South African winemakers have a grasp on pinotage.
In a wide-ranging Zoom tasting with winemaker Dirk Coetzee and viticulturist Etienne Terblanche, a relatively new varietal showed a diverse set of flavors, textures and opportunities. When South African winemakers first worked with pinotage, it threw them a curveball in the cellar.
It’s part of the experimental nature of pinotage. Both Coetzee and Terblanche said it’s a varietal in which winemakers are still getting familiarized. Through trial and error, winemakers learned pinotage doesn’t need an extended fermentation. If a fermentation is extended too long, an undesirable burnt rubber band flavor can emerge. But, winemakers have worked hard and shaken that reputation to produce wines of character.
“Pinotage is a young variety that has been fine-tuned the last 20 to 25 years,” Coetzee said. “Any bias is quickly overcome if a quality pinotage is presented. It’s shown itself as a quality, world-class grape and wine.”
Coetzee said South African winemakers have found a “clean slate” in the U.S. market, which has allowed growers and winemakers to dig into their local terroirs and discover conditions that allow pinotage to shine.
“We’re getting past the point of what [pinotage] is and how it manifests itself,” Coetzee said. “And more into the impact of the terroir and soils.”
Similar to the climate in Avignon, France, or the Priorat in Spain, cool summer temperatures and the influence of the ocean currents that surround Cape Town have the biggest impact on the growing season. Because summer temperatures are hot in the non-wine growing regions of South Africa, Terblanche said it is “an interesting and peculiar place to grow grapes.”
The other part of South African terroir that impacts vineyards is dramatic topography. Mountain ranges offer a different aspect ratio to the sun, and the chance to grow grapes at altitude. Granite, shale and sandstone soils all occupy vineyards depending on where sites are located. It’s possible for one site to have all three soil types.
“I’d compare some sites in South Africa to some in Europe,” Terblanche said. “These are some of the oldest soils in the world, and soil diversity in South Africa is something that’s quite common. It gives us diversity and complexity.”
Ashbourne Pinotage 2017 ($59.99): Winemaker Anthony Hamilton Russell holds back 10% of the stems during the de-stemming process, bakes them in the sun, leaves them out overnight, and then reintroduces them to the must.
“This is refined with beautiful earthiness and a salty finish,” Coetzee said. “I can smell Walker Bay within the wine. There’s finesse and elegance.”
B Vintners Liberté Pinotage 2017 ($21): In search of a “modernized pinotage,” winemaker Gavin Bruwer pushed for “floralness and fragrance,” according to Terblanche. There are no punch downs or pump overs in a gentle extraction process. It’s grown in the coolest spot on the edge of the Stellenbosch appellation just 4 miles from the ocean, where the flat dune has an unobstructed path to marine influence and sea breeze.
“These are ancient granite soils close to the ocean,” Coetzee said. “The marginal sites are the ones which give us intensity and great fruit. Combine subtle extraction, firm tannins and fresh, upfront fruit, and you get a super complex wine. You can struggle to get that in other varietals if you go juicy and red.”
Beeslaar Pinotage 2018 ($55): Winemaker Abrie Beeslaar continued to be one of the best in the region, with a red focused on dark fruit, currant, blackberry and anise flavors.
Beaumont Pinotage 2017 ($34): From a trellised vineyard with shallow, shale soils with vines up to 46 years old, grapes hang low to the ground, and pick up extra soil radiation during daytime heating. They are refreshed by cool nighttime temperatures.
“There’s more red fruit spectrum, nutmeg spice and tension in the wine,” Coetzee said. “It’s great with food pairings. There’s a little sweet nuance, too.”
L’Avenir Single Block Pinotage 2017 ($48): Coetzee’s wine came from vineyards with deconstructed shale soil. There’s fleshy red fruit, dark chocolate nibs, and a medley of baking spice flavors.
“There’s a lot of texture, richness and refined tannin,” he said.
Swartberg Wingerde “Sangiro” Pinotage 2017 ($40): Driven by a wild and herbal nature, there’s cardamom, bay leaf, fennel and peppercorn aromas and flavors.
• James Nokes has been tasting, touring and collecting in the wine world for several years. Email him at email@example.com.