The South African hybrid grape has changed dramatically in recent decades and is well worth another try
I remember the late-night moment that I became aware of my personal palate, though I didn’t think of it in those lofty terms at the time. What I thought was, oh wow, how can a wine taste that offensive (think burnt rubber-infused jam stirred into bad coffee) and where’s the nearest plant I can feed it to? It was the first time I twigged that some wines were very much not to my taste. This was back in the mid-1990s and not long after I had trained in a fine stomach for the cheapest ‘vino tinto’ in time-honoured backpacker style. But Pinotage was where I drew the line and, for years, I avoided South African wines as a rule.
I was not alone: this hardy hybrid grape developed in 1925 by Abraham Perold when he crossed Pinot Noir with Cinsault (known then as Hermitage) has an infamously chequered past. Challenges in the vineyard and winery can lead to faulty characteristics such as those burnt rubber and spray paint notes. Thankfully a better understanding of how these unpleasant aromas develop has allowed them to be increasingly avoided.
Pinotage still has a lot to answer for, although, like the South African wine industry for which it became an awkward poster boy in the early days of post-Apartheid exports, it has changed dramatically in recent decades.
Both the varietal wine and the broader industry it calls home are now shaped by ambitious winemakers with a determined focus on crafted quality and cool-climate finesse, and an increased expertise in achieving that.
In the spirit of International Pinotage Day (the second Saturday in October every year), I tasted several recently, and can attest that they are worth reconsidering. Besides the solid Wine of the Week charmer from Charles Back — the vintner who helped put the Swartland region on the map — look also to Tokara and Boschendal for bold, burger-friendly styles (both in independents), Lidl’s Cimarosa for curry-friendly flavours and Tesco’s Plato V Aristocracy for a party wine.
To reflect the diversity of modern South African wine, in welcoming Pinotage back to the party, I’ve invited some of its friends and neighbours too, including an accessibly priced Pinot Noir from cool-climate Elgin. Further south, in Hemel-en-Aarde Ridge near the whale-watching hub of Walker Bay, Peter-Allan Finlayon’s Crystallum offers a complex aromatic treat for Pinot fans, while WineSpark’s Tesselaarsdal is made by a female winemaker of colour who represents the slow but steady diversification of South African winemaking itself. Look too for the Integrity & Sustainability seal from wineries that prioritise social and environmental responsibility.
Spice Route Pinotage 2019, Swartland, 14.5pc, €24
A seminal figure in transfiguring South African wine, vintner Charles Back set up Spice Route winery in 1998. Today the winery has 100ha of its own vineyards, including this single bushvine vineyard grown in Koffieklip soils (iron-rich decomposed granite). Part-matured in qveri, this impressive Pinotage showcases the potential of this grape to create a rich, robust wine that is dense with polished tannins and ripe fruit yet nuanced too: think tea-poached plums, mulberry, tobacco leaf, and piquant spice. Perfect with rich game. Selected independents including Blackrock Cellar, wineonline.ie
Blankbottle Master of None 2020, Western Cape, 13.5pc, €28
Winemaker Pieter Hauptfleisch Walser takes a playful approach to his cult-status wines, challenging us to taste with an open mind. This is a joyful, juicy yet savoury meeting of Grenache, Syrah, Cinsault, Pinot Noir and Roussanne, and a fabulous aperitif or tapas pairing. Frank’s, Drink Store, Wine Upstairs, pintowines.ie
Elgin Ridge 282 Pinot Noir 2015, Elgin, 13pc, €25.95
Naturally fermented from Pinot Noir grapes grown organically at 282m in this cool-climate region of the South Cape Coast, and aged in French oak for 10 months, this lean and clean Pinot layers smoky earthy spices over dark bitter cherry with a sour twang that will pair brilliantly with fatty meats. O’Briens Wine; obrienswine.ie
Fairview Viognier 2020, Paarl, 13.5pc, €24.99
From another Charles Back winery comes this elegant and unshowy Viognier grown in decomposed granite soils. It’s worth decanting to allow its aromas sing: almond and peach blossom on the nose meet nectarine juice on the palate, supported by subtle oak and silky texture. Perfect with crab and mango salad. Selected independents
Metzer Family Cabernet Sauvignon 2018, Stellenbosch, 14.5pc, €19
From the dryland vines and granite-sandstone soils in the Heldersberg sub-region, Wade Metzer takes a hands-off approach to this velvety Cabernet, blended with a little Shiraz and Cinsault to bring extra flesh to its cassis, mint-choc and blackcurrant leaf character. Pair with rich red meat. winespark.com (€10 monthly sub)