A blog devoted to exploring wines made from unusual grape varieties and/or grown in unfamiliar regions all over the world. All wines are purchased by me from shops in the Boston metro area or directly from wineries that I have visited. If a reviewed bottle is a free sample, that fact is acknowledged prior to the bottle's review. I do not receive any compensation from any of the wineries, wine shops or companies that I mention on the blog.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Pinotage - Stellenbosch, South Africa

Pinotage is not a grape that I would usually write about.  Wines made from it are relatively common and I can usually find several examples in an average wine shop in the Boston area.  It is considered by many to be the signature grape of South Africa and there's even a Pinotage Association devoted to it though, somewhat surprisingly, it only accounts for about 6% of the total plantings in South Africa.  I decided to make an exception, though, in order to trot out a new feature that will probably be published erratically, but which I've been curious to try for some time: book reviews.  I buy and read a lot of books on wine, many specifically for research for this site, and I thought it might be interesting to review some of them, especially since some are out of print and/or unusually expensive.  I was initially planning to roll this feature out after reading the new Wine Grapes book from the OCW crew due out later this month, but I decided to move it up because it's my blog and I can do what I want.

I'm starting this new angle with a look at the Pinotage grape because I was recently contacted by Peter May after he was directed to my site via a post on a wine-related message board.  Peter mentioned in his email that we shared an interest in fringe grapes and wines and that some of my posts were similar to his investigations into the Pinotage grape, which he had published in book form in 2009 (Pinotage: Behind the Legends of South Africa's Own Wine).  If there's one grape that I definitely thought I wouldn't want to read about, it would be Pinotage, as I've not only disliked, but very strongly disliked every wine I've ever had from it.  I went to Amazon.com to have a look at his book anyway and read the following description: "During researches in South Africa Peter F May was told information that differed from the standard definition of Pinotage in text books. Turning detective, May investigated various legends about Pinotage's parentage and origins."  Whatever my thoughts were on the grape, May's angle for his book seemed to be right up my alley, so I immediately purchased the book and just finished reading it a few days ago (you can find the book on Amazon, but it is much cheaper on Lulu.com).

The book opens with May visiting South Africa on a business trip in the mid 1990's.  While there, he decides to sample some of the local wines and comes away with a fondness for a grape called Pinotage.  When he returned to the country the following year, he began to seek out wineries that made wine from the Pinotage grape and became more and more enamored with it.  In 1997, he founded the Pinotage Club online and began to learn more about the grape.  What he was finding, though, is what I have found in many of my own investigations, which is that much of the information available on the grape was conflicting, especially regarding the grape's parentage.  Most people accepted that Pinotage was created by Dr. Abraham Perold in South Africa, but nobody could seem to agree on just when the grape was created, just who its parents were, or just why Dr. Perold created the grape in the first place.  In the first half of Pinotage, Peter May goes about finding the answers to those questions.

May's research is thorough and his findings are very convincing.  Given my interest in parentage studies for grapes, the part that most interested me was the section on finding the parents of Pinotage.  In November 1924, Dr. Perold took the pollen from a Pinot Noir plant and used it to fertilize the flower of a vine called Hermitage (the name Pinotage is a portmanteau of Pinot and Hermitage).  There was some question, though, over just what grape Hermitage actually was.  Hermitage is a common synonym for the Syrah grape, especially in Australia, and given some of the characteristics of Pinotage wines, many believed that Syrah was the other parent.  Hermitage is also a synonym for the Cinsaut grape, though, and after tracking down a copy of Dr. Perold's book A Treatise on Viticulture, May is able to show that Dr. Perold was, in fact, referring to the Cinsaut grape when using the term Hermitage.

One of the more interesting legends that May examines, and one that I wasn't familiar with, is that Pinotage is actually a hybrid vine.  There are those who believe that Pinotage was not the result of a deliberate crossing of two vinifera vines, but rather an accidental crossing with a grape called Jacquez, itself a hybrid grape that was widely planted on the island of Madeira for a time after the phylloxera epidemic.  The story goes that some stray pollen granules from a nearby Jacquez vine found their way to the Cinsaut flowers before Dr. Perold was able to pollinate them with Pinot Noir.  Proponents of this theory pointed to characteristics of Pinotage that were seemingly absent in Pinot Noir and Cinsaut, such as thick skins, deep pigmentation and berry shape.  May is ultimately able to disprove this particular legend and to prove the actual parentage of Pinotage by tracking down (and showing) the DNA data that proves without a doubt that Pinotage was the result of crossing Pinot Noir and Cinsaut.

