Pinotage: South Africa’s Impossible Grape

Editors Note: Three WineAlign critics – Michael Godel, Remy Charest and I – are currently in South Africa tasting at @CapeWine2015. Watch for our reports this fall on what’s happening in this exciting, progressive wine region. Meanwhile enjoy this perspective on pinotage by David Lawrason, who spent considerable time in South Africa last year, and will be returning in March 2016. – Treve Ring.

by David LawrasonSept 16, 2015


David Lawrason

David Lawrason

For as long as I have been tasting South African wine (since the early 80s – pre sanctions) pinotage has been a perplexing, controversial and divisive wine. Personally I have never wholeheartedly embraced it, but I have spent a lot of time trying to understand it, and I have occasionally been impressed. But more often disappointed and frustrated. Now at least I think I know why.

My latest opportunity to put pinotage under the tasting scope came in South Africa in March 2014, when colleague John Szabo and I sat in a Stellenbosch cellar at Asara Estate with 18 examples assembled for us by Wines of South Africa. For me it capped an extended three-week sojourn in the Cape wine lands where I had come across pinotage almost daily at various wineries and restaurants. And where it continued to perplex.

There were several different styles in the WOSA line-up. I had specifically asked not to have any mocha-coffee inspired samples that have become so popular at lower price points, but are despised by many winemakers in South Africa who have any respect for this distinctive South African variety. But I was perhaps mistaken to exclude this type – it’s a bona fide commercial success at least, and just the latest chapter in the search to figure out what to do about pinotage.

Pinotage is a vinifera hybrid that was created in 1925 by University of Stellebosch professor Abraham Perold, by cross-pollinating pinot noir and cinsault. Its story has been often penned and is easily Googled, so I am not going to divert you down the path. Its parentage is important to the story of course, but I am more interested in its present and future.

The tasting presented varying styles of pinotage, and this alone was troubling. Some were heavily oaked and smoked; some flirted with the above mentioned mocha-fication; some were heavy, raisiny and over-ripe; some had been transformed into more elegant so-called “Cape Blends” with cabernet, merlot and shiraz – but they were no longer pinotage. (One Cape Blend labelled as a tribute to Perold was not even a majority pinotage). And then some, surprisingly, were vibrant, juicy and really delightful.

About half way through the tasting it hit me. We were tasting different regional examples as well as winemaking examples and the better wines – again in my view – were from cooler, coastal climates like Walker Bay, Hamal-en-Aarde and Elgin. They had vibrancy, brighter fruit and gosh – they were more like pinot noir, the king of cool climate reds. Remember that pinot noir puts the pinot in pinotage.

This further led me to consider whether the tinkering of Prof Perold was inherently flawed, creating a most unlikely and essentially unsuccessful pairing of cool climate Burgundy-grown pinot, with heat seeking Mediterranean-grown cinsault. Pinot’s more ethereal spirit was being dragged down by the bull headedness of the not very flavourful, tannic and rustic cinsault – and the combination could never result in wines with innate harmony.

Kanonkop has long been a Pinotage champion

Kanonkop has long been a Pinotage champion

And this of course explains the long history of meddling by winemakers – searching, searching for that elusive balance. In the early days pinotage was considered a great cellaring wine, perhaps because it was the only way to make it balanced and smooth. But that also brought on oxidative, leathery and often bretty characters that are less acceptable today. Indeed some unfairly blamed the grape for the volatile and funky characters they didn’t like. And it may contribute more so than other varieties but I don’t understand why (except that pinot noir can easily volatilize as well). I still think its problems had much more to do with poor cellar and barrel hygiene.

In the 90s Beyers Truter at Kanonkop brought fruit forward/new oak California philosophy to bear, going for extraction and polish, and it sort of worked. There are some good wines of this genre, but they miss pinotage’s edge. Then came the Cape blends that can be very tasty wines in their own right, but are not bona fide pinotage. Some have made decent pinotage rosé. And now we have the almost cloying and artificial mocha monsters.

So Where is Pinotage Going?

