New Wave Pinotage

This was a tasting of premium Pinotage wines from South Africa, specifically focusing on ‘new wave’ examples that are terroir- and site-specific.

Winemaker for French-owned l’Avenir, Dirk Coetzee (pictured), explained that Pinotage is grown across South Africa’s vineyards, and can be considered ‘mature’ with many old vine plantings.

He stressed that the diverse styles of wine here, from 12.5% abv to 14.5% abv, and from fragrant and lighter, to more blockbuster styles, was one of the most exciting aspects of Pinotage: he believes it reflects both site and winemaker’s intention particularly well.

The wines tasted come from Pinotage vineyards that have been farmed for many decades. In that time viticulturists and winemakers have been studying and learning more about the variety, and how it responds to thier terroir as well as winemaking regimes. Viticulturist Etienne Terblanche, whose pHd was on the Pinotage variety, introduced the landscape, geology and topography of South Africa, which has some of the world’s oldest soils. The three soil groups: sandstone, shale and granite, are another influence on Pinotage, as is their proximity to the cooling currents and breezes from the ocean to the south.

Problem child, or secret weapon?

Is Pinotage the problem child of South African wine, or the secret weapon? The variety has enjoyed a rocky reputation, with not every taster finding pleasure in the aromas and flavours. But I have to say in my regular exposure to the variety on visits to the Cape, there are many winemakers beyond those featured here, who seems to have cracked the secret of where to plant, and how to coax the best, from Pinotage.

The wines

(2021) Kanonkop winemaker Abrie Beeslaar makes this under his own label, from 25-year-old, unirrigated vineyards. It was fermented in open-top concrete vats and spent 21 months in French oak barrels, 40% new. It's a huge, plush and uncompromising style of Pinotage, an ultra-refined version of those 'coffee' and 'chocolate' renditions that were all the rage for a while, copious black fruit melts into a swirling dark pool of espresso and cocoa. But there is finesses here: it's as sheer as silk on the palate, and while that depth of sumptuous fruit floods the palate, the tight grain of the tannins and pert juiciness of the acidity balances, the wine finishing long, spicy and supple.
(2021) On the Bottelary hills at around 100m altitude, a warmer part of Stellenbosch, on granite soils of low to medium vigour. There's a smokiness here, and I confess I get a little whiff of the burnt rubber that many people dislike, but a fragrance and red fruitiness does come through. This was picked early to achieve the 12.5% alcohol, and made with 20% whole bunches in large, older French barrels. There's a sour cherry bite of fruit and acid, very soft tannins, but an acid freshness.
(2021) Very different here, a more classical and structured style from vineyards close to False Bay and 20-year-old bush vines. From cooler south-facing slopes, there's a whiff of seaside iodine, some spice and meatiness and solid plum and berry fruit. Around 50% whole bunches in this wine. Very sweet, ripe fruit strikes the palate immediately, then a savoury, slightly salty biltong character, chewy but not overbearing tannins and keen, tangy acidity.
(2021) From the Roibos tea growing area of Piekenierskloof, around 400 metres above sea level and 300 kilometres north of Stellenbosch. Pure sand soils, this is from dry-farmed old bush vines. A particularly fragrant wine, lots of exotic spices and ripe red berries and cherries. A very charming wine this, the palate too, medium-bodied and sweet-fruited, but those garrigue (or fynbos) notes, dried herbs and a solid background of creamy, dark oak etched by grainy tannins.
(2021) A label of the Hamilton-Russell family, only nine barrels of this wine are made. It is grown on ancient shale soils over clay in Hemel-en-Aarde, three kilometres from the ocean, but separated by hills, so maybe not so much ocean influence. This is from 60-year-old trellised vines. 10% of stems are dried in the sun and added to the fermentaion, the wine made in a small basket press. Big, super-heavy statement bottle. Vinous nose of dark cherry and plum, all about dark savoury fruit at first, but a little glimpse of something floral and some espresso barrel component comes through. Powerful, sweet-fruited and concentrated on the palate, very firm in its blue/black fruit and tannins. Well-judged acid also adds a touch of salinity in the finish.
(2021) From a single vineyard on decomposed shale which is subject to ocean winds, and which Dirk believes shows some kelp character from that. Planted in 1994 as dryland bush vines.  Made with 50% whole bunches, and partly matured in barrel. A very fragrant wine this, a lovely floral character, touched by old roses and pure red and black fruits. Fine sense of minerality, and the palate has a chalky tannin character, elegant and quite soft, but beautifully balanced, the fruit sweet and central to the finish.

And a couple of recent Pinotages tasted, that were not part of this tasting

(2020) This is a powerful, concentrated and meaty Pinotage from the slopes of the Tygerberg mountain, just seven kilometres from the Atlantic Ocean. It spent 11 months in a combination of French and American oak barriques, 30% of which were new. Dark, brooding sour cherry and spices dominate the nose, with a bit of mocha and meat-stock. In the mouth the substantial presence of the wine shows both sweet and ripe fruit, but that edgy darkness again, plenty of tannic heft and good acids giving it juiciness and structure. A fine example of the variety.
(2021) South Africa's own grape, Pinotage (a cross of Pinot Noir and Cinsault) has to be handled carefully to coax the best from it, but when that happens the result can be delicious and fine wines like this from Lemberg's vineyards in Tulbagh, the remote and wild vine country to the north of the main winelands. Picked in the early morning for coolness, grapes were hand sorted and the wine was aged in a combination of 300L and 500L French oak barrels for 18 months. It's a sumptuous style, brimming with plush black fruit, coffee and tobacco spicing, but with a buoyant cherry edge. In the mouth it is creamy and has a certain chocolaty character to the tannins, but the fruit depth and very good balance of acidity and a Pinot-like truffle quality contribute to a compelling picture. Watch the video for more information.

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