Pinotage is a troubled grape—difficult to grow and vinify, never really very charming, yet held up by many in South Africa as the Cape's signature variety. Its plantings have dipped a bit in recent years in favor of more international varieties such as Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon, and it seems to never have grabbed a foothold in the U.S. market, which Cape winemakers desperately want to crack open. Yet despite that, it still holds a significant place in the hearts of the home folks. And at Kanonkop, it sees arguably its best expression.
That's in no small thanks to the efforts of winemaker Abrie Beeslaar, 39, who followed in the footsteps of legendary winemaker Beyers Truter after taking over at Kanonkop in 2002. Stocky and with just a snip of close-cropped hair left on top, Beeslaar speaks with the clear local tang of Afrikaans. He's also now well on his way to achieving his own exalted status. I am no fan of Pinotage, but what Beeslaar is doing with the grape is nothing short of outstanding. He's brought a new quality level to Kanonkop's wines, as well as a new-found consistency. The occasional rusticity or even bretty note in the wines is gone, replaced by a purity and focus that, frankly, I didn't think the graps was capable of. And those improvements extend to the winery's Paul Sauer Cabernet blend, Cabernet Sauvignon bottling and basic Kadette bottling as well.
As always, good wine starts in the vineyards though. So we jumped in Beeslaar's bakkie and headed out into the hilly terrain above the winery to kick the dirt.
"Pinotage here has some leaf roll virus, but the virus isn't all that bad for Pinotage," said Beeslaar, as he pointed to the signature red-edged, curled up leaves on some vines that mark the pesky vine disease. "Pinotage ripens very quickly after veraison, sometimes just 21 days, and since the virus retards ripening, it slows things down a little bit and allows for some complexity to develop. Of course, a healthy vine is always better. But leaf roll in Pinotage isn't the same as leaf roll in a later-ripening cultivar such as Cabernet."
Kanonkop is a large estate of 345 acres, with 100 under vine. Production currently stands at just over 83,000 cases annually, with the basic Kadette bottling (a $15 blend of Pinotage, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc) representing the fastest recent growth, moving from 25,000 cases to 60,000 cases since 2005. Pinotage represents 40 percent of the estate's plantings and Beeslaar loves working with the property's old bush vines, favoring those on dry-farmed, south-facing slopes with deep red clay and granite soils.
"As soon as you put Pinotage on a wire trellis, berry size increases," said Beeslaar. "And with the bush vines, the wind really helps keep the canopy vigor and shoot length down. So these parcels at the top of the estate get small, loose clusters with small, thick-skinned berries. That way the faster ripening period doesn't result in uneven ripening."
At one point, we stepped out to check out a hole in the vineyard. Beeslaar jumped in and started chipping away at the dirt wall, exposing the vines that had crept their way down (see the accompanying video for more).
"The root structure has no limitation. It can work its way through this stuff easily. And with dry farming, it's forced to look anywhere it can for water. Pinotage is very site specific, more so than Shiraz I think," he said. "I'd like to think that's the Pinot Noir parentage coming through. I think some people overreach with Pinotage, putting it on sandy soils where it doesn't work well. Every farmer thinks their farm is best and they can grow anything. But you know, the difference between grand cru and premier cru in Burgundy is just a road sometimes—not kilometers and kilometers. We need to start thinking like that here South Africa. We're still getting our heads around certain varieties for certain slopes or certain soils."
Working Pinotage correctly extends into the winery too, where Beeslaar ferments the destemmed grapes in open-top cement vats, inoculating for the primary fermentation.
"Pinotage has high nitrogen content naturally which causes fast ferments, so I need to use yeasts that slow the process down a little so I can get extra time on the skins. But I still need to be gentle with the extraction—as soon as the alcohol moves up, I stop the punch down. Over-extraction of Pinotage is another common problem. You can't do a post maceration, so we pull the juice off the skins before the alcoholic ferment stops and let it finish in tank."
"Cabernet you can work harder. Pinotage has tougher skins, though, and higher malic acidity, so the danger is astringent tannins, lower total acidity and higher pH, which is not a good combination," said Beeslaar. "You can't just transfer knowledge of Cabernet or Syrah to Pinotage. That's why the grape has struggled."
The tasting room is a dusty bin-walled chamber a few steps down from the barrel room, with numerous old bottles attesting to the estate's history. Beeslaar opened the 2008 Pinotage Simonsberg-Stellenbosch, which blends eight different vineyard parcels, nearly half of which are old vines. The tannins are long and persistent, but pure and polished, while the mouthwatering Campari, red currant and stone note play out from start to finish. The 2008 Pinotage Simonsberg-Stellenbosch Cape Winemakers Guild uses the fruit from the 40-year-old vines on top of the estate's rolling hills, where the particularly deep soils help produce a wine with a distinctly floral note before giving way to dark, steeped black currant and plum fruit, long, fine tannins and a nice sappy echo on the finish.
The estate's oldest vines, a 60-year-old parcel at the bottom of the estate, where the soils are actually shallower, goes into the 2008 Pinotage Simonsberg-Stellenbosch Black Label. The hen's teeth cuvée of just 125 cases is typically quickly gobbled up by collectors, and it's easy to see why, as the wine displays intense licorice snap, blackberry and tar notes, but is backed by a long, perfumy, black tea-filled finish and a tarry echo. The latter two are available only through auction or private mailing list, but the commercial release is nearly their equal in quality, and the wine repays cellaring, as evidenced not only by today's tasting but the vertical tasting I did back in May 2010.
Beeslaar poured his Pinotage into Burgundy glasses, rather than Bordeaux vessels. "Again, probably the Pinot Noir side of the grape, but that's the shape glass I prefer," he said. He poured the 2010 Pinotage Simonsberg-Stellenbosch, the current release which merited an outstanding rating officially when I reviewed it last year. It's mellowed just a touch since then, still showing the pure, dark plum and blackberry fruit, but now hinting at perfumy rooibos tea and singed apple wood notes as well, with a nicely tuned finish. And it has the stuffing to easily age for another five to eight years, gaining more nuance as it does.
Perfumy. Nicely tuned. Pure. Not words I would normally have used to describe Pinotage. But that was before Abrie Beeslaar came along