Saved by the Cape crusader

South African pinotage was once condemned as tasting of 'rusty nails'. Anthony Rose defends a much-maligned grape
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Indy Lifestyle Online

If you've tried pinotage and didn't like it, don't give up yet. True, of all the modern alternatives to the ubiquitous Bordeaux style, South Africa's pinotage can have all the charm of a pit bull terrier. It's an infamously tricky grape prone to smells of varnish or baked banana and it can assault the palate with a burnt-rubber bitterness and brutal tannins. Yuck, I hear you spit. Why bother? Because it can be deliciously drinkable and good value, hissing and spitting with earthy, wild berry fruit characters. And because, with the odd exception, it's unique to South Africa.

That may be no reason in itself for persevering with it, especially with so many other interesting reds to choose from. But it's obviously a strong motivating factor in South Africa. The Pinotage Association, a 70-strong group of Cape producers, aims to promote worldwide pinotage's unique style as a premium quality wine. Having your own grape variety isn't everything, but if you have it, why not flaunt it? Australia after all has worked wonders turning shiraz into a delightfully succulent, mainstream red while Argentina is busy transforming the hitherto run-of-the-mill malbec grape into a modern classic.

Even if the crossing of burgundy's pinot noir and the Mediterranean cinsault grape never reaches the refined heights of true red burgundy, in its finest form, pinotage is capable of achieving an easy, juicy style of red often suffused with the heady scents of raspberry, loganberry and mulberry.

Although first bred in 1924 the name wasn't used on a wine label until Lanzerac Pinotage first appeared in 1961. In the 1970s, a group of British masters of wine visiting the Cape condemned it as tasting of "rusty nails". But one man, Beyers Truter, was convinced that it could be a South African saviour. Truter realised that the key to good pinotage was in channelling the energy of low-yielding bush vines into ripe grapes and then carefully vinifying the juice to avoid extracting bitterness. Truter became the standard-bearer for a modern pinotage crusade, and with his 1989 Kanonkop Pinotage, which won the Robert Mondavi Trophy in 1991, put the pretender on the throne.

Truter's understanding of the grape has attracted a new band of followers, such as Jeremy Walker at Grangehurst and Spice Route's Charles Back, prepared to pay the sort of meticulous attention to the idiosyncrasies of the variety that it needs. As a result, its revival makes it the most planted red in South Africa after cabernet sauvignon (although shiraz is set to overtake it).

According to Truter, the best wines divide into two main styles. Firstly, there's the medium-bodied, unoaked or lightly oaked, delicate burgundian style that often derives from cooler climatic conditions, and secondly the fuller-bodied style, complemented by new oak, which produces a powerful red in the blackberry and cassis style. All well and good when it works but the evils of unripeness, overextraction and indiscriminate use of new oak can create monster wines with bitter tannins or so much supposedly "sexy" new oak that the fruit is lost.

When you're shopping for pinotage, you could equally divide it into the good value, commercial styles at around a fiver whose main aim is a gluggy juiciness with no great pretensions, and the more serious, but not too serious, styles, which make the most of concentrated, well-made fruit and deft oak treatment. After recent tastings, I find that there are too few examples of the former, which makes it understandable why wine drinkers baulk at persevering with the more expensive, higher-quality styles.

Among a handful of good examples, the 2000 Beyerskloof Pinotage (£5.49 – £5.99, Sainsbury's, Oddbins, Unwins and Asda) stands out for its fragrant, mulberry juiciness, along with the 2001 Western Cape Soleil Pinotage (£4.99, Safeway), a more rustic but honest, organic red from Sonop.

The truism of the-more-you-pay-the-more-you-get applies when it comes to wines such as the 1998 Spice Route from Charles Back (£7.99, Sainsbury's), a powerful, succulently plummy red with a vivid, damson-fruit ripeness (look out for the fine 1999, which won a trophy at this year's International Wine Challenge). In the same category, I'd put the 1998 Clos Malverne Reserve (£8.49, D Byrne, Clitheroe; for stockists of the excellent, upcoming 1999, contact Capricorn Wines: 0161 908 1361), a distinctive wine full of wild berry fruitiness, always concentrated and extremely good value, and the 2000 Mooiplaas, (£8.49, Findlaters, Dublin, 00 353 1475 1699), a vibrantly juicy red with a wild, gamey edge to it but succulent, plummy fruit.

Sadly, the most elegantly burgundian pinotages, such as Scali and Grangehurst, are in such short supply that they're available only in restaurants or not at all. But look out for the 2000 Kaapzicht Pinotage (£9.99, available to order, S H Jones, Banbury, 01295 251179; Hedley Wright, Bishop's Stortford, 01279 465818), a succulent red full of ripe mulberry and loganberry fruitiness, and, limboing just under the £10 mark, the 1999 Bellingham Spitz Pinotage, (£9.99, Sainsbury's), combining wild berry fruit and cinnamon-spicy oak in an attractive package. The yardstick is the no-holds-barred traditional style of Beyers Truter's own 1999 Kanonkop, (£11.99, Majestic, Oddbins, Tesco), a muscular, concentrated, bear of a wine with sweet, spicy oak in abundance and needing five to 10 years to get into its stride. A giant stride at that.

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