Quietly, the new category of Super Pinotages is causing a ripple through the incoming tide of things offered by Brand South Africa. Not everyone – present company excluded – is convinced that Pinotage can bear the torch as the nation’s grape: that sought-after focused ray of light, in clarity unmatched by any wine country, that cuts through the wad of global vinous offerings and makes universal consumers sit up and say, “Oh, that is South Africa in a glass, and we all like it. What a great piece of the wine world that neck of the woods must be.”
But with the coming of the Super Pinotages this scenario is, to my mind, quite possible. Because these wines have got what it takes to take South Africa to a new level of unrivalled uniqueness in terms of quality as well as making greatness from a grape mired in as much mystery as controversy.
Until now the Super Pinotages have consisted of the Kanonkop Black Label, which pioneered the offering. The recent rendition of Ashbourne 2015, prancing with the Hamilton Russell pedigree, is sublime. And the third, which I encountered recently as well as showing the wine to a gathering of British and French corporate tigers, is Lanzerac’s Pionier Pinotage 2015.
And it is quite fitting that the world’s first Pinotage brand, of the vintage 1959, now finds itself at the very helm of excellence in wine made from this proudly South Africa grape.
At R800 a bottle the wine is priced similarly to the Ashbourne, still half of what you’d have to fork out for the Kanonkop Black Label. But this being Pinotage, and extremely well-made at that plus representing indisputable provenance, it is wine well worth its price.
Grapes are from Jonkershoek Valley, Stellenbosch, the vineyard situated at 400m above sea-level and practically overlooking the Lanzerac Hotel and Cellar. It is fine geography: South Africa’s wettest region in a decent year wherein the cold fronts actually make it past the front door. Soils are broken rock and clay, and the valley acts as a funnel for the persistent south-east breeze.
Once harvested, cellar master Wynand Lategan ensures the road to the final product is taken with care, energy and focus. Grapes are hand-sorted and fermentation is done in stainless-steel allowing the natural yeast to burn sugar into alcohol. Malolactic in new and 2nd fill French oak, where the wine lies for three months before being racked. Then back into wood for 18 months, bringing the affair with oak to 21 months in total.
The wine is huge, beautiful and awe-inspiring – during my presentation even the French delegates stopped ogling the Moroccan wine waitress to concentrate on the wine. Black in the glass, the Pionier Pinotage looks like a Cahors wine from a hot vintage. The relatively lengthy fermentation, the malolactic treatment and the length in wood sucked out every microbe of unbalanced tannin, each ringlet of excessive acidity and evened out any rough alcoholic, warm edge.
Statuesque and muscular, the wine stands tall and cool but with upright elegance and wearing a purple cloak of selfless pride. On the nose, truffled guinea fowl breasts, summer fynbos and warm river pebbles toasted by the noon-day Stellenbosch sun.
The attack on the mouth is as gentle and well-mannered as a stealthy love-struck monk parachuting into a nunnery at midnight. Wild autumnal strawberry comes to the fore teasing the frontal palate, the fruit soon swept away by layers of sense-awakening complexity. Pine kernels, roasted on smoky dry vine shoots, fill the mid-palate before they are washed away by a wave of prune-flavoured tidal pool of vinous pleasure, the wetness finished with a sweet, perfumed wisp reminding one of spring breezes through a cherry orchard in blossom.
The wine’s vivid flavours are, and this is the mark of greatness, are set in a magnificent structure flexing both muscle and sinew, with a flick of long black hair. Everything in perfect harmony, beauty you can taste, see and smell. And a national treasure, to boot.
Welcome home, Lanzerac.