Pinotage & Red blends 27 February

Pinotage is not the cultivar of choice among South African wine drinkers. Despite the positive press it receives in some international markets (several American columnists have embraced its charms with an enthusiasm ordinarily reserved for the sultry, well-endowed damsels who throw themselves at Philip Marlowe in a Raymond Chandler novel) it’s treated with more than a little equivocation in its native land. Memories of many green, grainy, pongy and palpably unfriendly wines produced in the 1970s and 1980s still contaminate its public image.

Even today, despite the achievements of several of the country’s best winemakers over the past two decades, the mere suggestion of serving a Pinotage at a fine wine event provokes the kind of raised eyebrow that leaves the sommelier flailing around for something less controversial. He might mention that the country’s most successful (commercially speaking) ultra-premium red is unashamedly Pinotage (the Black Label from Kanonkop). He could add that there are probably more high-priced Pinotage and Pinotage blends than deluxe wines in any other red wine category – he would still have to deal with the prejudice, if not the incredulity, of his diners.

No doubt the reason that foreign writers and consumers are more enthusiastic than their local counterparts is that they aren’t victims of this historical baggage. They taste the wines, they like them, and they’re not shy to express their enthusiasm. Antipathy among South Africans runs deep, and extends well beyond the views of critics and the sniff-and-spit brigade. Looking through a recently published – and not hugely controversial – list of South Africa’s top ten wineries ( I saw only two which offer a pinotage in their wine range. While not all estates have sites suited to the variety, this nevertheless suggests that the cultivar is not front of mind when growers and estate owners are making planting decisions.

We know that if you’re looking for a benchmark example of our home-grown cultivar and budget is not an issue, Kanonkop and Beyerskloof can help you spend your money easily enough. Striking newcomers are a different proposition, so it was a pleasant surprise to taste a few delicious and easy-to-drink examples from a couple of largely unheard of producers. The first was the resurrected Lemberg property in Tulbagh, whose two separate cuvees (the regular and the Spencer) are both well made, appealing, fragrant, savoury and richly textured – and both happily without the grippy harsh tannins which have undermined the variety’s commercial prospects in the local market. The second equally accessible Pinotage is produced by the oenology students at the University of Stellenbosch under their own brand name of Die Laan. If you are able to lay your hands on a bottle, you will be rewarded with a mouthful of plush fruit, an almost creamy mid-palate, and a spicy, persistent and food-friendly finish.

A week ago I wrote about the evolution of the blended wine market in South Africa. This used to be the most discounted of all categories, the wines made from the contents of the least impressive tanks, barrels and varieties all thrown together to tidy up the cellar between one vintage and the next. Over the past three decades the whole concept of blends has been transformed and with it their perceived status. Nowadays, even when wines are entitled to single-cultivar labelling, some producers choose to sell them under proprietary brand names, a clear indication that single variety wines have been supplanted in the ultra-premium market.

This would never have happened if the new generation blends under-delivered in terms of complexity and drinking pleasure. Nothing illustrates this better than the latest (2013) vintage of a wine I tasted for the first time in years last week – the Bosman Adama red. A Rhone-style blend made up of Shiraz, mourvedre, grenache, cinsaut and viognier, it has spicy aniseed, licorice and black fruit aromas, well-managed tannins and the kind of nuance and detail almost impossible to find in comparably youthful single cultivar wines. No wonder blends are all the rage.

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