Iconoclast: Tribute to a Real Icon

Mr Michael Sperling

People provenance leads me to wine. For as that old sage Duimpie Bayly, former production head of Stellenbosch Farmers Winery, likes to state: “I suppose they can say that wine is made in the vineyard. But I’ve never seen a horse win the Grand National without a jockey.”

For me, the minds, hands and hearts of people play as important  a role in a wine’s attractiveness as terroir, cellar skills and perfectly grown grapes.

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Summer-wine and the living is Breezy

While there is more than enough action on the South African wine scene in terms of things new, alternative, fresh and different, it is the tried-and-trusted, classical stuff we do best. On the red wine side, this be the royal wine that is Cabernet Sauvignon which has always delivered and will always deliver the finest local reds. And when it comes to white grape varieties, South African Chardonnay is now recognised as the best in the so-called New World with many international critics reckoning the best Chardonnays outside of Burgundy – Ground Zero for this grape – are indeed from our land down south.

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Pinotage on the Verge of Greatness

There are real benefits aligned to growing older in the wine industry. A chap becomes deft at selecting preventative measures for the tackling of gout, you know just when to slip out of a speech-laden wine event without upsetting the organisers and can impress vino virgins by recalling the weather conditions of those fine Cape vintages of 1974 and 1982.

a pinotage

Of course, in wine nothing is as valuable as experience. A bum-fluffed Cape Wine Master, glowing with the confidence of youth, has nothing on us old-timers who can vividly recall the fine old South African red wines of Stellenryck and had attended tutored tastings held by the great Ronnie Melck, former MD of Stellenbosch Farmers Winery.

Pride glows when I immerse myself in the Pinotage offerings of late. Vintages 2011 to 2013 are delivering more than a line-up of delicious, fine wines – they are announcing Pinotage’s progress from a noisy half-breed to a varietal that is achieving a reputation for greatness.

It was, of course, not always thus. Good Pinotage has been around since the first commercial bottling in 1959, but a lot of wading had to be done through a pool of wild, rude wines before reaching the cherry tree. The commentators, critics and wine makers who trashed the variety were obviously unfair in their generalised dissing of the grape, but in all fairness, after tasting 15 tots of examples showing nail varnish, banana-peel and sweaty goat scrotum one can be offended.

But as that great Virginia Slims cigarette advertisement read, “you’ve come a long way, Baby”.

The preliminary 20 wine line-up for this year’s Absa Top 10 made for riveting foreplay to the eventual Top 10 Trophy Winners who represent a selection of some of the finest red wines made in South Africa over the past few years. And this all from Pinotage.

Pierre Wahl from Rijk's Private Cellar in Tulbagh.
Pierre Wahl from Rijk’s Private Cellar in Tulbagh.

In general, the Top 10 wines showed seamless and refined composition, elegance being one of the challenges posed by the Pinotage berry. The thing has a skin thicker than an EFF media-spokesperson and ferments faster than the Ebola virus spreads in Libreville. During the hasty fermentation – four to six days compared to two to four weeks for other reds – a lot of graceful harmony bleeds off and as a wine maker you have to keep your head to maintain balance until the juice has fermented dry. Racking and barrelling must be done with much care and focus – remember, as a variety Pinotage was only born in 1925 so compared to other cultivars it is still very much a work in progress.

All the Absa finalists were made with skill, every wine polished, shining and good.

Another golden thread – for me – is the sumptuous, juiciness of the wines on show. They are rich and plush, and unashamedly so. A direct fruit-core can be tasted, the wines have lavish palate weights and are smooth as silk. Like their wine makers, the Pinotages are confident in their robustness, undeterred by calls for lower alcohols, easier wooding, gentler tannins and other finicky requests.

Still on a high of admiration for this year’s Top 10 line-up, I do not have any outstanding favourites. But Pierre Wahl’s Rijk’s 2010 Reserve is a gut-wrenchingly great South African red wine full of spice and crushed cherry with a whiff of mocha. It was great seeing Delheim under the Top 10, its Vera Cruz Pinotage 2012 showing great Simonsberg terroir expression. A bead of forest-floor gives the rush of fresh red fruit a complexity on which neighbour Kanonkop would be proud.

Spier’s 21 Gables 2012 Pinotage has a soya sauce and berry umami-like profile, with an intriguing smokiness from the barrel. Windmeul is no stranger to the Pinotage Top 10 and their 2013 Reserve has a lovely brush of fynbos leading to a meaty, moreish length of appetising red wine.

The list continues, as does the fine display of what Pinotage is really capable of doing. And we’ve only just begun.