Being guided around pinotage

Will we ever be allowed to relax about pinotage, I wonder, on a national or individual level? There’s too much of both aggression and defensiveness being bandied about at present. The subject of the rainbow grape came up recently at a dinner focusing on some splendid rose wines from Domaine Ott in the south of France, and wasn’t treated with much reverence.

My own general opinion that it is absurd to make too many sweeping generalisations about the variety – it’s clearly not an undoubtedly great one (like pinot noir and cabernet sauvignon, for example), but some fine wines have been made from it, and many more decent ones, especially the deliciously unpretentious ones. I mentioned at this dinner – as an instance of my willingness to like pinotage – that I’d recently bought three bottles of Kanonkop 2009. At which point I was leapt upon by Christian Eedes, because this was taken to contradict the fact that I’d been dismissive of most of the five-star pinotage candidates for Platter this year and was therefore in the camp of the enemies of God’s (and IA Perold’s) gift to Cape viticulture.

Well, indeed I was hostile to the dominant style of pinotage that some of my fellow Platter judges thought worthy of five stars – I found most of them overripe, overworked and over-oaked. Poor old Kanonkop, guilty of none of those things, came last in that particular line-up, and was, quite simply, a victim of the earlier assault on my tastebuds.

I’ve been looking at the little book recently issued by the Pinotage Association (available from Association member wineries or downloadable from the Association website), wondering just how much it will help the uncommitted. Or help me try to work out what the Association thinks about the various styles of pinotage.

The book is fine for some things – there’s a little bit of history, there are a few recipes including pinotage, there are profiles of the top 20 producers according to the Classification of 2011 as determined by the results of the first 15 years of the Top 10 competition (sponsored by Absa, as I presume this book is), there are good wineland maps showing pinotage producers – whose details are also given, along with characterisations of their wine.

Am I being unfair in finding the whole effort more dutiful than exciting, the presentation of the story done without a trace of flair?

There’s little for the seriously interested person, rather unfortunately. Little about how pinotage is grown and vinified, and the choices in vineyard and cellar that have an effect on the resulting wine. That seems a missed opportunity. There’s almost nothing about the different styles of pinotage, which is the biggest shortcoming of the book. There is a pinotage aroma wheel – for what it’s worth, which is not a lot in my opinion, as there’s no guidance as to why there are so many aromas (from cloves to a dozen kinds of berry, not to mention banana) and what they mean. A list is a list, and pretty dull and meaningless on its own, even if it’s arranged in a circle with a lot of bright colours.

Coffee is included among the aromas, incidentally – but there’s no editorial comment on the whole new genre of “coffee pinotage”. And of course not a word (in the aroma wheel or elsewhere) about the bitterness that has historically been a major problem in wines made from pinotage.

Even more bizarrely – until you remember that this book seems to be more an accompaniment to the Top 10 competition than a book about pinotage – there’s no significant mention of pinotage as a blend (and the note on Welgemeend Amade doesn’t even mention that it was the country’s first declared blend with pinotage – over 30 years ago).

Beyers1All in all, I’m rather disappointed by the book. It’s great that the Pinotage Association works so hard to get people interested in the grape (they do more than any other equivalent association, as far as I can see), but I don’t think that this book is evidence that they do it well. A wasted opportunity, I’d say – a lot of money and effort spent, with a rather lacklustre outcome. I’m genuinely regretful to be lacking in enthusiasm in recommending all doubters to go out, read the book and be convinced.

My favourite thing there is this marvellous photograph of Beyers Truter gazing at his glass of Beyerskloof. It’s like a cross between an 18th century Dutch genre study of a drunken peasant and a renaissance Italian picture of a saint contemplating a miracle.

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