Drink: Cape crusader

New wine from New South Africa. By Anthony Rose
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As our insatiable thirst for quality red wine seems to be increasingly channelled into Bordeaux styles, it's encouraging to see parts of the New World challenging tastebuds with flavoursome alternatives. Shiraz from Australia and, to an extent, Zinfandel from California and Malbec from Argentina have already added more than their pennyworth to the flavour spectrum. More recently, it's become the turn of the Pinotage grape to add a dash to the Cape's palette of flavours.

It's taken rather longer than the original Mr Pinotage, Professor Abraham Isak Perold, might have hoped. Perold, based at Stellenbosch University, made the crossing in 1924 from the Pinot Noir grape of Burgundy and the workhorse Cinsaut grape, confusingly known at the time as Hermitage. The name Herminot, according to Beyers Truter, the Cape's latter-day Mr Pinotage, was actually considered as an option, but soon discarded as a dog's breakfast of a name in favour of the more credible, not to mention euphonic, Pinotage.

No one seems to know exactly why Prof Perold should have wanted to try the vinous equivalent of crossing a whippet with a cocker spaniel. But since most of South Africa is too parched for the delicate grape of red Burgundy, it's understandable that a creative mind searching to reproduce at least some of the classic flavours of Burgundy should choose as a mate for the delicate Pinot Noir a grape which thrives in the Cape's hot climate.

Things didn't work out quite as the great professor had in mind. The first commercial Pinotage was planted in the mid-1940s but no one paid much attention to the new crossing until the Pinotages of Bellevue and Kanonkop swept the Cape wine shows of 1959 and 1961 as champions.

Even that vote of confidence didn't spark a riot, as it were. The outside world was oblivious to Pinotage, which was still widely regarded as a downmarket variety in South Africa, suitable for little more than rustic, everyday quaffers. Treated as such, the quality criteria Beyers Truter cites as all-important - good location in unirrigated vineyards for low yields and harvesting for ripeness and careful cellar treatment - were ritually ignored. So much so that as recently as 1993, Pinotage had fallen from just under three per cent of South Africa's vineyards to 2.2 per cent.

In 1989, Beyers Truter produced a Pinotage from the Kanonkop Estate under the Cape Independent Winemaker's Guild label, which in 1991 was awarded the Roberto Mondavi Trophy at the International Wine & Spirit Competition. And he took the Winemaker of the Year title, the first South African winemaker to do so. Suddenly, Pinotage was as sexy as New Labour. But it still took until two years ago for demand to catch up with supply.

Not surprisingly, there's now something of a mad rush to plant Pinotage, but it could be too little too late. Only two-thirds of the 3,200 hectares under vine is made up of old bush-vine material - from which the lower- yielding grapes and most of the quality wines come. According to Truter, Pinotage can only produce a good wine when it's medium or full-bodied. "I'd rather drink a half-bottle at 13.5 per cent alcohol than a bottle and a half at 11.5 per cent," he says.

And to achieve that sort of juicy ripeness and full-bodied fruitiness, Pinotage needs to be planted in bushes and not trained on wires. "Bush vines keep the crop levels down and the grapes are nearer to the soil which helps them to ripen faster," says Truter.

Traditionally, Pinotage wasn't given the oak treatment normally reserved for fine reds, but largely thanks to Truter's influence, small new oaks barrels add a genuine touch of class to this exuberantly fruity grape. American oak, according to Truter, is gaining ground as the best medium for maturing the wine, although for his own Kanonkop, he himself prefers French.

In the hands of a top producer like Simonsig, however, eschewing oak altogether can produce a vibrantly fruity red such as the delicately perfumed, loganberry-like 1996 Pinotage, pounds 7.49, from the South African Wine Centre, 70 Wigmore St, London W1 (0171-224 1994). On a more commercial level, the 1996 Culemborg Unwooded Pinotage, pounds 4.29, Waitrose, has the typically exuberant wild strawberry and raspberry jam character of the unoaked style.

Young Pinotage tends to be a very deep red-purple, typically with flavours of red, sometimes black, fruits and, occasionally, a strange, almost baked banana-like character. One of its virtues is its easy-going lack of aggression or tough tannin and the capacity to be enjoyed young. Among the Cape's best estate Pinotages, Warwick's is consistently good, the 1996, pounds 7.99 Wine Rack, Bottoms Up, Waitrose, is an enticingly perfumed, raspberry fruity example, while the 1996 Clos Malverne Pinotage, Stellenbosch, pounds 6.49, Oddbins, is supple, richly oaked and redolent of black fruit flavours.

For good value, try the 1996 Swartland Reserve Pinotage, pounds 5.49, Oddbins, a wine full of oaky aromas and attractive strawberry-like fruitiness. From Mr Pinotage himself, the 1996 Beyerskloof Pinotage, Oddbins, pounds 5.49 Victoria Wine, pounds 5.99 (aka Tesco Beyers Truter Pinotage, pounds 4.99), is one of the best value examples on the market, a fragrant, mulberry-rich red made from old vines balancing sumptuous fruit with the stylishness of French oak

'Grapevine 1998' by Anthony Rose and Tim Atkin is published by Ebury Press at pounds 8.99. 'Independent' readers can order a copy for only pounds 6.99 (p&p free) by telephoning 01206 255800

Red of the week

1996 Valdivieso Malbec, pounds 4.99, Thresher Wine Shops, pounds 4.49, Fuller's, Wine Rack, Bottoms Up. Dangerously moreish, the 1996 Valdivieso Malbec is a rich, almost chocolately number with a smooth-as-silk texture and sumptuous blackcurrant fruit flavours. At under pounds 5, drink as an everyday alternative to claret.

White of the week 1996 Salice Salentino Bianco, pounds 3.99, Tesco's 188 top stores; pounds 4.49 Somerfield. Three months lying on its grape lees has given this full-bodied, southern Italian unoaked Chardonnay from Australian Kym Milne a degree of complexity and a refreshingly crisp, citrus fruity tang.

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