A passion for Pinotage

Tuesday, 20 August, 2019
Graham Howe
Pinotage turns sixty this year since the first commercial release of the historic 1959 vintage under SFW’s Lanzerac label in 1961. Graham Howe tastes his way back to 1959.

The fortunate few tasted six decades of Lanzerac Pinotage at a benchmark tasting at the Stellenbosch estate in July 2019 to mark the sixtieth anniversary of the first commercial release of Pinotage. Current winemaker Wynand Lategan described the tasting as “a journey into history” as we tasted our way from the 2015 vintage of Lanzerac Pionier Pinotage (rated a prestigious five stars by Platter’s Wine Guide) through a selection of the best vintage of every decade except the 1970s.

The new underground Pionier tasting room with its glassed museum exhibits of old vintages of Lanzerac bottles provided an atmospheric setting for the big event. Wynand talked us through the style (r)evolution of Pinotage over the last sixty years both in viticulture and winemaking technique, laying the foundations for the emergence of a new contemporary style of elegant Pinotage in the 1990s. Expectation built as the tasting leapt from the still fresh and vibrant 1989 vintage to the ripe, voluptuous and psychedelic 1967 vintage, taking us back to the heart of the swinging sixties.

The climax of the tasting was the unveiling of the legendary 1959 vintage. A dozen tasters fixed their eyes on the elixir in the glass decanted that day by Wynand from one of four half (375 ml) bottles acquired by Lanzerac from Distell’s Tabernacle. The label read “made in the Union of South Africa”. Made from grapes grown on PK Morkel’s Bellevue wine farm, released under SFW’s Lanzerac label in 1961, this venerable old vintage is South African liquid history in a bottle.Wine industry veteran Duimpie Bayly, a man intimately involved in the Pinotage project since the 1960s, added that a small component of Cinsault was blended into the 1959 Lanzerac Pinotage. What a treat to taste it!

Wynand Lategan revealed that Lanzerac is working with Bellevue on a project aimed at replicating the style of the 1959 vintage. Since 2017, Lanzerac has put aside two or three barrels of Pinotage, intending to release the 2019 vintage under a super-premium label in 2021. Wynand adds, “The trend among Pinotage producers is to bush vines. We get a greater diversity of flavours in the grapes – it’s almost like a blend on the vine. We’ve learned to let the vineyards and terroir speak. We pick earlier these days, on balance rather than on ripeness. We do fewer punch overs than the textbook says. We use a small basket-press and ferment in open wooden fermenters with natural, wild yeast. And we use less new oak, along with second and third-fill barrels with lower, toned down toasting”.

The breakthrough 2015 Lanzerac Pionier Pinotage(rated 93 points in Tim Atkins 2018 SA Report), made from a twenty-year old single vineyard planted in the Jonkershoek Valley, was one of the highlights of the vertical flight. Wynand emphasised the elegant plums and prunes signature of Lanzerac Pinotage, the higher acidity and lower ph which is a huge factor in ageability, the rapid ripening, narrow picking window, incredible colour, the use of tight grain French oak and small staves which suits the Lanzerac style and the deep roots of slow-growing Pinotage vines planted in clay soils. The label of Pionier Pinotage proudly declares “The World’s first Pinotage – Maiden vintage 1959”. Wynand comments, “Pinotage is a serious wine – not a second-rate variety. We can’t keep pace with the demand for Pinotage today. Tourists come to Lanzerac to hear the Pinotage story.”

Lanzerac tasting room and deli

Duimpie Bayly, a man with roots in the industry as deep as Pinotage, who joined Stellenbosch Farmer’s Winery (SFW) in 1962, picks up the story. “Do you know that Perold died in 1941 before tasting the fruits of his cross of Pinot Noir and Cinsault in 1925? Only one of the original four Pinotage cuttings survived, propagated by Professor CJ Theron who rescued the cutting from Perold’s nursery garden in Stellenbosch. Perold wanted to cultivate a grape suited to South African conditions. He loved Pinot Noir, one of 177 grape varieties he collected in Europe in the 1920s and brought to South Africa. One of the attributes of Pinotage is its deep colour – a cross of two light grapes!”Apparently only two clones out of six known Pinotage clones are planted today in the Cape.

The descendants of a small band of Pinotage pioneers who kept the faith have helped to put Pinotage on the world map. Three old rugby playing friends who met in the early 1940’s – PK Morkel of Bellevue, Paul Sauer of Kanonkop and CT de Waal of Uiterwyk – all planted Pinotage in that decade. While Uiterwyk made the first (never released) experimental Pinotage in 1941, the new variety was blended away in the early years. The breakthrough came when Pinotage made by the Morkels of Bellevue won the trophy for best wine on the Young Wine Show in September 1959 – followed by Paul Sauer Pinotage in 1961. The release of the first commercial Pinotage by SFW, a 1959 vintage made at Bellevue and labelled as Lanzerac Pinotage in 1961, was another major turning-point.

