Pinotage, a grape variety ‘invented’ in South Africa by crossing Pinot and Cinsaut almost 100 years ago, produces wines that are amongst the most controversial on British shelves. There’s a whole society dedicated to the joys of the Pinotage grape, yet other people find flavours in the wines that make them unpalatable. Common complaints are that the wines are “bitter” or have “acetone” aromas. A lot of poor Pinotage has been produced in South Africa. Many winemakers will confess that historically very few people knew how to handle the Pinotage grape to make it give of its best, and to avoid these “off” aromas and flavours. But nowadays Pinotage is made very differently by most winemakers, and some have taken the grape to new levels. There have been improvements in the vineyards, but even more in the wineries.
Pinotage vinification has been revolutionised over the past decade or so, mainly in how skins are macerated and fermented, and the oak treatment Pinotage receives. All are now better understood, and are producing seriously fruity, pure, much more “civilised” wines than in the past. One undoubted master of Pinotage is Beyers Truter, former winemaker at Kanonkop Estate and winemaker at Beyerskloof since it began in 1989. I recently had a unique opportunity to taste through 10 years of Beyerskloof’s Pinotage, with wines from 2004 back to 1995.
The notes on the wines will speak for themselves, but the most noteable thing that I observed was the increase in alcohol level by clear incremental steps from a modest 12.5% in the earliest few vintages, to a very ripe 14% in the final few vintages.
Just as noticeable was an improvement in quality at each step. Higher alcohol suggests extra ripeness of fruit and ripeness of tannins. This really benefitted these wines, as if extra extraction of “good” flavours minimised Pinotage’s tendency to astringency. The other noteable point was that the only faulty wine in the line-up – the 1998 – was Beyerskloof’s only experiment with a synthetic cork. The seal on this wine had clearly failed, leaving it both oxidised and maderised. There is a commonly held view that synthetic cork’s biggest problem is its failure to maintain elasticity and a perfect seal over more than a year or two, and this tasting certainly pointed to that being true.
Beyerskloof Pinotage is stocked by many independent merchants. According to wine-searcher at least three vintage are currently available if you want to put together your own mini-vertical. See all stockists on wine-searcher.com
Beyerskloof 1995 – 2004
Beyerskloof (South Africa) Pinotage 2004
Rich, spicy, cedary oak and bramble fruited nose. Lots of savoury black cherry aromas with a supporting toasty oak. Sweet, mouthfilling fruit on the palate; a richness of dark chocolate and black cherry, with a little hint of briar and a big, bitter-edged liquorice and plumskin rasp of tannin and acidity on the finish. A powerful wine, overdelivering on substance and with plenty of fruit and stuffing at this stage. 14% Alcohol by volume.
Beyerskloof (South Africa) Pinotage 2003
Lovely nose on this wine – more elegance than the 2002 thanks to better integration of oak, and a bright liquorice and kirsch fruit quality with a coffee-ish background. Lovely bold palate, flooded with sweet fruit with backbone and grip from peppery tannins and good acidity. 14%
Beyerskloof (South Africa) Pinotage 2002
Quite a coconutty and marzipan quality on the nose, and a touch of acetone. Kirsch-like, cherryish fruit beneath and a dark, plumy edge. Lots of rich, ripe, plum and ripe cherry fruit on the palate, with a grippy, roughening spicy tannic edge. Plenty of power and grip here and good length too. 14%
Beyerskloof (South Africa) Pinotage 2001
Lovely ripe, bright, blackcurrant pastille fruit with creamy notes and a little briarwood hint. On the palate there’s a delicious sweetness to the fruit that suggests really ripe strawberries, or sweet damson plums, a soft, spicy underpinning and a smooth texture. Freshening acidity wraps up a lovely, easy-drinking picture. 14%
Beyerskloof (South Africa) Pinotage 2000
Very dark and black cherry-skin aromas, with a slightly meaty, gamy note and a firm edge of blueberry fruit, a touch of smoky quality, but really sweetness and ripeness emerges. The palate is dark and very coffee-ish with a very firm liquorice edge and a touch of astringency right on the finish. 14%
Beyerskloof (South Africa) Pinotage 1999
There is very nice fruit here, with a bold, curranty, spice aroma, wrapped in a sheen of vanillin oak. On the palate there is a big, powerful, solid block of ripe, quite confected fruit that has plenty of sweetness and an underlying earthy core. There is a fine, bittersweet edge to the fruit and a spicy edge of crisp acidity. 13% not 14% for first time.
Beyerskloof (South Africa) Pinotage 1998
Synthetic cork. Rather sherried, vinegary nose. Dull, lifeless, oxidised and maderised. 13%
Beyerskloof (South Africa) Pinotage 1997
Back to natural cork, only 12.5%. Very sweet, jammy currant fruit, that is ripe with a mocha coffee note and blue/black fruit quality. Lovely palate sweetness and integration at first, with a melange of black fruits and gentle, cedaty oak. There’s a brown sugar sweetness and lovely mellow, earthy quality to this maturing wine that is very attractive.
Beyerskloof (South Africa) Pinotage 1996
There’s a little whiff of estery, slightly acetone aroma at first in this 12.5% wine, but with a really ripe, fresh fruit core beneath. On the palate a curranty fruit quality, with some baked plum and vanilla and a rounded, soft mouthfeel. There’s a bitter edge, with quite a crisp, liquoricy finish.
Beyerskloof (South Africa) Pinotage 1995
12.5%, with a really nice meat-stock and typically pinotage aroma that is slightly rubbery, but with spices and cherry fruit. A very slightly acrid, burnt note. Lovely earthy, rounded, sweet currant fruit on the palate, with a little bit of vegetal quality coming through and signs that the wine is tiring. Tannins are now soft, and it finishes with a sweet earthiness.