Thursday, July 26, 2007

Pinotage: Dis goed! [It's Good!]

After a long, gradual trip across the country from Durban, we were anxious to get to Cape Town. But not too anxious to rush through wine country! Even in comparison to the dramatic Garden Route cliffs and beaches we had just visited, the idyllic peaks and valleys of Stellenbosch and Paarl were stunning. Vineyards were nestled into the scenery, garnished with simple, white Cape Dutch manor houses. I tried to take some pictures, but we actually ended up in Stellenbosch on a rainy day

Showers didn’t keep me from the tasting glasses, though! I was traveling with my friend Melissa, and we managed to see 4 or 5 of the major wine estates in Stellenbosch in one day despite inclement weather. We tried to select estates for the variety of their offerings – to get the best of South African whites, reds, dessert wines and ports. I’m not well versed in South African wines but this was a great introduction.

For one, the country’s port selection converted me from a dedicated noble wine follower into a fan of sweet fortifieds as well. We found an Allesverloren port (2003 vintage) that I would happily trade a glass of braccheto in for after a nice meal. The wine has a sweet, woody bouquet with creamy chocolate and plum/raisin flavors – with a lingering fruity aftertaste. I’m going to try it out in some dessert recipes too! Allesverloren is actually in Riebeeck West, but if you’re in the Stellenbosch area, you can find some of their ports for sale in the Die Bergkelder (one of the region’s largest producers) cellars, as we did.

I'm far from an enologist or wine connoisseur, but this trip still turned me into an avid evangelist for South Africa’s signature, up-and-coming varietal, Pinotage. The grape is a vinifera hybrid of Hermitage (aka Cinsault) and the finicky Pinot Noir. It was developed right in wine country, at Stellenbosch University in 1925. The grape still comprises less than 10% of total grape wine acreage in SA, and it tends to be received with controversy – some love it, most don’t. But Pinotage is on the rise as more local winemakers and critics are touting its potential, particularly well-aged wines. The locally popular Cape Blend wines that abound in South Africa require Pinotage (30-70%) as a component.

Anyway, history and context aside, I found Pinotage to be an intriguing wine. Its taste varies considerably even between neighboring Stellenbosch estates. What I found to stay constant between vintages and estates, though, was a deep red wine with smoky and earthy flavors, mineral undertones, and sometimes notes of tropical fruits. Sound unusal? It was. Not quite as full bodied as a Shiraz, but not as heavy as a Cab Sauv.

I’ll be honest that it took me some time to find a Pinotage I was happy with. I knew it was uniquely South African before I landed in Johannesburg, but I struggled to find one that didn’t make my mouth pucker or overpower my meal with its aftertaste. We spent an evening at WineSense in Cape Town sipping over half a dozen varieties of Pinotage.

WineSense, by the way, is a place I absolutely, hands-down recommend to any wine fan – connoisseur, amateur or casual drinker alike. It’s a wine bar with a neat concept. Customers buy debit cards, top them up, and get tasting-size, half-glass, or full glass measures of wine dispensed from state-of-the-art machine kiosks. You get to run your own personal tasting! I tried a Simonsig RedHill Pinotage (2004) there which definitely satisfied (although if I had a bottle I’d age it a bit longer). I still remember the wine’s red berry flavors. If you're interested in more on Pinotage, Kanonkop is another major Pinotage producer in the region, and with Simonsig, its Pinotage wines regularly win international and national competitions (but we didn't make it out there).

But what I was really pleased with was a Pinotage (2005) I tried at Middlevlei estate. I didn’t find it as “big” as the Simonsig, but it was a nice, medium-bodied wine, not overpowering with its black berry flavors, with a nice hint of oak and smoke. Something to be had with a nice, spiced red meat dish (from the braai, perhaps?). And a few sips into the glass, there was something about the wine’s flavor that still played with my taste buds – exactly what I like in a glass of wine, a bit of mystery and adventure with an unfamiliar varietal!

1 comment:

Peter May - The Pinotage Club said...

Hi - I'd like to quote from this item on my blog -- would you email me? peter [at] pinotage [dot] org ?