Pinotage is merrily glugged by casual wine drinkers alongside other takeaway-friendly Friday-night reds, despite a less than stellar reputation in the UK wine trade. While studying for my WSET qualifications, even my tutors seemed to scoff at it, wheeling out the famous ‘burnt rubber’ tasting note. That description has bounced around the echo chamber of the wine world for decades but it increasingly seems like an outdated, unfair and, quite frankly, lazy label. Isn’t it time for the wine trade to catch up and get behind South Africa’s signature grape variety?
Beyond the £10 supermarket bottle and far, far beyond the offerings from the 1990s, there’s a world of Pinotage to explore and some very fine examples indeed. Chat to a group of South African winemakers, as I did recently, and you’ll hear that the subject of Pinotage comes with very strong opinions – and emotions. Some say it should be dark and robust; some say it should be light and bright. Whatever the expression, one gets the sense that Pinotage is – at the heart of it all – about pride.
When you taste a bad Pinotage, please know it’s not the variety. It’s either the site or the winemaking. – Abrie Beeslaar
The late Michael Broadbent MW is credited with introducing the ‘burnt rubber’ description to the masses after a visit to South Africa around 30 years ago but where did this smoky, acetone-like note come from? ‘When you taste a bad Pinotage, please know it’s not the variety. It’s either the site or the winemaking,’ says Abrie Beeslaar, winemaker at Kanonkop.
Pinotage was planted in a lot of unsuitable places when riding the 1990s red wine-making wave. As a crossing of Cinsault and Pinot Noir, it thrives in cooler climes, rather than in the heat. Winemakers who were new to making red wine (white grapes used to rule the Cape) treated Pinotage like Cabernet Sauvignon and, as well as growing it on inappropriate sites, they over-extracted the grapes and leaned heavily on oak. Team those things with a warm fermentation, which stressed the yeast, and you ended up with an aroma evocative of car tyres skidding and spinning on sun-baked tarmac.
‘Twenty years ago, we didn’t actually know how to make Pinotage; we didn’t know how to cultivate it,’ says Debbie Thompson, winemaker at Le Grand Domaine. ‘You were getting flavours of banana,’ she says with a scrunched-up nose. ‘Poor Pinotage being exported was – and is – really bad for South Africa.’
With the advent of cool fermentation and three decades (more, for some wineries) of Pinotage know-how, you’ve now got a grape that is understood, producing wines of which South Africa can be proud. ‘It’s one of my favourite varietals to work with,’ says Thompson.
Though the quality of Pinotage can no longer be debated, South African winemakers have something new to argue about: the style of expression. ‘The styles vary from bold, punchy, dark fruit-flavoured wines to lighter bodied, red fruit-driven wines,’ says Corrien Basson, assistant winemaker at David & Nadia Wines. ‘While there is a place for both styles, I would choose a lighter, more elegant wine for drinking.’ David & Nadia uses Pinotage in its Elpidios blend and the team credit the grape with providing ‘freshness and bright fruit to the overall aroma profile, with a firm but fine tannin structure.’
An example of a lighter style of Pinotage I tasted was the Pegasus Pinotage from Huis Van Chevallerie in coastal Swartland. The colour was bright cherry red, like a boiled sweet, and it had aromas of wild red fruits and hawthorn. On the palate, it was silky, fresh and juicy – in total contrast to the bold, dark Pinotage wines from Meerandal, which is home to the oldest Pinotage vines in Durbanville and the third oldest in the world. The latter style is also embraced by Kanonkop for its much-awarded Black Label Pinotage, which is widely considered as the benchmark for fine Pinotage around the world. I tasted the 2020 vintage over dinner with Johann Kridge, Kanonkop’s CEO, and did my best not to sink into the glass, which emanated intense aromas of ripe, rich fruit, baking spices, dark chocolate and toasty oak.
With the advent of cool fermentation and three decades of Pinotage know-how, you’ve now got a grape that is understood, producing wines of which South Africa can be proud
In South Africa, the Pinotage revolution happened years ago and is old news. Even if a large section of the UK wine trade hasn’t caught onto that yet, have consumers? Maggie MacPherson, wine buyer at Jeroboams, says yes. ‘Those who taste Pinotage generally repurchase. We often find it works really well when we have it on the tasting bench, as lots of consumers still don’t really recognise the variety, so it’s a fun one to talk about, given the parentage.’
When seeking out Pinotage for UK drinkers, MacPherson looks for ‘generosity and purity of fruit, balanced by light touch winemaking and linear acidity.’ Thanks to the range of Pinotage wines made in South Africa today, MacPherson is able to show the different faces of Pinotage to her customers, from the ‘easy-going, fruit-forward Diemersdal’ to ‘something more serious and collectable, like Ashbourne’. She’s also excited about a new-wave style sourced from Citrusdal Mountain, produced by Thinus Kruger for his brand, FRAM.
If you swore off Pinotage some time ago, it’s definitely time to revisit it. And if you’re already happily on the Pinotage train, there are an increasing number of great wines to help you enjoy the ride.
SOUTH AFRICAN PINOTAGE: FIVE IWSC AWARD WINNERS
Neethlingshof Estate, The Owl Post, 2021
Elegant, earthy forest-floor aromas with wild raspberries bringing sweetness on the palate. Supporting plums and creamy tannins give a full mouthfeel with complex vanilla oak and an outstanding, silky, concentrated finish. 95 points. Read more.
Beyerskloof, Winemakers Reserve Pinotage, 2018
Black fruits mingle with savoury, cigar and roasting meat characters. This is smooth and supple with fruit coated tannins. 93 points. Read more.
Le Grand Domaine, The Pledge Our Lekker Pinotage, 2021
A delicate nose with touches of blackberry, smoke and vanilla. A classic dark fruit profile with a savoury edge and grippy tannins, finishing with a moreish note of coffee. 92 points. Read more.
Beeslaar, Pinotage, 2021
Hints of cedar, smoke and vanilla spice on the nose with a summer berry fruit profile and a touch of violet with generous oak on the palate and silky tannins giving balance. Luscious dark fruits and bright acidity bring complexity to this seriously appealing wine. 92 points. Read more.
De Grendel, Amandelboord Pinotage, 2022
Perfumed black cherries and wild raspberry aromas mingling with warm spice and elevated acidity on the palate. Gentle, fine-grained tannins give excellent balance and complexity. 91 points. Read more.