The second half of May's book is devoted to exploring Pinotage today, and is probably aimed more at fanatics and devotees of the grape, which I admittedly am not.  He looks at Pinotage in the vineyard and the winery through the lens of a few South African producers, and also examines the rising popularity of Pinotage in other countries.  I was not aware that New Zealand has almost as long a history with the Pinotage as South Africa, and that many New Zealand Pinotages rival those from the grape's birthplace in terms of quality.  The chapter I was most looking forward to reading is titled "Isn't it Rubbery?" as I have never been able to really enjoy Pinotage based wines because of strong burnt rubber, acetone and farmyard smells and flavors.  The acetone, it turns out, is a result of fermentation temperatures (hot fermentations reduce the presence of isoamyl acetate in the finished wine), and is something that is becoming less and less of a problem.  The accusation of rubberiness, though, is more difficult to explain.  May points to a particularly virulent strain of brettanomyces yeast that is found in South Africa that is a possible cause of some of these flavors.  I will admit that I've found many of these off-flavors in a range of wines from South Africa, not just in Pinotage, and so I buy his explanation to some extent.  The Pinotage aroma wheel, created by the Pinotage Association referenced above, doesn't include rubber or acetone, though whether that's a marketing lie of omission or a good faith representation is hard to say.

As mentioned above, I've never been a fan of Pinotage based wines, but after reading May's book, I was inspired to give the grape a second chance.  I decided to give Pinotage another shot in two different ways.  First of all, I was going to really try to find a high-end Pinotage from a producer that was known for making exceptional wines from the grape.  After reading May's book, I had a good sense of who those producers might be.  Secondly, I was going to try a wine made in a slightly different style, namely a rosé wine, to see what characteristics might be present in each wine.  If both wines were rubbery and nasty, I felt that I could be pretty confident that it was actually the grape itself that I was objecting to, given my previous experiences.  Others may enjoy those kinds of flavors or be less sensitive to them, and that's fine, but they definitely aren't for me.

I went to one of my favorite shops, Curtis Liquors, and picked up two bottles of Pinotage, one a rosé ($15) and one a varietal wine ($35), from Kanonkop, a very highly regarded South African producer profiled in May's book. Kanonkop boasts that their winery is the South African equivalent of a Premier Cru or First Growth on their website, and I figured if these guys couldn't convince me, then I was a lost cause as far as Pinotage was concerned.  I tried the rosé wine first, and it was a fairly deep pink color in the glass.  The nose was fairly intense with fresh strawberry, raspberry and rainier cherry aromas.  On the palate the wine was medium bodied with medium acidity.  There were flavors of fresh cut watermelon and strawberry as well as some rainier cherry and a little bit of leesy funk.  It clocked in at a whopping 14.5% alcohol, and wore it a little clumsily.  The high alcohol gave a sweet, almost creamy kind of texture to the wine that was interesting, but it also contributed an unwelcome heat as well.  All in all I found it very enjoyable and was relieved to find that none of the negative flavors I had found in previous Pinotage based wines were present here.

The true test, though, was in the varietal Pinotage that I tried next. With some trepidation, I pulled the cork on the 2004 Kanonkop Pinotage and poured myself a taste.  The wine was a deep, opaque inky-purple black color in the glass.  The nose was moderately intense with blackberry, blueberry, mocha and smoke aromas.  There was a hint of rubberiness in the smoke, but I couldn't be totally sure that I wasn't just imagining it.  On the palate the wine was full bodied with fairly high acidity and medium tannins.  There were flavors of blackberry, black cherry, blueberry, smoke, baking spice, mocha, black pepper, bell pepper and a little farmyard funk.  It was dense, deep and incredibly complex with the flavors rolling over the palate seamlessly.  Again, I thought I might have picked up a touch of rubber, but it was very faint and didn't distract at all from the rich, ripe fruits.  This wine was also 14.5% alcohol, but it carried it much more effortlessly.  This was easily the best Pinotage that I had ever tasted and I found it to be an exceptional wine.  If you think you hate Pinotage, try this wine.  If you still don't like it, then there's probably no hope for you.

I wouldn't call myself a Pinotage convert after reading May's book and trying the wines above, but I do have a new respect for the grape and for the wines it is capable of producing.  May is an eager guide, bursting with information and anecdotes, and his enthusiasm for the grape is a bit contagious.  This book is a must read for fans and fanatics of the Pinotage grape, or for those interested in South African wine in general.  The tone is casual and the reading is easy-going, but the information is thoroughly researched, as evidenced by the 230 endnotes scattered throughout the text.  It's a fun and informative book that I very highly recommend.