You will get several opinions on the future of pinotage in South Africa, and many who prize it are perhaps more sentimental about it. It has always had its loyal followers – there is even a Pinotage Association for that purpose – but I really think they have an emotional fondness for the idea of pinotage – and perhaps a commercial stake – rather than a love for its taste. And that’s okay too – there is no right or wrong about what one likes or why.

Despite all its incarnations in its 60+ year commercial history pinotage has never risen to stardom and icon status – certainly not price-wise, and certainly not internationally. And even as an inexpensive “braii” or BBQ wine it has problems with all that stylistic variance that is not at all self-evident to buyers. Then at lower prices quality can vary greatly as well.

The answer, if there is one, would seem to lie in defining a true and authentic pinotage style, warts and all. To stop trying to make it conform, and let it be what it is.

Anthony Hamilton Russell is one who actually believes in the character of pinotage, so much so that he has designed a dedicated pinotage winery called Southern Right next to his more famous pinot noir vineyard in the Hamal En Aarde Valley near the coastal town of Hermanus. (Southern Right is the species of whale that come to winter in Walker Bay). And he has made a compelling 2012.

“The instrinsics of pinotage are fascinating” Hamilton Russell says, “but I am worried about the future because it is considered part of the old guard South Africa and the young guns of the next generation are not paying it the attention it needs”.

But let’s assume that authenticity is its ticket to ride. This means laying way back on oak – kicking away that crutch. And if that is to be done, and the wine has to walk on its own two feet, it is critical to achieve the best possible natural balance in the vineyard. I think that begins with planting it in the cool to moderate regions that will produce lighter reds that bring out its pinot side. When did you last even see a varietally labelled “cinsault” let alone really enjoy a Rhône blend from anywhere with cinsault as the lead varietal.

Coastal areas bring out the pinot in pinotage

Coastal areas bring out the pinot in pinotage

Having now visited most of the Cape’s regions, even if superficially, it is apparent to me that pinotage should be grown near the coast, perhaps from as far south and east as Elim, up through Stanford, Walker Bay, Hamal-en-Aarde, Bot River, Elgin, Constantia, Durbanville Hills and perhaps in the coolest sub-regions of Stellenbosch. Once farther inland in Franschoek, Paarl, Swartland then over the mountains in Robertson, I think the cinsault genes begin to dominate and take over pinot’s gentler side, and the wines just get to burly and coarse. There can be a real bitter streak to pinotage.

Examples that Show the Way

So where to set the compass among existing wines. I would dial straight into the Beaumont 2012 Pinotage from Bot River. Sebastian Beaumont has decided to focus on pinotage as the most natural expression of red wines that are uniquely South African. His mother Jayne first made pinotage from estate vines in this shale area in 1993 and the vines are now broaching 40 years of age.

Incredibly this wine would sell for under $20 in Canada, and if it can be done this well cheaply there is nothing wrong with pinotage being a kind of everyday country red (I kept thinking of sangiovese). But if I were a producer looking to safeguard the reputation of pinotage I would price it higher; or at least go for a reserve level that relies more on low yield and fruit, rather than new oak, for its balance and depth.

What others stood out? All from the same coastal area east and south of Cape Town, the above mentioned Hamilton Russell Southern Right 2012 from the Hamal-en-Aarde Valley is excellent. I also admired Springfontein Jonathan’s Ridge 2012 from the same small valley. And although a bit heavily wooded the Wildekrans 2011 also from Bot River shows core authentic pinotage character. And from nearby coastal Elgin the lively if tart edged slightly green Spioenkop Battle of Spioenkop Pinotage 2012.

Spot successes from elsewhere included Manley 2011 Pinotage from the more remote Tulbagh region; Durbanville Hills 2012 Rhinofields Pinotage, and MAN Family Bosstok Pinotage 2012 from a single vineyard in the Jonkershoek sub-region of Stellenbosch.

Again, the answer to me would be let pinotage be its rather coarse, wiry, sour-edged self. It’s allure is within its oddity.  Stop trying to make it conform to some smooth, svelte rich international taste profile.  And if it never becomes a global  darling – so be it.  That’s where merlot and syrah come in.

David Lawrason


Vines, fynbos, rock and blue sky define Cape terroir

Vines, fynbos, rock and blue sky define Cape terroir