Pinotage today, not Pinotage past

Monday, 22 July, 2013
Peter F May
If you ask about Pinotage in a tasting room in Canada, Oregon, California or Virginia they’ll likely tell you it’s Pinot Noir on steroids.
They might mention it’s a South African variety. But they won’t go into its history and, unless asked, they won’t mention Cinsaut because hardly anyone has encountered that variety. But most likely they’ll just pour you a glass and suggest you taste it and see for yourself.

There is a new generation of drinkers in America who know local Pinotage as a premium red variety and they can’t get enough of it. They’re looking for something new and different from the Merlots, Cabs and Zins they started drinking. They come to the variety with no preconceptions and they don’t care what some British Masters of Wine said forty years ago.

Unfortunately when they research it on the web they find it’s rarely described without reference to off-tastes of the past, and there are critics internationally with long memories and acid pens.
My response to those criticisms is simple: don’t live in the past, taste today’s Pinotages. The judges at the Decanter World Wine Awards  Competition didn’t give the 2012 International Trophy for Best Red Single Red Varietal to a Pinotage that was other than perfect. This Pinotage —Bellingham ‘The Bernard Series’, Bush Vine Pinotage 2010— beat every red variety - Cabernet, Shiraz, Merlot etc - entered from around the world.
It’s time to throw out the historic focus on what went wrong. We shouldn’t be discussing Pinotage today by comparing it with how it was sometimes made twenty years ago. Pinotage is not the only wine that has changed. Around the world wines are being made better from riper cleaner grapes. The bold Bordeaux red and lush Burgundies of today aren’t the weedy wines previous generations supped and today’s Chianti is a much different beast to the thin red liquid you bought because of its raffia basket. Malbec is newly sleekly sexy and fashionable after being rescued by Argentina from the tough monsters of old-time Cahors. Many varieties have a history they’d rather forget.

It seems to me some South Africans are unnecessarily defensive of Pinotage, feeling they need to apologise for it, or claim special treatment for it as the Capes own variety. No need, just pour it and let the taster decide.

The annual ABSA/Pinotage Association Top 10 Competition has been a great driver in improving ‘serious’ Pinotage and some established producers who’d assumed they had the award sewn up have been shaken out of complacency by newcomers, which has injected an edge to the contest and  helped raise the quality barrier.

Choosing ten winners was intended to allow different interpretations of the variety to be recognised but none dominated by coffee and chocolate flavours has ever won, despite being very popular with consumers. Since Diemersfontein introduced the first coffee’n’chocolate’ Pinotage in 2001 it has gone from strength to strength and holds its own ‘Pinotage on Tap’ festival to celebrate each new vintage in three South African locations and last year also in England. Other wineries have produced their own versions and even UK’s Marks and Spencer supermarket chain have their own brand named Mochatage. This style may offend purists but they bring new drinkers to Pinotage.

A recent post on my blog reads “I have just tried my first Pinotage. It is excellent, wonderful balance, good structure. A hint of smoke but nothing outrageous like all the ranting I’ve read about. A question though: is this experience representative of Pinotage in general?” 

Excellent Pinotage is the norm, not an exception, and this must be the message.