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New Wine Reviews: Pinotage

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As a California wine critic I came across very little Pinotage wine. Over the decades I drank maybe a few dozen, always from South Africa. I formed a generic impression of it, through both my own tastings and from reading other writers, as a dark red wine, dry and high in alcohol, that could be a little rustic—sort of the Zinfandel of South Africa.

But I didn’t really know. Wine critics can’t be expected to be experts on every one of the thousands of vitis vinifera varieties grown around the world! So it was nice when a P.R. rep from Vineyard Brands asked if I wanted to taste four South African Pinotages. Of course, I said yes.

Pinotage is a cross between Pinot Noir and Cinsault, created in South Africa in 1925. The name apparently was coined to suggest a red wine similar to Hermitage, which of course is made from Syrah. In theory, the developers of Pinotage wanted create a wine as delicious as Pinot Noir (thought at the time to be difficult to grow in South Africa), but as easy to farm as Cinsault.

I looked up the Pinotage ratings and reviews from my old magazine, Wine Enthusiast, and was surprised at the consistency of the scores: mainly between 85 points and 92 points, the former range dominated by less-expensive bottlings. Prices are nowhere near those of, say, Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon or the better California Pinot Noirs.

Ashbourne 2016 Pinotage (Hemel-En-Aared); $58. “Hemel-En-Aared” means “heaven and earth” in Afrikaans. Close to the coast, it has a cool maritime climate. In red wines, the region is famous for Pinot Noir, and this Pinotage has a Burgundian delicacy, while keeping the proper varietal size and weight. It’s easily the best of the four Pinotages I was asked to review. The acidity, which is so fierce in the other wines, has been tamed by letting the wine go through complete malolactic fermentation. Meanwhile, the tannins seem softer, allowing the full range of flavors to reveal themselves: succulent ripe blackberries, with suggestions of spicy cloves, oak-inspired vanilla, and a meaty-beefy teriyaki sweetness. The wine shows the classic proportions of finesse: balance, integrity, cleanliness, power, and complexity. The alcohol is a modest 14.1%. It’s a joy to drink now, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it aged well over the next six years. Score: 93 points.

Southern Right Pinotage (Walker Bay); $33. Walker Bay, being on the South Africa’s southeast Atlantic coast, is a cool-climate region, where Chardonnay and Pinot Noir thrive. Although Pinotage also does well in warmer locales, it shows a liveliness in Walker Bay that makes this wine especially attractive. (The name is an homage to the right whales which swim along the coast.) It shows bright, almost searing acidity and thick, furry tannins, with a dense, hugely-concentrated core of black cherry and black raspberry fruit, super-rich due to long hangtime. The oak notes of vanilla are subtle, while an intense spiciness thrives throughout. The finish is totally dry. An alcohol level of only 13.5% lends delicacy despite the hugeness of the fruit. This Pinotage really made me sit up and think. The fruit is sensational, but it’s the structure that strikes me—so much more complicated and architectural than anything in California. The wine defines itself in the mouth: you can feel its edges and corners. I suppose it will age, but there’s no reason not to drink it now with, say, beef, game or even Indian food. Score: 92 points.

Lievland 2017 Bushvine” Pinotage (Paarl). $19. The Paarl, in the Western Cape, is a warm region, little benefitting from the Atlantic, more than 100 miles away. The term “bush vine” is commonly used in South Africa to denote grapevines grown in the “goblet” or untrellised style, like they used to be. The wine is quite dry and austere, with lots of acidity. There are blackberry and coffee flavors, with plenty of black spices, especially pepper; the oak influence is subtle. Tannins are thick to the point of astringent. If you’re used to, say, Napa Cabernet, this is the complete opposite: not opulent, but rather bitter, more intellectual. For that reason I find it attractive. The winemaker blended in a little Cinsault and Shiraz, which adds to the complexity. All in all, a sophisticated wine which will nicely accompany—and needs–beef. Score: 89 points.

MAN Family Wines 2017 “Bosstok” Pinotage (Coastal Region); $12. “Bosstok” is a word referring to what South Africans call “bush vines”—“goblet,” or untrellised vines, generally used in warmer climates; the leafy canopy shelters the grape bunches from the sun. The “Coastal Region” appellation is a large one, accounting for nearly 50% of all the vines in South Africa. Bottled in a screwtop, with alcohol of 14.0%, it’s a pleasant wine, the kind I’d call an everyday sipper, especially given the price. It’s very dark in color; the flavors are somewhat bitter, with cherry skin, espresso and dark spice notes; there’s some unripeness that gives a green streak. The oak influence is low, lending a touch of vanilla bean. Acidity is pronounced, while the finish is thoroughly dry. The winery suggests slightly cooling it before drinking; this is a good idea, to tame the acids and tannins. Score: 86 points.

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