As noted above, my copy of this book was purchased by me and I was not asked by Peter or his publisher to review it.  My standards for book reviews are the same as for my wine reviews and all opinions expressed above are mine and mine alone.  I have received no compensation for reviewing this book, and suspect that Peter may not even know that I've reviewed it until I send him an email about it in a few minutes.


Emily H. said...

Looking forward to further book reviews on this site! I share some of your same experiences with Pinotage and South African reds in general. However, what manifested to you as a rubbery smell seems to me very heavy smoke and barbeque sauce flavor, and I have found this in Shiraz, Pinotage, Cabernet, and blended red bottlings, so I'm inclined to think it an effect of winemaking processes shared amongst South Africans, or perhaps the brettanomyces cited earlier. Have really only had one S. African rose, and didn't notice that quality there either, so who knows! Anyway, very good post!

WineKnurd said...

Good idea on the book reviews!. Another blog I frequent, The Academic Wino, also does the occasional review and helps to keep me up to date on the different publications out there. As to the Pinotage wines, I have found they trend similar to Bordeaux, where the older wines are more "rustic" and the later wines are made in a more modern "CA" style with higher alcohol and special yeasts that generally do not produce ethyl acetate and "rubbery" compounds.

The Wine Mule said...

Great post! First solid evidence I've heard of South Africa's brett problems.

In his book "Biodynamic Wines" (Mitchell Beazley), Monty Waldin discusses South African winemaking and pinotage in particular. One of his comments, which was making news back in 2001, is the prevalence of leafroll, a virus that stunts the growth of vines and also retards ripening. He presents it as a problem that can be solved only by wholesale replanting of vines. Growers--at least a the time of writing--were not enthusiastic about it, because of the expense. The problem is not unique to South Africa--Stuart Smith of Smith-Madrone was quoted in the San Francisco Chronicle as fearing that leafroll virus could be "the next phylloxera."

PS: I never liked pinotage until I tried one made by John Parducci at McNab Ridge in Mendocino. No idea whether it's available in your neck of the woods.

WineKnurd said...

Not sure I buy the brett infection idea, you would think that wineries would have taken steps to eliminate infection at every step (even with their barrels), and that at least a few would have mitigated the problem. Unless they just decided to export the bretty stuff to the US (hmmm...), I think that the "rubber and acetone" were meant to be characteristics of Pinotage wines.

Emily H. said...

I've gotta say that I'm skeptical about brettanomyces and leafroll virus as explanations, since this would affect all wines and not just red wines.

Fringe Wine said...

Hi Everyone:

I don't know that Brett totally explains everything, but I found it convincing for a few reasons.

1) Peter notes that the rubbery/gamey flavors aren't really present in Pinotage wines from other areas, particularly California. I've not had the pleasure of trying them, so I can't say.

2) As I noted above, I find some of these off-flavors present in a lot of SA red wines, but not in the whites, as Emily notes. I'm not an expert on Brett, but I believe that a lot of Brett comes from old barrels. Most white wines are fermented in stainless steel and don't see any wood at all, so probably wouldn't pick these flavors up (I typically stay away from oaked whites so I couldn't weigh on on whether these flavors are present there or not). Even if brett is in the air, red wines are typically fermented in open vats whiles whites are fermented in temperature controlled, sealed containers, which would limit contact.

3) The rubbery off-flavors seem to be on the decline as wineries have upgraded their facilities and focused more on hygiene. Remember that South Africa only recently rejoined the global wine community and many wine making operations lagged behind in being able to upgrade their facilities and bring more modern winemaking tools on board.

Perhaps the problem isn't brett per se, but maybe some other unclean element in many South African cellars that is still present to some degree, but which is on the decline. It's difficult to attribute a quality to a grape, though, when there are examples of the grape from other regions that lack that particular quality you're looking at. Peter has drunk Pinotage wines from all over the world and I haven't and if he says that this rubbery quality is absent in many places, then it seems unlikely that it's the grape's fault. The wineries are the next logical place to look, and I think he may be on to something, even if it turns out not to just be brett but a variety of factors.

south africa news online said...

The Pinotage is a great kind of grapes but sadly it can only be found in South Africa so it is very difficult to enjoy the taste of this awesome fruit elsewhere.