Ever since South Africa's wine industry re-entered the export market in the 1990s, the country's vintners have been debating the creation of a special category of blended red wine. Now some producers have simply gone ahead and released the first bottles with the words "Cape Blend" on the label.
The issue was whether the blend, to be truly expressive of the Cape region, should contain Pinotage, an indigenous grape variety (a cross of Pinot Noir and Cinsault) that has not found widespread international favor. Although the country has not yet formally created a Cape Blend designation, some winemakers -- many of whom already produce very good, single-varietal Pinotage bottlings -- have decided for themselves that this is a way to distinguish their wines in the global market.
"We make excellent Bordeaux-style and even Australian-inspired red wine blends in the Cape, but by using Pinotage judiciously, we are adding a different, special dimension," said Seymour Pritchard, owner of Clos Malverne Winery, which will release four different Cape Blend bottlings this year. Pritchard has been experimenting with Pinotage blends for a number of years; Clos Malverne's flagship Auret Reserve is a blend of 60 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 25 percent Pinotage and 15 percent Merlot.
Among the other Cape Blend—designated wines that will be exported to the United States are Warwick Estate's Three Cape Ladies 2000 (92 points, $23) and a new release from well-known Kanonkop winemaker Beyers Truter, the Beyerskloof Synergy Cape Blend 2001. Both contain Pinotage, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.
"In the crowded global market, a well-made wine of distinct character will stand out," said Mike Ratcliffe, director of Warwick Estate. He points out that the Cape Blends are being made by South Africa's top producers, using their best grapes and giving the wines the best wood treatment. "The formula has been almost completely winemaker-driven up to now."
However, Cape Blend supporters are arguing for a formal definition of designation, so that the term can be used with consistency. They are talking to the South Africa Wine & Spirits Board about establishing restrictions, such as requiring a minimum of 20 percent Pinotage in the blend. The other grape varieties used in the blend would not be regulated, though Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot seem to be the preferred partners.
The term is gaining acceptance in South Africa's wine industry. This year, the country's premium national wine show, Veritas, will have for the first time a Cape Blend category for blends that include Pinotage.
But in the United States, the Cape Blend designation may have little meaning for consumers, since the wines in question typically are labelled more prominently with proprietary names.
A few South African winemakers disagree with including Pinotage in a Cape Blend, as some people simply do not like the taste of Pinotage wines, which can have a bitter edge. One such is the cellar master of Vergelegen Estate: Although he is outspoken about making terroir-expressive blends, André van Rensburg will not work with Pinotage, straight or blended. "Why bother?" he said succinctly.
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