Pinotage and its prince, Beyers Truter

Pinotage, Kanonkop, Beyerskloof. The names are inseparable, thanks to Beyers Truter, the man who first crafted this intrinsically South African wine to international renown. Malu Lambert learns about his Pinotage life and legacy.

You can actually taste time. Archaeology and history give a sense of time, but wine is genuinely sensory: through wine you can experience time. You can taste the decades the wine lay under cork, the phenols morphing into ever-more complex shapes as the dust gathered on the bottle; you can taste the spirit of the vintage, the spirit that first gave the wine legs to jump into the future.

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At a recent tasting celebrating five decades of the Stellenbosch Wine Route, one such time capsule was uncorked: the 1969 Lanzerac Pinotage in its signature bottle, shaped like a ten-pin and with a faded chintz pink label. It was the wine of the day. A thrill ran down the long table of tasters, accompanied by exclamations of “It’s so fresh, vital”, “The complexity”, “Delicious!” What Lanzerac didn’t know when bottling this nascent variety was how well it would age. Only time would tell …

Lanzerac has been a front-runner in the story of the crossed cultivar, first printing the name Pinotage on the estate’s label in 1961 for bottles containing the 1959 vintage. It was a move that sparked large-scale production of this quintessentially South African variety.

The arrow from Lanzerac’s bow found a champion in young winemaker Beyers Truter.

Beyers Truter is the embodiment of Pinotage; Beyerskloof is where he and his family celebrate the grape.

“The dust of the roads I’ve travelled is still clinging to me,” reminisces Beyers, who is known as the Prince of Pinotage for all the work he’s done to promote this special grape. He’s referring to “Trail dust is thicker than blood”, a quotation from cowboy storyteller Louis L’Amour. It so resonated with Beyers and his Pinotage journey that he named a Cape Blend in the Beyerskloof range for this sentiment.

“[Traildust] is an acknowledgement of every person who has been involved in the Pinotage journey, from vineyard to glass,” he explains. “L’Amour describes the trail dust created on the roads travelled and relationships formed as lifelong companions, perhaps closer than family. These friendships share a mutual respect for Pinotage, as well as the people involved in its creation and those who strive to grow this cultivar. This Cape Blend is a tribute to the legacy of Pinotage by uniting this unique South African cultivar with its heritage, Pinot Noir and Cinsaut.”

For Beyers, the dusty road began when, at the age of 25, he became the Kanonkop wine-
maker in 1981. The Pinotage flame was lit when he tasted a 1972 Simonsig Pinotage that at the time had been 10 years in the bottle. “I thought if I could make a wine like that …” So he called up Simonsig’s proprietor, Frans Malan, who shared his secret. “He matured his Pinotage in new oak for 12 months. In those days only the ‘best’ wines were kept in oak.”

Beyers tried it. For the 1989 Kanonkop Pinotage, the very first vintage using this new technique, he won the 1991 Robert Mondavi Trophy for International Winemaker of the Year. And the accolades kept coming. Pinotage had arrived.

He went on to start the Pinotage Association in 1995, with the idea of creating a platform for marketing, experimentation and sharing knowledge. Just two years later he established the Absa Top 10 Pinotage Competition. “Since then there has been enormous growth in quality. Pinotage has transformed from an everyday drinking wine to a world player,” he says, going on to explain that there were only 34 entries in the first competition and only five wines were good enough to make the cut. In the latest competition there were 150 entries and 35 of them scored more than 90 points.

“The judges had an enormous challenge to select the best 10. Really, we could call the competition the Top 30,” he continues. “These days Pinotage winemakers are in sync with their terroirs. Never before have I seen such regionality expressed in the styles and flavours.”

Along with quality, the other thing that has changed over the years is price. Not too long ago, Pinotage was at the lower end of the range. “Marketing through the Absa Top 10 has allowed prices to match the best in the world. Importantly, it helps to achieve higher salaries for agricultural workers.”

Beyers and Anri, his son, who has also won awards for his Pinotage.

During his tenure at Kanonkop, where he remained until 2003, Beyers started his own family farm, Beyerskloof, in Bottelary, planting the first vineyard in 1988. Again he soon made headlines by winning the SA Producer of the Year at the International Wine & Spirits Competition in 2003. His son, Anri, grew up working alongside him and eventually took over his winemaking duties. Anri too showed Pinotage prowess when he won the Diners Club Young Winemaker of the Year with the Diesel Pinotage in 2012. He cemented his proficiency with the grape in 2018 by securing the Trophy for the Best Pinotage at the International Wine & Spirits Competition.

“Our access to quality Pinotage is better than it’s ever been,” says Anri. “We’re not carrying any baggage from the past, we’re committed and positive about the future and we are proud to be flag-bearers for Pinotage.

“It’s the next age of Pinotage; the cultivar is coming into its own.”

To underscore this, changes are being made to the Beyerskloof packaging and the range is being revamped to convey the Truter family tradition in the messaging: crafted and bottled since 1989, now in the hands of the second generation. Guided by the hand of father and now son, Beyerskloof produces wines of grace and longevity, of traditional family values and of a deep respect for soil and sky.

“Pinotage is capable of many diverse expressions and it also has a remarkable ability to age,” says Beyers.

In order to showcase the full spectrum of what the cultivar is capable of, Beyerskloof produces a diverse range of nine wines. From easy drinking to premium, all have Pinotage at their core. There’s even a port-style wine, the Lagare Cape Vintage, driven by Pinotage blended with Shiraz and characterised by exotic spice and inviting, warming layers of fruit.

Visitors can taste several wines or enjoy a meal at the Red Leaf Bistro on the farm or at the Beyerskloof Wynbar in the heart of Stellenbosch.

There are the effortless and satisfying wines at value-driven price points, such as the unusual and refreshing white Pinotage, a blend of South African flag-bearers Chenin Blanc and Pinotage, with its bright tropical fruit with red berry nuances and a refreshing, dry acidity. Or the Beyerskloof Pinotage, which just happens to be the most popular Pinotage in South Africa, with its red-berried, fresh, fruit-forward flavour profile and medium body for ease of enjoyment.

There are several Cape Blends too, a category of growing interest in South Africa that is being championed by the Truter family. To be called such, a Cape Blend must have at least 30% and no more than 70% Pinotage, which is often partnered with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. The pinnacle of this is the Faith Cape Blend, made up of Pinotage, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Full-bodied and complex, this wine is testament to the power and grace that Pinotage brings to a blend.