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South Africa tames ‘wild horse’ Pinotage

Cleaner plant material, improved fruit quality and more sensitive vinification are all contributing to the rehabilitation of South Africa’s divisive Pinotage variety.

Gavin Patterson of Sumaridge Wines talks through a line-up of Pinotage at London restaurant High Timber
Gavin Patterson of Sumaridge Wines talks through a line-up of Pinotage at London restaurant High Timber

Leading a masterclass on the subject in London last week, Gavin Patterson, winemaker and director for Sumaridge Wines in Walker Bay, described Pinotage as “the least suited variety to over-extraction, working the cap hard and over-ripe grapes.”

Summing up the challenge of this variety, he commented: “Pinotage can be like a wild horse; you have to rein it in to get quality from it.”

Despite the efforts of a number of producers to defend Pinotage’s reputation, Patterson acknowledged “a backlash in the last decade”, which led to “unsavoury labels like burnt rubber and bitterness.” However, he insisted that these issues have now largely been addressed with the result that “today some very, very age-worthy wines are being made from this grape.”

An important part of this quality improvement is the result of South Africa’s wider efforts to tackle a problem with leaf roll virus. “As you clean up the quality of the plant material you’re going to get better fruit expression and less greenness because you’re getting full ripeness at lower alcohol,” explained Patterson.

As a result of this problem, combined with a general disenchantment with his variety, he noted: “Quite a lot of Pinotage was pulled out around 10 years ago as it came under a bit of pressure. It was mostly the old, virused vines that were associated with those burnt rubber characteristics.”

By contrast, as a sign of the steady rehabilitation of Pinotage today, Patterson reported: “Certainly it is a variety coming back as it’s becoming seen as a variety with potential.” Rather than any planting boom however, he added, “It’s certainly a case of more measured, site-specific plantings now for Pinotage.”

As fruit quality has improved, so too Patterson pointed to a widespread decrease in residual sugar levels, which, he claimed, now frequently lie below 3g/l, whereas “in the past they tended to be higher, more like 4-6g.” For Patterson, “as the wines become more elegant, you find they’re presented in a drier style.”

Similarly, he pointed to a shift away from maturing Pinotage in American oak, observing: “It used to be highly used, but people are moving away from it as they move away from a sweeter style.”

Among the most high profile proponents of Pinotage on show at the masterclass was Stellenbosch estate Kanonkop. Introducing these wines, Patterson outlined: “What Kanonkop has always managed to achieve with Pinotage is classic restraint in a naturally very giving variety. It sets a benchmark and shows what can be achieved if the variety is well-managed in the vineyard and cellar.”

Patterson also welcomed a decision by the Pinotage Association to lend its support to the Cape blend category, which requires this uniquely South African variety to make up at least 30% of the final wine.

“I was really, really pleased when the industry fell behind Cape blends,” he remarked. “We wanted to find a style that didn’t constitute a Rhône, Bordeaux or any other generic blend, but one that brings in Pinotage as our indigenous style.”

Although Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are the most common blending partners for a Cape blend, Sumaridge prefers to combine Pinotage with Shiraz for its own Epitome expression.

“We were looking at creating a typically Cape wine with perhaps a slightly more Rhône philosophy,” explained Patterson. “Shiraz brings a slightly peppery, sexy elegance so we felt there was a natural marry between the two varieties. We hope to be part of setting a paradigm that in years to come could be an iconic Cape blend.”

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