A new love affair with Pinotage
Having the pleasure to taste 6 top wines of South Africa recently, all Pinotage, I can officially say that I am a total convert. I plan to spend the rest of this article encouraging you to fall in love with this slightly hit and miss variety of the past, and prepare you for what is now, the new Pinotage wines leaving South Africa.
Long gone are the nail varnish remover aromas or banana skins, if you are being polite.
So what does Pinotage taste like?
L’avenir Wine Estates Winemaker Dirk Jacobus Coetzee describes Pinotage to have the aromas of a Beaujolais Cru and St Joseph, Rhône Valley, with fruits of an Argentinian Malbec as well as having the age ability and style of a Nebbiolo.
I personally have gone back and forth across the six Pinotages to get to grips with this variety and my conclusion is this, an intense concentration of juicy black and red fruits. I was typically picking up red plums and black raspberries. They all have an element of smoke, whether it is from incense sticks, chargrilled meat or sweet cigar/tobacco smoke, and then in the background is a nice dollop of spice. They are all in the medium spectrum for body and for tannin with the tannins being very velvety and silky. Acidity is high or medium plus.
You still can’t fully put Pinotage in a box as some are lighter and fresher whilst others are bolder with a decent time in oak, but it seems the time for Pinotage has arrived. There are also lots of old vines in South Africa which tend to give more concentrated and defined flavours, and these vines are only getting older.
History of Pinotage
In 1925 a professor called Abraham Perold created this crossing of Pinot Noir with Cinsault. He was trying to combine the finesse of Pinot Noir with a grape variety that can handle hotter climates. Cinsault loves the heat. It certainly took its time to take off, with vine growers only starting to plant this variety in the 1980s and seeing what they could do with it. If you are wondering where the name came from, the Pinot part is probably quite self-explanatory, however the ‘tage’ part was due to Cinsault being called Hermitage back in the early 1900’s.
At present, Pinotage is known as the signature variety of South Africa, as it is unique to this country, however it only accounts for just over 7% of the plantings. As the grape quality continues to rise, I am certain we will see these numbers also in growth.
The Versatility of Pinotage
Firstly, Pinotage is not just made into red wine. You can find it in South Africa’s sparkling wines for example as a Cap Classique and it is also made as a Rosé.
Secondly it’s worth understanding the soils of South Africa a little more. They have some of the oldest soils in the world. Anything from 250 – 400 million years older than in Europe. If grown on Sandstone soils, which have deep beds of sand up to 5 metres, the Pinotage can enjoy lengthier tighter tannins. On the Shale soils which is made up from lake sediments, the Pinotage can have a little more purity and fruit intensity, whereas on the granite soils the wines tend to be richer. Winemakers are now also looking to plant more on cooler sites, which starts to add a different dimension.
Find my tasting notes below listed from lightest/freshest to heaviest/richest:
Kaapzickt wines Skraalhans 2020, Stellenbosch RRP: £15.60 – N/A in UK
One of the closest vineyards to Table Bay with cool mists during the summer. Vines planted at 100 metres above sea level on a north facing grantic slope.
Crunchy fresh red fruits alongside a dried cherry scent. Touches of sweet cigar smoke and a little melted milk chocolate with a soy sauce vibe. The wine is supple and fruit driven with a lovely red cherry core. It’s quite Beaujolais in style with a light body and attractive with juicy fruits.
At close proximity to False Bay, they have winds coming from The Cape Doctor and the South Easterly. Vines are planted on decomposed granite, with just being located behind the mountain from Kaapzickt.
It is fruit driven with pronounced aromas of sweet cherries and strawberries mixed with pot pourri, bbq grill and a touch of iron on the nose. The wine is elegant and mouthwatering with a hint of salinity and even a touch of bonfire smoke with silky tannins to finish.
Sangiro 2018, Piekenierskloof RRP: £45 – N/A in UK
Dry farmed vines planted at higher altitude on sandy soils. About 300km further north from Stellenbosch and Cape Town on the Piekenierskloof Mountain.
Aromas of blueberries, chocolate, red plums and sweet spices are evident. There’s also hints of grilled red peppers and a hint of clove. The wine is fresh and smooth with soft chalky tannins, medium body with darker fruits on the palate and hints of tea leaves. It has a lovely vibrant acidity to finish.
Just 3km from the sea, the vines are grown on a warmer slope of decomposed shale.
With attractive floral and fruit aromas, the nose is pronounced with lots of redcurrants and blackberries that lift the present aromatics of sage and toasted herbs. There is a hint of white pepper and even a touch of tar. The wine is perfumed with violet notes and a suggestion of chocolate. It has a touch of smoked bacon on the finish alongside lots of juicy black raspberries. It has a medium plus body with generous fruit, high acidity, velvety tannins and is lightly oaked.
Dry farmed vines on a salty, clay, decomposed shale soil, from a specific block giving great fruit to skin ratio. At 220 metres above sea level at the top of the hill, you can feel the wind and smell the kelp. This wind keeps the berries very small.
The nose is pronounced and intense with redcurrants, red plums and hints of blackcurrant, with sweet smokey aromas like incense sticks dancing in the glass. A touch of sweet and sour along side a hint of dried violets also. It is medium bodied with a smooth mouthfeel, with pure fresh black fruits flavours as well as having licorice spice blends with hoisin sauce flavours, the wine feels elegant with high acidity and medium silky tannins.
Very close to L’avenir at 220 metres above sea level with very similar soils but with a touch of granite and on a slightly more south facing exposition. He uses more classic winemaking methods to L’avenir.
A powerful nose, filled with sweet spices (licorice and star anise) and sweet tobacco. Touches of hoisin sauce mix with blackcurrant, with red plums softly lying in the background. The wine is big and bold, smooth and luscious. The fruit is clean and poised with the oak still lingering. Lovely high acidity with medium velvety tannins.
If that’s got you thirsty and you want to need some food pairing ideas, you just cannot beat a South African Braai, as a great food pairing choice (but this grape variety has massive potential for food pairings).
Meats: Bbq, Cajan spiced blackened cod, Venison burgers, Lamb grills, Spiced sausages, Charcuterie
Vegetables and Spices: Aubergine, Beetroot, Mushrooms, Mediterranean spices, Baba ganoush
Thank you to L’avenir wine estates Winemaker Dirk Jacobus Coetzee and viticultural consultant Dr Etienne Terblanche PHD for hosting this interesting masterclass. I am now ready to sing and shout about Pinotage.
And if this has got you in the mood to learn more about South African wine, perhaps you might want to listen to one of my older episode on the Eat Sleep Wine Repeat podcast!