At the end of last year, I found myself in a chilly seaside village on the island of Sicily trying to tell some curious locals what South Africa tastes like. As in, what are typical flavours, aromas and tastes to be found in food and drinks from this country at the end of Africa, which to the Sicilians sounded like a place of exotic mystery filled with adventures, wilderness and an element of danger.
Answering them was, I mean, the most I could do. They had been treating me to copious local offerings of anchovies-on-everything, sea-urchin pasta and crisp arancini balls, plus pools of their regional wines made from Grillo and Nero d’Avola grapes.
I began a brief lecture on my knowledge of South African specialities: Biltong….boerewors…snoek grilled on the open fire…a flaky golden-trust milk-tart. And then, out of nowhere, came Pinotage, something I was not expecting to find hanging in my fond memory of typical local offerings. Pinotage the deep red wine that, I realised then, tastes like no other wine in the world. Because it truly is the taste of the vineyards and the winelands of the Cape. The one unique contribution South Africa has made to the culture of wine that began over 6 000 years ago and is made in a multitude of nations on all the earth’s continents.
“This wine, what does it taste like?” asked one of the interested young guys at the table looking out on the Mediterranean. “Wild and elegant,” I said. “Big and gentle. Rich and lean. Hot and mild….it is a wine of all things and of opposites. Because, after all, it is a South African.”
No missive attempting to hold substance on Pinotage can avoid the well-trodden tale of how this wine grape came to be a national vinous treasure. And it is pretty basic. In 1925 a very smart South African scientist named Abraham Izak Perold, then working at the University of Stellenbosch, fiddled around with his special field, namely wine grapes. Back then the local wine landscape was pretty limited in terms of grape cultivars and wine types, so Perold did what academics do: asked a question. Namely, what if the noble, blue-blood grape of Burgundy in France called Pinot Noir could be adapted so as to be able to flourish in the warm climate of the Cape? Not only to bring that variety’s refined flavour profile down south, but also have it grow to offer generous yields of the type that would make it economically sustainable for wine farmers to farm with the grape?
Pinot Noir was not going to do it alone. Therefore, Perold looked for a partner. And considered Hermitage, today more readily known as Cinsaut, which is more accustomed to a hot climate due to its roots in southern France. Besides being a keen grower of healthy yields, Hermitage has a spicy, juicy flavour-profile of its own.
So, it came to be that using his scientific brilliance, Perold brushed a male Hermitage flower against a Pinot Noir pollen donor to obtain a smattering of seedlings. Now, it must be remembered that this would have been one of hundreds of experiments a person of Professor Perold’s standing would have been busy with, so there were no initial “Eureka!” moments from Perold and his mates announcing the birth of a new chapter in the South African wine industry.
In fact, the precious seeds of this new grape crossing were almost lost to history in 1927 after Perold left his academic residence at Welgevallen in Stellenbosch to take-up the position of KWV’s chief wine expert. These seeds were saved by the legendary Charlie Niehaus, who also went on to become a name at the KWV and gave the material to Elsenburg Agriculture Training Institute where the first Pinotage experimental vineyard was planted in 1935.
It was in 1941 that CT de Waal, a wine-farmer and academic at the University of Stellenbosch, made the first Pinotage wine. The De Waal name is today still entrenched in the modern Pinotage world through De Waal Wines made on CT’s ancestral farm Uiterwyk in Stellenbosch and where the oldest Pinotage vineyard in South Africa – actually, the world – is situated.
However, this was still only an experiment. It was only in 1959 – 35 years after Perold’s crossing of Pinot Noir and Hermitage – that the first commercial Pinotage wine was bottled. This was under the Lanzerac label belonging to the erstwhile Stellenbosch Farmers Winery and from grapes that had been planted at Bellevue in the Bottelary region of Stellenbosch. The other Stellenbosch farm that had invested in Pinotage without having any idea of where the grapes or the wine was going to go in the cold commercial reality of the wine world, was Kanonkop Estate in the Simonsberg. Kanonkop is arguably the greatest name in the story of Pinotage as a result of the international reputation Kanonkop has gained as the First Growth of South Africa wine through its red wine ventures, Pinotage included.
It was also on Kanonkop where the chief disciple of the Pinotage rose from amidst the vines. No name is as synonymous with any grape variety as Beyers Truter is with Pinotage. From the moment he joined Kanonkop as its second winemaker, Beyers’s fascination with the variety and the unique characteristics of the wines produced from it led him to take up the cause of promoting Pinotage as the magical element of South African wine.
“I suppose I was privileged to begin at the top in my Pinotage discovery, getting to know the quality of Pinotage grapes grown and wines made at Kanonkop,” says Beyers. “It is also one of the ancestral homes of Pinotage with plantings going back to the 1940s. So, when I began working with Pinotage, it was of the blue-blooded variety, captivating me from my first harvest on Kanonkop and continuing to inspire me throughout my career on that farm and later at Beyerskloof.”
According to Beyers, the charm of Pinotage is that the grape and the wine is as vocal, hard-headed and nit-picky as a regular South Africa of the human variety.
“It is a hardy bugger of a vine,” says Beyers. “Its growth is fast and furious and to keep it all under control and prepare the vineyard for the growing of good grapes in a balanced environment asks a lot from the wine farmer – it is like diving into a ruck on the rugby-pitch with Eben Etzebeth waiting for you on the other side.”
But as tough as it is in the vineyard, just as sensitive and temperamental the Pinotage grapes are in the cellar. “From a winemaker’s perspective, Pinotage has its own set of rules,” says Beyers. “While other red grapes, like Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, can take three weeks or more to ferment on their skins, Pinotage blasts off, fermenting less than a week. Through that brief week you have to keep your wits if you want to end with a good Pinotage, working the juice through the skins day and night to ensure acids and tannins are balanced. Of all grape varieties, Pinotage demands most from a winemaker.”
