MICHAEL FRIDJHON: Wine
THE rehabilitation of Pinotage has been a long time coming, and while it is still some distance from its ultimate destination, the route is clear enough to suggest it will get there. For those who are aficionados of South Africa's home-grown invention, the very thought that repair work was required verges on anathema. For those whose experience of the more clumsy renditions left their palates scarred by abrasive tannins, the entire exercise reeks of optimism supplanting experience.
Pinotage was created in the 1920s by Prof Abraham Perold, who was attempting to combine the fruit quality of Pinot Noir with the less viticulturally fragile elements of Cinsault. Critics are swift to point out that this makes it nothing more than a mongrel grape - though they should be reminded that this is true of almost all of the so-called noble varieties. Cabernet Sauvignon, for example, is a relatively recent, naturally occurring, crossing of Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc. Until a Pinotage made by Lanzerac from grapes grown on the Morkels' farm, Bellevue, won the General Smuts Trophy for the best wine at the 1959 Young Wine Show, the variety was believed to have limited fine-wine value. Even after that, support was lukewarm at best.
However, from the mid-1980s onwards, its claims were championed by producers such as Kanonkop, whose wine-maker at the time, Beyers Truter, continued his passionate promotion when he set up his own cellar at Beyerskloof. By the time Cape wine re-entered the world markets in 1994, it carried a huge burden of expectation. Even if the wine-making had been better and the export parcels less cynically assembled, it is unlikely it would have been equal to the task. By the early 21st century, it looked to have as much chance as retsina of taking the wine world by storm.
Absa's annual sponsorship of the Pinotage Top Ten helped to a degree, though since the competition pitted one producer's wine against another, it was hardly designed to address issues that made the variety seem unattractive to those not converted to the cause. Chief among these were tannin management, though rustic wine-making contributed a range of uninviting earthy and animal aromas. For a time, Pinotage looked doomed to remain the macho wine-drinker's red wine.
The past five years have seen dramatic changes. Top players have focused on what marketers call "premiumisation". Kanonkop launched its Black Label bottling with a tag of R1000. This pricing has held over several vintages, which suggests a level of buy-in from consumers. Truter did much the same independently, with larger volumes of deluxe labels, such as the Beyerskloof Diesel, at impressive price points. Francois Naude, formerly of L'Avenir, has an equally prestige bottling. All of these efforts send a coherent message to the market.
The Absa Top Ten also continues to promote the category, with cleaner, less hillbilly styles now dominating the results. At least twice in the past three years, Beyerskloof, Kanonkop, Altydgedacht, Flagstone, Lyngrove, Windmeul, Fairview, Welbedacht and Rijk's have made it into the top 10. Several of these producers also finished with gold or silver medals at this year's Old Mutual Trophy Wine Show, where the Rijk's walked off with the trophy for the second year in a row.
The real change, however, is in the accessibility of what is being produced: all three of the Old Mutual gold medallists (the others are Deetlefs and Stellenzicht) are noteworthy for their tannin quality. Astringency has been replaced with an almost creamy viscosity, and the once telltale "varnishy" note has become more Pinot than ever. Raspberry, cherry and even strawberry aromas prove that cellar hygiene and fruit purity have driven this transformation. Red-wine drinkers ignore this turnaround at their peril.
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