Why you need to forget everything you know about Pinotage’s genetics

Tuesday, 19 November, 2013
Bertus van Niekerk
I really admire top producers of Pinotage, honest I do.  But I’m intimidated to try my hand at it, personally.  Last Sunday I had the privilege to enjoy a glass of Spioenkop's Platter’s 2014 *****  Pinotage with its creator, Koen Roose.  Revisiting the wine last night finally convinced me to write an article I’ve been brooding on for two decades …
Many producers struggle with the grape.  It seems difficult to make a wine that’s not angular in some way – relatively few producers continuously make wines of distinction from Pinotage.  At its best it can be complex and display a wide range in flavour spectrum and extract.  At its worst, it makes wines that can be very ordinary or angular and even unpleasantly chemical.

I have over time heard many a winemaker attribute their success with the grape to their understanding of one of the grapes Pinotage is a hybrid of: Pinot Noir.  Often, when a wine of superlative quality is produced from the grape, critics and producers would claim that it displays less of the characteristics of Cinsaut, Pinotage’s other parent.  Cinsaut is often badmouthed as a working class grape or a heavy bearer that produces watery wines of lesser merit.  Ever since the excellent Pinotages produced by Beyers Truter in the 80’s, followed by scores of lauded examples awarded top ten Pinotage wines on an annual basis over the past two decades, champions of the grape referred almost predictably to the unlikelihood of Cinsaut producing an offspring with so much noble potential.

This is nothing but poor marketing spiel not carefully thought through and it doesn’t lead us to any constructive understanding of Pinotage or its parents.  We know enough about genetics to understand that even the world’s best athletes reach the pinnacle in their career through a combination of factors, of which genetic predisposition plays a role, but not a definitive one.  Despite sharing genetic material, Roger Federer’s sister is not renowned for her tennis playing skills, neither is one of his parents.  I know nothing about Ian Player’s golfing skills but Gary seems to be the only one in his immediate family to have made a living out of professional sport.

Understanding how we make great Pinotage (or any other wine) should focus on the real influences in the process: climate, vineyard management, selection of grapes and cellar practice.  In the past five years alone I have had Pinotages that could stand alongside great wines of France, California or Australia.  I have also tasted Pinotages that were one dimensional or inferior to most wines I have come across.  I have had excellent local Pinots Noir and some that made me believe the vintner would do better to pick two weeks earlier and rather use the grapes as a base wine for bubbly.  Not surprisingly, I have had poor Cinsauts but also some that were really inspiring and in a few cases even better than most Pinots Noir produced in South Africa.  

Finally, and I think most crucial, I would argue that if we insist on praising good Pinotage based on its lineage, we should do the same with other cultivars.  If we are going to continue ascribing success with Pinotage in the vineyard and cellar to the fact that it is a descendant of a Burgundian grape, we should remember to attribute stellar examples of Cabernet Sauvignon produced in the Simonsberg to the fact that it resembles either of its parents (Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Franc).  We should then also bear in mind that Chardonnay probably is an offspring of the ancient grape Gouais Blanc and therefore shares genetic material with Riesling, Gamay Noir and Colombard.

Trying to explain why Bruce Springsteen is such a successful musician by comparing him to his sisters or tracing elements of musical influence from his parents doesn’t bring you closer to the truth.  Pinotage needs to be respected for what’s in the glass and not external factors if it’s ever really to be considered seriously by oenophiles and consumers alike next time they shop for something stellar.