Today, tourists with a passion for Pinotage can visit the oldest Pinotage vineyards in the Cape – listen to the story in situ and taste the contemporary style of heirloom varietal bottlings and Cape blends. Bellevue (est 1701) makes three tiers of Pinotage – the flagship PK Morkel Pinotage, acclaimed 1953 Single Vineyard Pinotage and estate Pinotage. At Uiterwyk (est 1682), fans can taste the renowned range of de Waal Pinotage – inter alia CT de Waal (made from the oldest Pinotage vines planted in 1950), Top of the Hill and estate Pinotage. And at Kanonkop (est 1910) – one of the leading Pinotage pioneers – where fans can taste the flagship Black Label Pinotage (rated a rare five stars for the 2016 vintage), estate and Kadette versions. I headed here for my next big lesson in the power of Pinotage.

Kanonkop, along with producers like Beyerskloof, has spearheaded the renaissance of Pinotage since the 1990s. With over half of their vineyards planted to Pinotage, this old family estate, specialises in expressions of South Africa’s unique grape variety. Cellar master Abrie Beeslaar, named international winemaker of the year at the IWSC in London in 2005, 2015 and 2018, led a vertical flight of Kanonkop’s Kadette Pinotage and Cape Blend, estate Pinotage and flagship Black label Pinotage (made from 66 year old vines) – tasting back vintages from 2010 to 2017. The estate has only had four legendary winemakers over almost a century of winemaking: Paul Sauer, Pinotphile Jan Coetzee (of Vriesenhof), Beyers Truter (of Beyerskloof, a top Pinotage specialist) and Abrie Beeslaar (since 2002). Kanonkop epitomises the traditions and dedication of a small family-owned Cape wine cellar.

Jonkershoek with Lanzerac Estate (bottom left)

Over a memorable tasting which demonstrated how well Pinotage ages, Abrie spoke about his passion for Pinotage. “We focus on making top-quality red wine – rather than on making what people think Pinotage should taste like. Balance, structure, elegance and finesse – these are common elements in making fine wine. The age of the vines plays a massive role in structure while younger vines contribute fruit. You can’t make Pinotage like you make any other varietal. Pinotage has a short-ripening period and ferments really fast.  We hand pick, sort the berries three times and only use open top fermenters. You have to pay great attention to extraction to avoid harsh tannins”.

With eight vineyards planted to Pinotage, ageing from 6 – 66 years, Kanonkop is often called one of South Africa’s “first growth” farms and has some of the oldest, low-yield bush vines of Pinotage in South Africa. The first Pinotage vines were planted here in the golden Simonsberg cradle of Pinotage way back in 1943 – but blended into SFW wines for the next thirty years. There’s been no turning back since Kanonkop bottled its first estate wine Pinotage in 1973, focused entirely on red wine production – and produced its first legendary Paul Sauer blend in 1981.Since 2000 Kanonkop had held back one thousand cases (6000 bottles) of the estate Pinotage every vintage for release ten years later.

Abrie Beeslaar, who has made wines here since 2002, talks about the interpretation of a vintage at Kanonkop which springs from knowledge of vineyards and terroir. The tasting culminated with the current 2017 vintage of Kanonkop’s Black Label Pinotage (a benchmark for the variety at R1850 per bottle), a limited edition first produced in 2006. The winemaker concludes, “It’s about site (a unique block planted in 1953) and structure. This wine touches you in places you didn’t even know exist! It takes ten years to develop. It’s a unique expression of Pinotage that goes beyond the variety.”

My learning curve in Pinotage continued at Middelvlei (1919), a family-owned wine farm which celebrates its centenary this year. The Momberg family have made wine here for three generations. They released their first commercial vintage of Pinotage in the early 1970s – and were one of the first wine estates to produce a signature Cape Blend of Pinotage and Merlot from the 1995 vintage. Since 2012, Middelvlei has made its contemporary style of Free Run Pinotage (labelled as such) its signature volume brand on domestic and export markets. Over a fabulous vertical flight of Pinotage from 1978 – 2017, winemaker and viticulturist Tinnie Momberg demonstrated the staying power of Pinotage. A forward, upfront variety in its youth, the vigour and vibrancy of Pinotage is tamed like a teenager on reaching adulthood – taking up to a decade to express its elegant, mature pedigree.

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Graham Howe

Graham Howe is a well-known gourmet travel writer based in Cape Town. One of South Africa's most experienced lifestyle journalists, he has contributed hundreds of food, wine and travel features to South African and British publications over the last 25 years.

He is wine and food contributor for Eat Out and WINE.CO.ZA, which is likely the longest continuous wine column in the world, having published over 400 articles on this extensive South African Wine Portal.

When not exploring the Cape winelands, this adventurous globetrotter reports on exotic destinations around the world as a travel correspondent for a wide variety of print media, online and radio.

Over the last decade, he has visited over seventy countries on travel assignments from the Aran Islands and the Arctic to Borneo and Tristan da Cunha - and entertained readers with his adventures through the winelands of the world from the Mosel to the Yarra.