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So you think you know Pinotage?

By Greg Sherwood
June 2003

As a bit of a self-declared South African wine specialist, I was swiftly brought down to earth and firmly put back in my place at a recent Master of Wine student tutorial tasting in May - our weekly Monday session.

Basically, we had 12 wines of which 3 were Pinotage, and copying one of last year’s final exam question papers, we were told they were 3 reds from the same country, same region using the same grape variety. We had to identify the Country of Origin, Grape Variety, and Comment on the Style of each wine with particular reference to winemaking influences.

‘Easy’, I hear you say. Well, you would have though that out of 3 wines, we would get one ‘banker’ (the wine you pick instantly and are certain about its identity sufficiently enough to shoe horn the other related wines into the same conclusion)...especially with Pinotage. Not a bit of it. So the group's answers were a bit divided to say the least, between New Zealand – Merlot, California - Zinfandel, and even a few Rhone answers (Syrah).

I went for New Zealand after ruling out South Africa due to wines 2 and 3 being just too inconsistent. Wine 1 was firmly South African Merlot in style though, but still not Pinotage, mind you. The wines were suitably ripe and rich, but not overblown and jammy. The retained acidity was also high, a classic trait of New Zealand where cool nighttime temperatures retain acidity in the fruit, while warm sunny days ripen the grapes and raise sugar levels and resulting alcohol levels.

The moral of the story is that if you go out and buy Pinotages to taste, make sure you buy a range of prices and taste the wines all together as there are clearly three styles now days:

1) The soft super market low tannin, juicy acid, even jammy strawberry fruit number that may or may not have notes of estery nail polish and green banana.

2) Next, the old style heavy Pinotages that can be jammy, leathery, extracted, tannic, dark, dense, with a good acidity, firm tannins and touches of estery nail polish and sweet banana fruit, perhaps even hemmed in by American but usually French Oak. Wines that age very well incidentally.

3) Then, of course you get the 3rd category, which all three of our bottles fell into. The prestige bottlings that are specifically made in a style that purposely down plays the innate Pinotage characters we all know and love (or hate as it may be for some). No estery high-toned nail varnish and polish, no jammy strawberry fruit, no green bananas! Just clean, elegant black fruits, dense silky mouth feel, and excellent length in the finish.

For a grape that I previously prided myself in being able to pick out more often than not in a blind tasting, I some how managed to shoe horn them into a much cooler country on the other side of the world - New Zealand! And the wines in question? They were:

  • Simonsig Redhill Pinotage 1997 (a very cool, long vintage explaining the capsicum and green, leafy characters I mistook for Merlot!) 13% Alcohol. (Price tag on the Bottle R95)

  • Rijk's Cellar Pinotage 2000 at 15.5% alcohol (yes I know...New Zealand?? at 15%+??) a little winery doing huge things out of Tulbagh, north of Paarl that uses lovely new American oak to complement the super ripe, extracted fruit. Works well, but you need to know what you are doing in order not to over cook the whole pot of ingredients. (R118)

  • Fairview Primo Pinotage 2000 at 13.5% alcohol and in a rich, textured new French oak style. Dry powdery tannins and creamy chocolatey black fruits and plenty of exotic complexity. But fat, round and broad in the mouth like a ripe Hawks Bay Merlot from a top producer can be! (R125)

All wines were made in a prestige, premium style, using new American (wine 2) and new French oak (wines 1 and 3). The one wine that fits this description to the tee, though not tasted on this occasion, is the Kaapzicht Steytler Pinotage that is a previous multiple ABSA Bank Pinotage Top 10 winner. But these wines do beg the question – what should top Pinotage wines taste like these days? I am by no means a blindly converted lover, having tasted far too many poor examples. However, the good examples out there are excellent and worthy of their high premium price tags.

 So next time somebody tells you they hate Pinotage, pull out one of these alternative versions and tell them it’s a ripe Merlot or an overblown, ripe, well oaked Pinot Noir from down under - they will never know the difference and they will almost certainly sing its praises!

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