In South African wine circles, this year a serious but also sentimental celebration is stealing the show: the Cape’s own grape, which is wowing an increasing crowd of international fans and is destined for even higher achievement, is turning 40 in the bottle.
Pinotage, a flamboyant, fruity offspring from the unusual matching of the lowly cinsaut grape -typical of the Languedoc – with the princely pinot noir of Burgundy, is the flavour of the year as it celebrates the very first commercial release of a Lanzerac Pinotage back in 1961.
In true romantic style, the announcement of this year’s Top Ten Pinotages – a competition run by the very pro-active and enthusiastic South African Pinotage Association – will take place at the historic Lanzerac wine estate in Stellenbosch.
Although it has been made into popular wine since that first bottled vintage of 1959, and has a large local following for it’s very distinct personality, it is only in recent years that pinotage has set its sights high for international acceptance and star-quality status.
Led by the association which has drawn in all the major producers and enthusiasts of this varietal, modern pinotage has improved tremendously and is getting the very finest treatment in the cellar.
In fact, the bastard is set to become a Cape prince. And it is handled like a noble varietal in wineries around the country. For South Africa, seeking a solid position in the vibrant, but highly competitive world wine market, its own unique varietal, made into classic wine, may be the unique opportunity. The grape and the wine made from it have a charming history.
One of the best-known viticultural experts in the Cape during the early part of the 20th century, Prof Abraham Izak Perold, brushed a male flower of hermitage (as cinsaut was called in the region in those days) with pollen from a pinot noir vine in the garden of his home at the Welgevallen experimental farm near Stellenbosch in 1925. Four seeds matured and he planted them in the same garden, even though the university’s nursery was just around the corner. The good professor seems to have forgotten about his plants, and after he left the university two years later, the garden grew wild. The newly-created vines were about to be thrown out with the weeds.
Except that a young lecturer, Charles Niehaus, remembered the four seedlings. He happened to cycle past Perold’s former house as the garden clean-up team arrived and removed the vines to the nursery at Elsenburg Agricultural College. For the following seven years they were ignored.
Then, in 1935, a Prof Theron grafted material from the seedlings onto newly-established rootstock. The retired Prof Perold, who regularly visited the institute, was later shown the grown vines. Legend has it that it was during that visit to Welgevallen that the name Pinotage was born.
Over the years, a number of wine farmers experimented with the early-ripening, well-bearing pinotage, but little came of it until 1959, when a Bellevue red wine made from pinotage was designated the champion wine at the Cape wine show. The feat was repeated in 1961 by a pinotage from Kanonkop Estate. Stellenbosch Farmer’s Winery was the first to use the name pinotage on a label when, in 1961, they marketed the 1959 champion pinotage wine from Bellevue Estate under the Lanzerac brand. Today bottles of that wine are extremely rare.
Although pinotage has been on the wine shelves ever since, it was only in 1987 that another wine competition put the varietal back into the limelight. The Diner’s Club Winemaker of the Year is awarded to specific varietal made into wine and that year Beyers Truter won with a wine from the famous Kanonkop wine estate. Four years later, the same winemaker put pinotage on the world wine map. Truter was named International Winemaker of the Year at the 1991 International Wine and Spirit Competition in London – the first South African winemaker ever. Today Beyers Truter is still leading the Pinotage Association. And the wines are getting better with each vintage.
Research is presently focused on the determination of the components responsible for the typical flavor of the grape. Its aroma recalls plums, banana, cherry, cassis and red and black berries. Young pinotage has a deep red, even purple color. Its flavors too, are associated with plums, banana, cherry, cassis and red and black berries. Older pinotage develops a brick red colour with additional farm and barnyard flavours.
Punters now believe that pinotage gives its best flavors when it is matured in small, new oak barrels. Winemakers use mainly French oak, but American oak is gaining ground. Pinotage matured in new, small oak has a broadened spectrum of flavours, including cedar, coffee and chocolate. The finest pinotage wines are made in a medium or full-bodied style. Among the best from South African, frequently receiving top honors, are still the names of Lanzerac and Kanonkop.
The World’s Top Ten Pinotages in 2001
At the fifth annual Absa Top 10 Pinotage competition held in Stellenbosch during October, the premium producer of this unique South African varietal, Kanonkop Estate won an award for the fifth consecutive year. 40 years after the first wine from this varietal was bottled, some pinotage producers proved their dedication and expertise by repeated wins, while a few new comers shared the limelight in this prestige event. The organisers received a record number of 101 entries, a growth of 110% since the first competition in 1997. The top ten wines were selected from 20 finalists.
The 2001 Absa Top 10 Pinotage wines are Delheim Pinotage 2000 (winemaker Conrad Vlok), Diemersfontein Pinotage 2001 (Bertus Fourie), Kanonkop Pinotage 2000 (Beyers Truter), L’Avenir Pinotage 2000 (Francois Naudé), Môreson Pinotage 2000 (Pierre Wahl), Lord Neethling Pinotage 1998 (Philip Constandius), Rijk’s Pinotage 2000 (Charl du Toit), Simonsig Red Hill Pinotage 1999 (Johan Malan), Tukulu Pinotage 2000 (Wellington Metshane) and Uiterwyk Top-of-the-Hill Pinotage 2000 (Daniël de Waal).
Two of the winning wines, Diemersfontein Pinotage 2001 (Wine of Origin Wellington) and Rijk’s Pinotage 2000 (From the Tulbagh region) come from cellars which competed for the first time.
Another relatively new cellar, Tukulu near Darling, excelled by entering a winning wine for the second year consecutively. Tukulu is co-owned by the black empowerment group Leopont 98 Properties, the Maluti Groenekloof Community Trust and Distell.
With this award, Kanonkop Estate has now featured among every Top Ten since inception in 1997. Other estates, which confirmed their status as leading pinotage experts, are L’Avenir, Delheim and Uiterwyk. L’Avenir entered a winning wine for the fourth time in five years, while Delheim and Uiterwyk both produced a winning wine for the third time.
Four of this year’s Absa Top 10 wines are Wine of Origin Stellenbosch (L’Avenir, Lord Neethling, Simonsig Red Hill, Uiterwyk Top-of-the-Hill), two Wine of Origin Simonsberg (Delheim, Kanonkop), two Wine of Origin Coastal (Rijk’s, Môreson), one Wine of Origin Wellington (Diemersfontein) and one Wine of Origin Groenekloof (Tukulu).
Melvyn Minnaar of Slow Food is a freelance journalist based in South Africa’s Cape Region, where he contributes wine and lifestyle articles to a variety of publications. He is also an art critic, curator and judge.
In the photo: Pinotage grape variety