Pinotage, South Africa’s national treasure

Pinotage is as South African as boerewors and milk tart: unique to this country, full of flavour and, says Emile Joubert, vocal and hard-headed.

At the end of last year I found myself in a seaside village on the island of Sicily trying to tell some curious locals what South Africa tastes like. As in, what are typical flavours, aromas and tastes to be found in food and drinks from this country at the tip of Africa, which to the Sicilians sounded like a place of exotic mystery filled with adventures, wilderness and an element of danger.

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Answering them was, I mean, the least I could do. They had been treating me to copious local offerings of anchovies-on-everything, sea-urchin pasta and crisp arancini balls, plus pools of their regional wines made from Grillo and Nero d’Avola grapes.

I began a brief lecture on my knowledge of South African specialities: biltong, boerewors, snoek grilled on the open fire, a flaky golden-crust milk tart. And then, out of nowhere, came Pinotage, something I was not expecting to find hanging in my fond memory of typical local delights. Pinotage, the deep red wine that, I realised then, tastes like no other wine in the world. Because it truly is the taste of the vineyards of the Cape, the one unique contribution South Africa has made to the culture of wine that began more than 6,000 years ago and continues in a multitude of nations on all the Earth’s continents.

“This wine, what does it taste like?” asked one of the interested young guys at the table looking out over the Mediterranean. “Wild and elegant,” I said. “Big and gentle. Rich and lean. Hot and mild. It is a wine of all things and of opposites. Because, after all, it is a South African.”

No missive attempting to convey the substance of Pinotage can avoid the well-trodden tale of how this wine grape came to be a national vinous treasure. And it is pretty basic. In 1924, a very smart South African scientist named Abraham Izak Perold, then working at the University of Stellenbosch, was fiddling around with wine grapes, his special field. The local wine landscape was pretty limited in terms of grape cultivars and wine types, so he did what academics do: he asked a question. What if the noble, blue-blood grape of Burgundy in France, Pinot Noir, could be adapted to flourish in the warm climate of the Cape? Not only to bring that variety’s refined flavour profile down south, but also to offer yields generous enough to make it economically sustainable for wine farmers to farm with the grape?

Back then, Pinot Noir was not going to do it alone. So Perold looked for a partner. And considered Hermitage – today more readily known as Cinsaut – which is more accustomed to a hot climate due to having its roots in southern France. Besides producing healthy yields, Hermitage has a spicy, juicy flavour profile of its own.

The small purple Pinotage berries have a tough skin but are juicy inside. Maturing the wine in wooden barrels helps it develop its full body and good ageing potential.

So it came to be that, using his scientific brilliance, Perold brushed a male Hermitage flower against a Pinot Noir pollen donor to obtain a smattering of seedlings. It should be remembered that this would have been one of hundreds of experiments a person of Professor Perold’s standing would have been busy with, so there was no initial ‘Eureka!’ moment of him and his mates announcing the birth of a new chapter in the South African wine industry.

In fact, the precious seedlings of this new grape crossing were almost lost to history in 1927 when Perold left his academic residence at Welgevallen in Stellenbosch to take up the position of KWV’s chief wine expert. The seedlings were saved by the legendary Charlie Niehaus, who also went on to become a name at the KWV. He gave the material to Elsenburg Agriculture Training Institute, where the first Pinotage experimental vineyard was established in 1935.

It was in 1941 that CT de Waal, a wine farmer and academic at the University of Stellenbosch, made the first Pinotage wine. The De Waal name is today still entrenched in the modern Pinotage world through De Waal Wines made on CT’s ancestral Stellenbosch farm, Uiterwyk, where the oldest Pinotage vineyard in South Africa – actually, the world – is situated.

However, this was still just an experiment. It was only in 1959, 35 years after Perold’s crossing of Pinot Noir and Hermitage, that the first commercial Pinotage wine was bottled. This was under the Lanzerac label belonging to the erstwhile Stellenbosch Farmers’ Winery and from grapes that had been planted at Bellevue in the Bottelary region of Stellenbosch.

The other Stellenbosch farm that had invested in Pinotage – with no idea of where the grapes or the wine would go in the cold commercial reality of the wine world – was Kanonkop Estate on the Simonsberg. Kanonkop is arguably the greatest name in the story of Pinotage as a result of the international reputation it has gained as the First Growth of South Africa wine through its red wine ventures, Pinotage included.

At Kanonkop, Beyers Truter carved a reputation for Pinotage, winning the trophy for Best Winemaker in the World at the International Wine and Spirits Competition in 1991 with the 1989 Kanonkop Pinotage.

It was also on Kanonkop that the chief disciple of Pinotage rose from amid the vines. No name is as synonymous with any grape variety as Beyers Truter is with Pinotage. From the moment he joined Kanonkop as its second winemaker, Beyers’ fascination with the variety and the unique characteristics of the wines produced from it led him to take up the cause of promoting Pinotage as the magical element of South African wine.

“I suppose I was privileged to begin at the top in my Pinotage discovery, getting to know the quality of Pinotage grapes grown and wines made at Kanonkop,” says Beyers. “It is also one of the ancestral homes of Pinotage, with plantings going back to the 1940s. So when I began working with Pinotage, it was of the blue-blooded variety and it captivated me from my first harvest on Kanonkop and continued to inspire me throughout my career on that farm and later at Beyerskloof.”

According to Beyers, the charm of Pinotage is that the grape and the wine are as vocal, hard-headed and nit-picky as a regular South African of the human variety.

“It’s a hardy so-and-so of a vine,” says Beyers. “Its growth is fast and furious and to keep it all under control and prepare the vineyard for the growing of good grapes in a balanced environment asks a lot from the wine farmer. It’s like diving into a ruck on the rugby pitch with Eben Etzebeth waiting for you on the other side.”

