South African Pinotage used to be a bit hit and miss, but these days producers are making some smooth and impressive wines.

I spent last week in South Africa and had a wonderful time.  I am not telling you because I want to boast about a holiday.  In fact I was working from the moment I arrived until the day I left.  Along with around 100 other judges, all of them wine professionals from around the world including local South African wine professionals, we judged the Veritas awards, one of South Africa’s most prestigious wine competitions.

Even now I don’t know the results because they will be announced in a few days, but what struck me most about this trip is how the quality of South African wine has improved in the last decade.

I was on the Pinot Noir panel to begin with.  There were only a few entrants in this category since this grape variety is only just establishing itself in the Hemel-en-Aarde region, where cool sea breezes keep temperatures down.  Overall there were some excellent examples, with just the right balance of fruit, structure and the savoury character that defines good Pinot.  It isn’t Burgundy, but it isn’t trying to be.  It is attempting to bring the terroir of the region to life, to bring vibrant fruit and complexity to the glass.  And it succeeds.

I then moved on to the Shiraz panel and tasted Shiraz for three straight days.  Lots of variation here from light juicy examples to darker, damson-filled flavours, layered with spice and bolstered by oak.  There is progress here too.  In the past South African Shiraz has leant on its oak component too much, but these wines were complex from the quality of their grapes and not from the influence of too much oak.

I encountered a few fresh and lively Sauvignon Blancs along the way, usually to clear my palate after a heavy morning’s tasting, and I also tasted some soft, honeysuckle-edged Chenin Blancs, often with lunch.  But I think what impressed me most was the change in the Pinotage wines.

Pinotage is fairly local to South Africa, although it is grown elsewhere and I have even heard of a patch of Pinotage somewhere in the UK.  It is not a native grape to South Africa, it was just invented there by Professor Perold who wanted to blend the flavour of Pinot and the robust character of Cinsault (locally known as Hermitage).  The cross he came up with was named after its parents and became Pinotage.

Sadly, the years of isolation that South Africa endured in the 1980’s did not help viticulture and Pinotage became the wine that everyone loved to hate.

Sometimes it came with an odd aroma, reminiscent of a newly creosoted fence.  There was often too much oak, and occasionally there was a vice-like grip of tannin mid-palate.

But Pinotage has changed. It has softened, lost its creosote notes and the oak is being polite enough to stand back and let the fruit come to the fore.

The first person to tell me how this has been done was Danni Marais, who has been the winemaker at the Windmeul co-operative for over 20 years.  ‘There were many reasons for those off-flavours, but one of them was very easily eliminated,’ he said. ‘We used to char the posts that we use in the vineyard, and paint them with creosote to preserve them.  We don’t do that anymore, and that particular problem has disappeared.  We have also learnt more how Pinotage ripens, so we pick just slightly earlier when the fruit is more vibrant and the acidity is higher. The other thing we have learnt is to match the soils to the variety so that the vines produce better flavours.’

Windmeul produces huge volumes of wine, much of it destined for China and other export markets.  Some of it does come to the UK but very rarely under its own name.  So that supermarket Pinotage you pick up for around £5, may have been made by Danni and his team, but you probably won’t be able to trace it back to Windmeul.

The other major Pinotage producer I visited is at the top end of the Pinotage market.  In a landscape occupied by estates that can trace their heritage back to the 17thcentury, Kanonkop is relatively new, going back just four generations, but it has built its reputation on red wines, and Pinotage in particular.

As I drove into the estate, past the two cannon that symbolise the way that farmers were alerted to ships entering Cape Town harbour, I drove past the best  and oldest Pinotage vines.  All Pinotage on the estate is planted as bushes, not on wires which means that all the work on the vines has to be done by hand.  But technology plays a part too.  ‘We have an optical sorting machine that sorts all the grapes,’ said Raymond Noppé who showed me round.  There are only two of these machines in the Cape.  The way they work is that a stream of grapes is inspected by a beam of light and if the colour is not exactly right, it is rejected. These expensive machines can lift quality just by looking at it.

Hand plunging the fermenting cap, aging in quality oak and careful blending produces wines that frequently top the competition results.

Abrie Beeslar is the winemaker here and he is fully responsible for the current silky style and deep-flavours, but Kanonkop was also where star winemaker Beyers Truter made outstanding wine, before setting up his own estate, Beyerskloof.  His Pinotage wines are also fabulous and forward-looking and are also well worth trying.

If you haven’t tried Pinotage for a while, try these.

Tesco Pinotage 2018, £4.25

A great value introduction to Pinotage with simple plum and blackcurrant fruit.

Morrisons Pinotage 2018 £4.50

Juicy plum fruit and easy-drinking tannins make this perfect for mid-week suppers.

Beyerskloof Pinotage Reserve 2016, Morrisons £8.75

Dark and complex with blackberry and cassis fruit and enough structure to partner red meat.

Kanonkop Pinotage 2016, Harrogate Fine Wine £27.99

Packed with dark plums, redcurrants and supple, but firm tannins.  Buy several bottles and see how it ages into savoury complexity.

About The Author

Christine is a wine writer, broadcaster and a wine judge for several international wine competitions. She has a technical background and spent five years as a buyer for a major supermarket before moving to wine writing.She writes for The Yorkshire Post Magazine and organises the York Festival of Food and Drink. She has won both the Lanson and the Roederer prizes for wine writing.

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