Cape crusaders versus the super grape

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Indy Lifestyle Online

Spare a thought for the late, some might say great, Abraham Isaac Perold.

Spare a thought for the late, some might say great, Abraham Isaac Perold. Stellenbosch's visionary boffin spliced Burgundy's pinot noir with the Rhône's cinsaut grape to create the Cape's very own grape back in 1925. After a competition to name his offspring, the "pino" from pinot noir was joined to the "tage" from hermitage (as cinsaut was known) and lo, pinotage was born. Yet it's unlikely the fruity professor could have predicted that his controversial brainchild would have taken more twists and turns than the Garden Route.

While the pioneering voortrekkers of the Pinotage Producers' Association (PPA) believe in the national grape's greatness, others are less convinced. Christian Eedes, a Cape wine journalist, argues that the next decade will belong to shiraz, and "the writing is on the wall for pinotage". The astonishing progress of shiraz in the Cape seems to confirm this view. All grapes have been outstripped by shiraz which has grown from 1 per cent to 7.5 per cent of the national production since 1995. Yet I'm not as convinced that pinotage is ready to be written off quite yet. Perold's baby has nearly trebled in growth, albeit at a more stately pace, from 2.7 per cent to 6.4 per cent. Somewhere out there, someone is rooting for pinotage.

Danie Steytler, whose Kaapzicht Steytler Pinotage is one of the best, believes that "pinotage is misunderstood". There are a number of reasons. It's a difficult grape which can taste bitter if not carefully handled but, according to Steytler, "when it's picked ripe and made properly, it gives an appealing sweet banana character". In the pinotage boom of the late 1990s, too much was planted in the wrong places. And, like California's zinfandel, away from home it suffers from expectations that it's going to be something special, when it's often best as a juicy, accessible, everyday red made to be drunk young.

Love it or loathe it, there's little doubt that, as pinotage is the Cape's USP, its proponents are keen to exploit its national-treasure status. The PPA thinks the answer lies in the Cape blend. Precisely what can or can't qualify as a Cape blend however is the hot potato du jour. Must a blend of internationally respected varieties such as cabernet sauvignon and merlot include pinotage, and if so, in what proportion? According to Warwick Estate's Mike Ratcliffe, "that a Cape blend must contain pinotage has been widely accepted by the industry. Apart from a handful of exceptions, it is uniquely South African and winemakers are making real strides to improve its character and image."

The PPA's advocacy of a mandatory 30-70 per cent pinotage in a Cape blend is all well and good when it includes quality pinotage blends such as Warwick's own deliciously juicy, raspberryish 2001 Warwick Three Cape Ladies (£11.99-£12.99, Wimbledon Wine Cellars, 020-8540 9979; Handford, 020-7589 6113; The Wine Society, 01438 740222), and good value blends like the youthful, berry-fruity 2002 Kanonkop Kadette (£5.99, Safeway).

But the recipe would not only exclude any blend without pinotage but also wines with less than 25 per cent pinotage, such as Clos Malverne's Auret, De Waal's Estate Wine, Martin Meinert's Synchronicity and the Michel Rolland-inspired Remhoogte Bonne Nouvelle. If this is what their winemakers consider necessary to make their best wine, why shouldn't a wine with a minimum of pinotage qualify? Indeed why shouldn't any blend, if it's the producer's best shot, be entitled to call itself a Cape blend? Just don't let the pinotage mob know what you're thinking.

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