But as tough as they are in the vineyard, Pinotage grapes are as sensitive and temperamental in the cellar. “From a winemaker’s perspective, Pinotage has its own set of rules,” says Beyers. “While other red grapes, like Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, can take three weeks or more to ferment on their skins, Pinotage blasts off, fermenting in less than a week. Through that brief week you have to keep your wits if you want to end up with a good Pinotage, working the juice through the skins day and night to ensure acids and tannins are balanced. Of all grape varieties, Pinotage demands most from a winemaker.”

But it is all worth it, says Beyers, as nothing rewards like a good glass of Pinotage. “It has a unique taste,” he says. “Berries, juicy berries, with a touch of seductive earthiness, especially as the wine gets older.”

One of the wine industry’s doers instead of just talkers – although he is no slouch in the latter department either – Beyers did more than contribute to the Pinotage culture with his brilliantly made wines. In an industry that sometimes struggles to find the word ‘cooperation’ in the dictionary, Beyers played a huge role in uniting Pinotage producers to promote the variety as a jewel in the South African crown. “We have to work together,” he said when the SA Pinotage Association was founded in 1995 to represent the country’s Pinotage producers.

Standing together was made easier for the Pinotage Association thanks to the involvement of long-time sponsor, the Absa banking group. Seeing the potential of the body to spearhead the generic marketing of a premium South African wine that is also unique in the international arena, Absa decided to support the Pinotage Association, enabling it to provide various promotional platforms. The most important of these is the Absa Top 10 Pinotage competition, which since 1997 has annually awarded 10 trophies, one each to that year’s best Pinotage wines, as adjudicated by a panel of experts.

Cape Wine Master Winnie Bowman, a wine critic and international judge, says the Absa Top 10 paved the way for this format of competition, which is now also used by other bodies representing, for example, Chenin Blanc, Shiraz and Sauvignon Blanc.

“Besides highlighting the best Pinotage producers each year through a rigorously judged competition, I believe the Absa Top 10 has played a major role in inspiring winemakers to make better Pinotage,” she says. “Each year the winning wines seem to appear more spectacular in their interpretations of Pinotage. And time after time we see three to four of the same wineries come out trumps at the competition, underscoring the fact that there are cellars totally focused and committed to the variety. Absa’s role in this has been pioneering and has not only helped Pinotage, but also promoted the quality and image of South African wine.”

The abundance of riches in Pinotage offerings makes it challenging to select a favourite. However, if I have to choose, I would pick the following wines:

Kanonkop Black Label Pinotage 2019

Forget about the grape variety, just think world-class red wine. Made from a vineyard planted in 1953, this wine – maiden vintage 2006 – each year mesmerises with the vivid display of vintage variation in grapes grown from the same vineyard, on the same terroir. While 2019 might sound madly young to drink a premium red wine (and yes, it will still age brilliantly), what you have now is a vivid spectrum of dark fruit, forest floor and fynbos flung together in a gust of bracing freshness. The wine is an experience of texture and presence more than flavour. Think deep, drink deeper.

Lanzerac 1959 Commemoration Pinotage 2019

Statuesque and a collector’s item, this is one of the most exciting wine releases of 2021. Lanzerac paid tribute to its history of the first commercial Pinotage bottling (1959) with this 2019 vintage made from the same Bellevue vineyard that delivered those initial grapes more than 60 years ago. Of course, now the fruit is handled by Lanzerac cellar master Wynand Lategan, one of the most astute winemakers of the modern era, who has a gut feel and heart love for Pinotage. The wine is beautifully put together, aged for 15 months in oak, from which it acquires a deserved regal power without losing the bright-fruited zest and charm Bellevue is known for.

De Waal Top of the Hill Pinotage 2015

One of South Africa’s truly legendary wines is made from a vineyard planted in 1950 by the De Waal family on Uiterwyk in Stellenbosch Kloof. The Top of the Hill label is only deployed in exceptional years, as the 72-year-old vineyard can be sensitive to precarious vintage conditions. But collectors are known to procure as many bottles as they can, for the combination of the vineyard’s personality and the skilled, attentive winemaking of Daniël de Waal provides a luxurious rendition of Pinotage. Aged in new French oak – 2,25l barrels – the wine is muscular with supple tannins that are required to rein in the explosive flavours. Darkness and forest floor, sappy black plums and a whiff of cedarwood cigar-box are evident, making this a wine-drinking experience of the highest order.

Simonsig Redhill Pinotage 2018

Simonsig founder Frans Malan played a profound role in putting Pinotage on the map and now the third generation of Simonsig Malans is staking its claim to be consistently fine producers of this variety. Made from a specific site on the estate’s red soils of decomposed granite and clay, the wine is deftly handled, with a 20% portion of whole-bunch fermentation contributing to its gorgeous succulence. It is matured in new wood for 15 months, which shows that Pinotage does not allow big wood to dominate its intrinsic values: bright red cherry and a delectable sweet-fruited core harnessed by powerful tannins that give the wine a presence as big as its reputation.

Kaapzicht Steytler Pinotage 2018

Bottelary is just a stunning area for Pinotage, with its west-facing slopes exposed to the Atlantic and its soils of weathered granite and clay. The area is also home to renowned wine families, of which the Steytlers is one, with Danie Jnr representing the fourth generation. The kid is a class act, picking up where his father, Danie, left off and maintaining a workman-like approach to the rural environment of Bottelary in bringing extreme elegance and presence to the wines. The Steytler Pinotage 2018 is a knock-out, packing a weighty punch of visceral Pinotage flavours, including cherry, fynbos and charcuterie, but wrapped in a velvet glove. Warm-hearted and approachable, this is a refined and elegant wine with a formidable voice all its own.