Editor Andrew Arnott
Andrew studied Literature and Sociology at UCT before setting off on a global trek that saw him working under the seas of the Caribbean, on the snow covered slopes of the Canadian Rockies and writing for a variety of financial and travel institutions. Now at home in Cape Town, Andrew’s passions for wine and writing are married on this blog.
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Is Pinotage The New Popular? Posted on October 13 2014 by
The variety has long laboured under huge expectations of delivering what South Africa can claim to be its signature world beating classic red wine. Has it perhaps been pushed beyond the boundaries of what wine-drinkers want or like, irrespective of what promoters think it’s capable of? Wendy Toerien looks at the provenance of three of Classic Wine’s top-scoring Pinotages to gauge its current standing.
Flagstone founder and maverick vintner Bruce Jack and his chief winemaker Gerhard Swart are unequivocal about the merits of Pinotage. Writing in the Flagstone online newsletter in 2012 about the imminent launch of their ultra-premium Time Manner Place Pinotage Reserve, the inimitable Bruce (a qualified man of letters as well as a trained winemaker) said: ‘We love the variety. Like its mother Pinot Noir, only a few examples can be life-changing for the drinker. But when exceptional, the wine will stay with you forever, because when made correctly, it is one of the most delicious, complex wines imaginable.’
The caveat ‘when made correctly’ is instructive. Add to that Bruce’s summation of their philosophy – ‘We look for unique terroir in diverse regions and match it to specific varieties; that’s the Flagstone way’ – and youhave the reasons for the success of the Flagstone Writer’s Block 2012.
In fact, the latter comes from the same single vineyard as the former: a little over three hectares of vines running up and over a foothill facing south-east to north-west on the Waaihoek Mountain between Wolsley and Worcester.
The American-owned property, called Silkbush, is managed by co-owner/shareholder Anton Roos: ‘Six foot tall and six foot wide and hunts buffalo with a bow and arrow,’ says Bruce, who went knocking after studying maps of the area on one of his many winewinkling forays into the Cape countryside. Planted in 2002 in partially weathered shale and decomposed granite soils, the vines have been producing the grapes for the Writer’s Block Pinotage since the 2006 vintage.
‘Nice way to celebrate this great vineyard’s 10th anniversary with the recognition afforded the 2012,’ smiles Gerhard.
He’s become intimately familiar with that vineyard since joining the Flagstone team in 2008, happily trudging its length and breadth stretching steeply from a creditable 600m to some 720m above sea level. This makes it the highest vineyard in the area and among the higher sites anywhere in the South African winelands. This is unusual for Pinotage, not often afforded the luxury of such prime growing conditions.
Gerhard, accompanied by viticultural consultant Chris Keet,tastes the grapes up to 10 times during the window period of optimum ripeness. Pickers may be sent in up to four times as the rows reach full ripeness at different times, the slow-ripening, highlying bunches producing fruit of rare concentration.
South African wine-growers like Flagstone, serious about producing premium Pinotage, are beginning to explore cooler climes vaunted for other classic varieties. Pinotage is particularly responsive to food, water and warmth, ripening fairly quickly and bearing generously, resulting in high sugars that produce wines with high alcohol and an overripe, ‘jammy’ fruit character.
To combat this, the variety has in the past been picked too early, which is thought to have been the main cause of the controversial ‘bitterness’ that started popping up in even the best Pinotages of the ’90s. ‘Pinotage berries have a particularly thick skin, so the grape has to be completely ripe to avoid “green” tannins,’ says Swart.
Being pernickety about berry quality, Flagstone ‘green harvests’ during ripening: cutting out green or uneven-ripening bunches, sometimes dropping up to 30% of the crop in a season.
After picking by hand in small lug boxes and trucking to the Flagstone cellar in Somerset West – a converted turn-of-the-20thcentury Sir Herbert Baker-designed dynamite factory – the grapes are quickly consigned to a chill room. A gentle destemming, followed by hand-sorting, leaves only ‘those perfect little black berries’ for ferrying to tanks via a big mash pump, breaking just about half of the grapes, otherwise allowing for normal maceration. This is followed by cold soaking for a further three to five days.
Gerhard uses three ‘special’ yeasts for his Pinotage – selected after several years of experimentation – for fermenting in eight or nine different tanks, small and large. The wine is then divided into French and American oak barrels of varying ages, of which only some 30% is new.
The dedication applied in the vineyard continues in the maturation cellar. Gerhard tastes and tastes again, working through all of Flagstone’s some 1 000 barrels throughout the year, again sampling every barrel towards the end of the maturation period, and then tasting daily when it comes to blending the various components for a wine like the Writer’s Block (which has usually spent about 18 months in wood).
He describes this particular expression of Pinotage as ‘full-ripe but elegant, with promise of longevity’. It’s a style born of the grapes’ origins in the Waaihoek vineyard with its naturally high fruit acids and low pH. But it comes too from the ‘fire-and-water, mediumtoasted-plus’ barrels he prefers. ‘They give less vanillin character and more spiciness.’
Gerhard’s mantra is to ‘remain true to the wine’. It informs his preference for mostly second-fill and older barrels for the Writer’s Block. ‘The Time Manner Place can carry mostly new wood, some 60% of which is American [for the Writer’s Block, it’s closer to 90% American oak] because of the fruit intensity and pronounced essential character of the wine produced from the slow-ripened grapes on those top rows in outstanding vintages.’ (It’s the only time this ultra-premium production, currently 1 200 bottles at R800 each, will be considered.)
The Writer’s Block Pinotage is the next best thing. And whatever is not deemed worthy of what was originally tagged in 1999 by Bruce as ‘for anyone struggling to write a novel’, or does not fit the Writer’s Block’s specific profile, filters down into the Dragon Tree blend with Cabernet and Shiraz.
And the team know their Pinotage. They make as well as buy in at almost every price point for international wine company Accolade Wines, owner of Flagstone and its selected, small subsidiary ranges, as well as Accolade’s globally best-selling Fish Hoek and Kumala labels.
Says Gerhard: ‘The thing about Pinotage is that the variety is so versatile, capable of producing great quality in any style: a powerful blockbuster, a lovely commercial wine, a Rosé… if it’s planted in the right place and you give it the care it deserves!’