Pinotage is a love-it-or-hate-it kinda wine, not much middle ground there, and it hasn’t been helped by long memories of decades-ago descriptions like paint, burnt rubber and rusty nails, not to mention the ‘90s fad for heavy coffee and chocolate influences.
For those who avoid South Africa’s own indigenous grape entirely, or declare that “I like pinotage only if it doesn’t taste like pinotage”, a journey through the winners of the annual Absa Top 10 Pinotage competition, which celebrated its 21st anniversary last year, will produce some surprising revelations. I’d challenge any pinotage- doubter not to find a wine to love in the selection of 2017 winners, tasted late last year when Absa brought the 10 champions and their makers to Port Elizabeth for the first time in many years – and hopefully not the last.
It was a rare treat to taste and compare side-by-side how 10 different estates put their own stamp on the same cultivar, especially when each of the wines is considered a “best of the best”.
The days of overly-forward tannin, whiffs of acetone and diesel, over-oaking and, thankfully, also the coffee-chocolate trend are long gone.
While each had an overall pinotage signature, fruit ranged from dark, inky and concentrated to almost pinot noir-ish fresh red berries; there was new oak, old oak, in varying proportions; spices sweet, warm or zesty; tangy savouriness on some, lush opulent fruit on others; textures both bold and velvety; big, bold wines and subtly elegant ones.
Vintages were mostly 2012 through to 2015, with only one 2016, showing how pinotage does need a bit of time to mellow out.
On the big and bold front, there was Neil Ellis Bottelary Hills with lots of plummy fruit and some floral notes, Lanzerac Pionier with its “Christmas spices”, and a fabulous brooding Flagstone Writer’s Block, plush with sour fruit and dark chocolate notes.
Kanonkop is one of the oldest pinotage makers, and their its 2012, made from 40- to 60-year-old bush vines, is an absolute stand-out – a big fragrant nose that jumps out of the glass, the wine deep and concentrated, leathery and spicy with inky dark fruit, and could easily age for 20 years.
On the gentler side, Diemersfontein’s flagship Carpe Diem is silky smooth, Windmeul is softly textured and lightly savoury with a hint of typical banana, while Moreson MKM stands out for its fresh, clean fruit flavours, subtle and elegant, with an intense dark fruit finish.
Delheim’s winning 2012 vintage recalls the grape’s pinot noir parentage, showing depth and complexity with fresh red fruit, gentle spice and a savoury finish.
Stellenbosch Vineyards Bushvine Pinotage is also a lighter style, with juicy red fruit and an undertone of light spiciness, while Wellington Wines La Cave tended towards sweetness with vanilla and maraschino cherry notes.
A special mention to chef Annelie Oosthuizen, who paired each wine with South African-inspired flavours, highlighting the great versatility of pinotage with food – from smoked snoek and smoked mussels, bobotie, biltong and biryani, to meaty osso buco, dark chocolate, blue cheese and green fig preserve.