I know my tastes often run contrary to both the mainstream and to the tastes of people who know wine. I like wines from out of the way places, or from lesser known varieties. I’m not a huge fan of Bordeaux, or Burgundy for that matter, but not because I don’t like their wines. I’m just more interested in what else is out there, like forgotten parts of France or emerging areas in the New World. This wine is indulging my contrarian tastes, in that the grape is fairly well know, just not widely loved. I give you the Warwick Estate Old Bush Vines Pinotage 2010.
Now let me first clarify that last statement in that it’s the grape, Pinotage, which is held in less that illustrious esteem, irrespective of producer, and secondly, that statement is largely true outside of South Africa, where the grape is a local icon. Those disclaimers firmly in place, let me tell you about Pinotage, and why I think people should give it a chance.
Pinotage is a modern grape, one of the rare varieties that can be traced to a very specific birthdate. It was created in 1925 by Abraham Izak Perold, a professor at Stellenbosch University, by crossing Pinot Noir and Cinsault (which was known as Hermitage locally). The notion was to try to combine the fine wine character of Pinot Noir with the reliability in the vineyard of Cinsault. The resulting vine is relatively easy to grow, both as bush vines or trained. It ripens early, and can give consistently high yields. It was first commerically planted at Kanonkop Estate in 1941 and the name Pinotage first appeared on a wine label twenty years later on the Lanzerac brand from the Stellenbosch Farmer’s Winery.
There are a few things to know about Pinotage which are not strictly about the vine. First, it is completely New World. While it is a cross between classic grapes of Burgundy and the Rhône, it is identified uniquely with South Africa, though there are some experimental plantings in places such as Australia, New Zealand, and the United States.
Second, this means that as a variety, it is often burdened by whatever people generally think of South Africa and/or South African wine. While I think most people who have been there in the last ten years will agree that it is a progressive, emerging country with some innovative winemakers, many people still associate South Africa with the oppressive system of government that made it an international pariah, and the cheap and nasty wine that characterized that era. I believe this can be seen as recently as the burnt rubber criticisms levelled at South African wines over the last few years, despite such character being found in wines from around the world.
And finally, Pinotage, like all varieties, has a unique flavour profile which some people enjoy and some people don’t. At its best it can produce an intense, long-lasting wine with black fruit and rich tannins, which develops notes of brambles, chocolate and earthiness. However, it can also develop excessive amounts of isoamyl acetate which can give it flavours ranging from bananas to nail varnish and paint. And as with every variety, how the grapes are grown and how they are made into wine has at least as much influence as the variety itself, and there are examples of both great and rubbish wine made from Pinotage.
Right, so that’s my take on Pinotage, and there’s scarcely space left to talk about the producer and the region. Fortunately, we’ve covered this region before, when I took a look at Haute Cabrière, so have a look there for a recap, and now it’s down to talking about Warwick Estate.
The farm on which they’re based, just north of Stellenbosch, was established in 1771, though it only picked up the current name in 1902 when it was purchased by a British officer and renamed in honour of the regiment he commanded in the Anglo Boer war. Stan and Norma Ratcliffe purchased the property in 1964 and grew Cabernet Sauvignon which they sold to local wineries for twenty years before taking the plunge into making their own wine. Their first proper vintage was 1984, and two years later they first released Warwick Trilogy, their flagship Bordeaux blend. To this day the company is still family owned and run, and funnily enough Mike, son of Stan and Norma, attended the University of Adelaide and received a Graduate Diploma in Wine Marketing. (Small world.)
In addition to Trilogy, the company produces a trio of varietal wines from Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz and Pinotage branded the Three Cape Ladies, varietal Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and a reserve Bordeaux blend.
For me, this wine was meant to be another ticked box in terms of advancing toward 100 varietal wines from different grapes, and one I which I expected to find most satisfying as Pinotage is somewhat thin on the ground here in Australia. Imagine my surprise and disappointment when I discovered that in fact this wine is a blend, with 12% Cabernet Sauvignon. I have nothing against blends, and certainly nothing against Cabernet Sauvignon, but really, I was after a varietal wine. This is not the first time it’s happened to me – a certain Gamay and Carignan spring to mind. I know, there’s no need to mention minor blending partners if they constitute less than 15% of a blend, but still, it means I’m going to have to dig up another Pinotage sometime soon. There are actually a few Australian producers, so perhaps a compare and contrast is in order.
In the glass this wine is clear and bright, medium plus ruby, quick thin legs with some colour to them. On the nose it’s clean and youthful, with medium plus intensity, black cherries, sweet spice, liquorice, and a hint of tar. On the palate it’s dry, with medium plus acidity, medium plus green tannins, medium plus alcohol, medium plus intensity, and medium plus length. It has notes of sour cherry, a bit of funk, some stem/stalk, cedar, chocolate, and more liquorice.
This is a very good wine – strong fruit, but a certain underlying richness. It will certainly get better over the short term, though I don’t think it’s destined for decades of ageing. While young and fresh, it does have a bit of complexity on the palate. It shows no unfavourable aspects that people commonly (and sometimes wrongly) ascribe to Pinotage, and I’d love to serve this blind to the next person who speaks ill of the variety.