But it is all worth it, says Beyers, as nothing rewards like a good glass of Pinotage. “It has a unique taste, this is but so,” he says. “Berries, juicy berries. With a touch of seductive earthiness, especially as the wine gets older.”
One of the wine industry’s doers instead of just-talkers – although he is no slouch on the latter either – Beyers not only contributed to the Pinotage culture with his brilliantly made wines. In an industry that sometimes struggles to find the word “co-operation” in the dictionary, Beyers played a huge role in uniting Pinotage producers to generically promote the variety as a jewel in the South African crown. “We have to work together,” he said when the SA Pinotage Association was founded in 1995 to represent the country’s Pinotage producers. “I mean, come on: the last time the Afrikaner people stood together when they were on a ship as Boer War prisoners heading to the internment camps on St Helena – and the only reason they stood, was because the boat had no place to sit.”
Standing together was made easier for the Pinotage Association due to the involvement of long-time sponsor Absa bank. Seeing the potential of the body to spearhead generic marketing of a premium South African wine which is, too, unique in the international arena, Absa’s involvement has allowed the Pinotage Association to provide various promotion platforms. The major one being the Absa Top 10 Pinotage Competition, which since 1997 has annually awarded 10 trophies, one each to that year’s best Pinotage wines, as adjudicated by a panel of experts.
Cape Wine Master Winnie Bowman, wine critic and international judge, says the Absa Top 10 paved the way for this format of competitions which is now also used by other bodies representing, inter alia, Chenin Blanc, Shiraz and Sauvignon Blanc.
“Besides highlighting the best Pinotage producers each year through a rigorously judged competition, I believe the Absa Top 10 has played a major role in inspiring winemakers to make better Pinotage,” she says. “Each year the winning wines seem to appear more spectacular in their interpretations of Pinotage. And time-after-time we see three to four of the same wineries come out trumps at the competition, underscoring the fact that there are cellars totally focussed and committed to the variety. Absa’s role in this has been pioneering and not only helped Pinotage, but also in promoting the quality proposition and image of South African wine.”
This abundance of riches in Pinotage offerings also makes it more challenging to select one’s favourite examples of this grape. But if having to choose:
Kanonkop Black Label Pinotage 2019
Forget about the grape variety, just think world-class red wine. Made from a vineyard planted in 1953, this wine – maiden vintage 2006 – each year mesmerises with the vivid display of vintage variation in grapes grown from the same vineyard, on the same terroir. 2019 might still sound madly young to drink a premium red wine, and yes it will age brilliantly. What you have now is a vivid spectrum of dark fruit, forest floor and fynbos flung together in a gust of bracing freshness. The wine is an experience of texture and presence, more than flavour. Think deep, drink deeper.
Lanzerac 1959 Commemoration Pinotage 2019
One of the most exciting wine releases of 2021, Lanzerac paid tribute to its history of the first commercial Pinotage bottling (1959) with a 2019 release made from the same Bellevue vineyard that delivered those initial grapes over 60 years ago. Of course, now the fruit is handled by Lanzerac cellarmaster Wynand Lategan, one of the most astute winemakers of the modern era with a gut-feel and heart-love for Pinotage. The wine is beautifully put-together, aged for 15 months in oak which gives it a deserved regal power without removing the bright-fruited zest and charm for which Bellevue is known. Statuesque and a collector’s item, the mere realisation of this project shows Pinotage is in good hands.
The first commercial Pinotage: Lanzerac 1959.
De Waal Top of the Hill Pinotage 2015
One of South Africa’s truly legendary wines made from a vineyard planted in 1950 by the De Waal family on Uiterwyk in Stellenbosch Kloof. The Top of the Hill label is only deployed in exceptional years as the 72-year-old vineyard can be sensitive to precarious vintage conditions. But collectors are known to procure as many bottles as they can, for the combination between the personality of the vineyard and the skilled, attentive winemaking by Daniël de Waal provides a luxurious rendition of Pinotage. Aged in new French oak – 225l barrels – the wine is muscular with supple tannins which is required to rein in the explosive flavours. Darkness and forest-floor, sappy black plums and a whiff of cedar-wood cigar-box is evident. A marvellous wine-drinking experience of the highest order.
Simonsig Redhill Pinotage 2018
Simonsig’s founder Frans Malan himself played a profound role in putting Pinotage on the map, and now the third generations of Simonsig Malans are staking their claim as consistently fine producers of this variety. Made from a specific site on the estate’s red soils of decomposed granite and clay, the wine is deftly handled with a 20% portion of whole-bunch fermentation bringing gorgeous succulence to the wine. Matured in new wood for 15 months, which shows that Pinotage does not allow big wood to dominate its intrinsics. Here these are bright red cherry and a delectable sweet-fruited core harnessed by powerful tannins which give the wine a presence as big as its reputation.
Kaapzicht Steytler Pinotage 2018
Bottelary is just a stunning area for Pinotage with its west-facing slopes exposed to the Atlantic and those soils of weathered granite and clay. The area is also home to renowned wine families, the Steytlers being one, of which Danie Jnr is the fourth generation. The kid is a class-act, picking-up where his father Danie left-off, which is maintaining a workmanlike approach to the rural environment of Bottelary in bringing extreme elegance and presence to the wines. The Steytler Pinotage 2018 is a knock-out, packing a weighty punch of visceral Pinotage flavours including cherry, fynbos and charcuterie but wrapped in a velvet glove. Warm-hearted and approachable, this is refined and elegant wine with a formidable voice, all its own.