Overall impressions? Pinotage makes some interesting, unusual wines. And in a wine world heading fast along the road to homegenized saminess, unusual is good. Characteristic flavours of the wines made from this grape include herbs, savoury meaty characters, cheesiness or animal shed notes, a touch of green olive, and also a sweetness to the nose. But while I enjoyed many of these wines, I’m not convinced that this is a grape capable of greatness – it’s more first division play-off zone than premiership.

Avontuur Pinotage 2000, Stellenbosch
A slight deviation here: it was actually the 1999 Avontuur that won in the 2000 ASBA/PA competition, but this wasn’t available, so we tasted the 2000 instead. Winemaker Lizelle Gerber uses 5% new and 95% older oak, and this big wine weighs in at 15% alcohol. It’s a very deep red/purple colour, with a sweet creamy nose showing some vanilla/coconut notes and a bit of alcohol. The richly fruited palate is clean, with a lovely spicy, savoury edge. Firm tannins. This is a big, inky, dense wine – a bit of a brute. Satisfying though. Very good/excellent (Waitrose £7.99)

Delheim Pinotage 1999, Stellenbosch
Made by winemaker Philip Costandius, who has since left for Neethlingshof, from 25 year old bush vines. The sweet herby nose shows vanilla, spice and coconut notes, along with an attractive animal/farmyard edge. Very sweet. The palate is medium bodied, with attractive, slightly animal-like character and a savoury, cheesy edge. An unusual, satisfying wine. Very good+

Groot Constantia Pinotage 1999, Constantia
One of the historic Constantia estates (for a long time this and Klein Constantia were the same property).  This has an interesting savoury nose with an attractive, smoky, roasted edge underlain with some vanilla and sweet fruit. The palate shows rich fruit with a savoury, high-acid edge: this veers towards the austere, but is a well made full-flavoured red wine in a slightly international style. Tasty stuff. After a while some interesting herbal character begins to emerge. Very good+

Hidden Valley Pinotage 1998, Stellenbosch
Owned by Dave Hidden, with Jeremy Walker (of Grangehurst) as winemaker. There’s a green, herbal (green olive?) edge to the nose, together with some dark fruit and chocolatey notes. The palate is quite rich with some sweet fruit, but there’s more of this savoury, chocolatey, herbal character. A tiny bit metallic too. It’s not unripe, but I do find this green olive character a bit off-putting. Very good (Waitrose c.£14)

Kanonkop Pinotage 1999, Stellenbosch
Beyers Truter is one of the leading Pinotage advocates, and his Kanonkop wines are celebrated as some of the best examples of this grape. Deep coloured. Some initial sweet berry fruit on the nose is underlain by a hint of savoury cheesiness, and there’s a touch of caramel, too. The palate is concentrated, rich and savoury, with a herbal, cheesy character and some tannic structure. Quite meaty. Unusual stuff, but very attractive in a slightly funky sort of way. Very good/excellent (Oddbins, Majestic £12)

L’Avenir Pinotage 1999, Stellenbosch
Made by ex-chemist Francois Naude. There’s a roasted, nutty character to the nose with an attractive berry fruit edge. The rich, savoury, spicy palate is quite clean and classic with an oaky edge. The dusty tannins are quite challenging and there’s good acidity. Very correct and quite juicy. Very good+

Lanzerac Pinotage 1998 Stellenbosch
Lot’s of potential for confusion here: this is a cooperative wine from the Stellenbosch Farmers’ Winery, but there is also a Lanzerac Estate, too. It’s a name loaded with significance for Pinotage fans, since the first commercial Pinotage appeared under the Lanzerac label, a 1959 wine that was released in 1961. This wine spends two years in new barriques, 90% French and 10% American. It has a slightly volatile nose, with some spicy, stinky notes, dark chocolate-edged fruit and caramel and herbs. On the palate it is modern, ambitious and oaky, lacking balance and probably showing too much alcohol. Good/very good 

Neethlingshof ‘Lord Neethling’ Pinotage 1997, Stellenbosch
Neethlingshof was bought in 1985 by Hans-Joachim Schreiber, a German banker who has subsequently developed the estate. Very attractive nose showing rich spicy fruit with notes of coffee, vanilla and chocolate. The palate is spicy, tannic and chunky. This is a rich, modern style. It finishes dry, but it’s quite oaky and alcoholic, and there’s some lemony acid. Tasty. Very good+

Steytler Pinotage, Kaapzicht Estate 1999, Stellenbosch
A brooding nose with dark fruits and green olive, herby character. Palate is rich and savoury with some meaty fruit, and it avoids being vegetal or unripe whilst staying intensely savoury. Tasty stuff. Very good+

Papkuilsfontein Tukulu Pinotage 1999, Groenenkloof, Swartland
This large estate, with 250 ha of vineyards, is a project financed by the Stellenbosch Farmers’ Winery and Gauteng Properties. There’s an empowerment element in that staff and farm workers are allowed a stake in the business. With a ripe berry fruit element to the nose this displays some green olive notes and a slightly volatile character. There is also a bit of chocolate here. The palate is typical of Pinotage, with an intensely savoury herbal/green olive character. Quite tasty, but slightly spoiled by a bitter edge. Very good

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