I sat down with South African vintner Beyers Truter last week, to talk a bit about Pinotage. I haven’t been kind to the Pinotage grape – at one time South Africa’s most important red varietal. I find the wines dominated by rustic, stemmy notes and an aggressive tannin structure. On its own, I don’t see much future for Pinotage, though as a blending grape it has some merit.
In the last several years, Pinotage has receded from prominence among South African wines, while Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon have taken center stage. I’ve been a big supporter of this move, especially for Syrah.
Along with my complaints though, I’ve been careful to note that there are some exceptions. A few wineries (Fairview, Kanonkop and Simonsig) have produced outstanding bottles of Pinotage from time to time, and an association of South African winemakers still champions the grape. Beyers Truter is one of them.
Truter, 51, is arguably the dean of Pinotage, having produced the country’s most consistent version at Kanonkop from 1981 through 2003. He has since moved full-time to his own Beyerskloof label (which he started in 1988), where Pinotage features prominently in a number of his wines.
“Pinotage is an amazing variety,” says Truter. “The first thing you want to do when you’re a young winemaker is make a wine that can last 10 years so you can taste it then. Pinotage can do that.”
Truter founded the Pinotage growers' association, and he has experimented tirelessly with the grape during his career. He’s now handing out a few of his tricks of the trade to other vintners who are working with the grape – so perhaps quality will rise.
Pinotage’s inability to succeed here in the U.S. market so far has put pressure on growers; its acreage decreased in recent years (but is now holding steady), even though there are already a bevy of old-vine vineyards planted. While passionate about the grape, Truter isn’t pressing for Pinotage to be South Africa’s lone standard-bearer though.
“We can make our name with the varieties we have, not just Pinotage,” he says. “But Pinotage is definitely in the basket. It’s not the best variety in the world, but I think it can compete with the best in the world.”
What do you think? Have you tried any Pinotage?
Does an emerging wine country or region need a unique signature grape to help establish itself with consumers?
Do so-called signature grapes – such as Chile’s Carmenère or Austria’s Grüner Veltliner – bring needed diversity, or can a reliance on them actually hold a region back from potentially making better wines with other, more common grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon or Syrah?
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