Can South African Pinotage make a comeback? – Analysis

“It was never the grape’s fault,” Beyerskloof winemaker Anri Truter says of the historical perception of Pinotage in the UK. The Bottelary Hills winery is a champion of South Africa’s heritage red grape – and Truter says that wineries are now treating the variety differently, in order to achieve a more modern style. He’s speaking to Drinks Retailing in the Bottelary Hills ward of Stellenbosch, where several producers are showing their wines at the Hazendal estate.

“It was a practice done wrongly,” Truter says of historical production methods.

Angela Jordaan, sales manager at nearby Kaapzicht winery agrees. “Winemakers were treating it like Cabernet Sauvignon, but it needs to be treated more like its parents,” she says.

Pinotage, which was cultivated in the mid-1920s, is a crossing of thin-skinned red grapes Pinot Noir and Cinsault.

Kaapzicht winemaker and proprietor Danie Steytler adds that the “traditional” style of Pinotage – famous for its rubber, banana and paint stripper tasting notes – has “burnt too many people’s palates” in the UK market – but he hasn’t given up hope.

He cautions that there were talks at his winery about taking the grape name off the label, in order to drive more tasting. Though he explains: “We decided it was our job to educate – and people are open minded enough to try Pinotage again.”

He describes the new wave of Pinotages as “a lighter style, made to be more elegant like their parentage.”

At Stellenrust, which sells its wines in the UK through Bibendum, sales and marketing specialist Heinrich Stipp also champions the lighter side of Pinotage.

“More of the new style is popping up and people are being respectful of the parent grapes,” he says. “Also fermentation temperatures are lower. If the fermentation is too warm, you get those rubber characters. Winemakers have realised how to handle Pinotage over the last ten years.”  

For UK retailer Jason Millar, who is MD of London’s Theatre of Wine, there is a bright future for Pinotage.

“Despite being a vinifera cross, Pinotage has struggled to find a style that suits the 21st century market, which has otherwise been sympathetic to neglected or difficult cultivars such as Carignan and Pais,” he says.

He adds that as a result of decades of “bad press in export markets”, the Cape's identity has often been deliberately steered away from Pinotage and towards less controversial varieties such as Cinsault.

“The fashion among those winemakers who have reappraised Pinotage has been to move away from richly extracted and heavily oaked wines towards a style that more transparently reflects its heritage as a crossing of two thin-skinned, perfumed varieties,” Millar explains. “In the hands of many new estates, this has led to a juicy, pale and chillable red. However, the best new wave wines don't shy away from embracing the signature smoky aromas of the variety or embracing its capacity for tannin structure.”

Beyerskloof's Truter says that Pinotage is the third most-planted red grape in the country. 

"People need to taste the difference from 10 or 15 years ago," he adds. And he believes blends are one way to bring drinkers back to the grape - including his Chenin Blanc Pinotage blend, which he describes as "one of a kind". 

While Pinotage might not yet be the go-to grape for UK consumers, there is a clear shift by South African winemakers to treat the grape differently, leaving behind its old image and making way for new opportunities.

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