16 February 2008

Making an Ultra-Premium Priced Boutique Pinotage

There is a new boutique winery in Paarl specialising in very low volume Pinotage. The winery is fitted out with the latest equipment, including small stainless steel fermenting tanks and a vibrating sorting belt. The location of this winery may surprise because it is owned by KWV and situated in their Paarl complex. But it operates a separate experimental research winery and it is the domain of Bertus Fourie. (pictured right)
Bertus has an affinity with Pinotage and is probably best known for the popular ‘coffee and chocolate’ interpretation that he pioneered when working at Diemersfontein, and KWV’s award winning ‘Café Culture’ mocha Pinotage released in September 2007.

I was lucky enough to be present when the 2008 Pinotage harvest was being processed by Bertus assisted by Anneka Du Plessis. After picking, the grape bunches had been transported to the winery where they’d been placed in a reefer (a refrigerated steel container seen on trucks and container ships) outside the winery door. They’d been cooled down to 10˚C which firmed up the grape berries. Then a conveyer belt lifted the whole bunches to a vibrating sorting bench where an operator removed any bunches with rotten or unripe grapes. At the end of the belt the bunches drop into a destemmer. Stems are ejected into a waste bin and the individual berries roll out onto another sorting bench. Here a team or workers picked out any remaining stalks (pictured below). “It makes a hell of a difference in avoiding unripe flavours”, Bertus told me. “From three tons of grapes the sorting team will take out maybe 15Kg of green stalks.”

Another conveyor belt lifts the hand selected berries up above a fermenting tank where they slide down a chute and between a pair of rollers placed over the tank hatch (pictured below). . “We leave it the last possible moment,” said Bertus. “We can adjust the rollers so can decide whether we want the entire berries to go through, or by how much they should be crushed.”

“This was a tricky year for Pinotage,” says Bertus. “It was quite a cool spring and early summer and sugars and phenolics were developing evenly, then the temperature just shot up which caused sugars to increase much faster than the phenolics. But these grapes are nice. They’re very small, giving a high extract: 27 sugar, 3.6pH and 6 acid. Magic!”

Bertus is using natural yeast fermentation, “Among other advantages, it seems to finish with an alcohol level about one degree lower than if we’d used a cultivated yeast. So we’re getting a complex Pinotage, but at 13.5% alcohol.”

It has been decided that the best barrels produced by this experimental boutique winery will be bottled separately and made available to the public under a new Mentor’s Selection label. The first vintage will be the 2006 Pinotage, and although the price has not been finalised, it will be at what KWV call ‘the top end of the ultra-premium prince point’ , in other words it is likely to cost much more than most other South African wines.

I tasted samples from two barrels of the 2007 vintage. These are works in progress and a long way from being ready, but the first was very exciting: smooth, lots of complex layers, good balance of subtle wooding and acids. “I want to emphasise the Pinot Noir characteristics,” says Bertus. I’m using 228 litre Latour Burgundy barrels. The second sample had brighter fruit and more forward acids, but didn’t seem as together as the first.

Then I tasted the 2006 Pinotage, which is now in bottle. This had spent 18 months in oak. It had good fruit, but the acids seemed a bit aggressive and wood tannins were strong on the finish. “We are not making a wine that should be drunk on release,” Bertus told me. “People who buy this will need to understand that it is a wine that needs to be cellared for a few years, at least, before it is ready to drink.” By now the bottle had been opened a short while, so I poured another measure and also gave a vigorous swirl to aerate it. On second taste it was less aggressive and, now with the explanation that it was a wine for the long haul, not immediate gratification, I could see the underlying potential. The wine is currently undergoing bottle maturation and is likely be released after another six months ageing.

I was impressed by KWV’s commitment to taking Pinotage to the highest levels, by hiring Pinotage expert Bertus Fourie and using labour intensive small scale winemaking. Was I seeing the birth of South Africa’s equivalent to Australia’s iconic Penfolds’ ‘Grange’?

Only time will tell, but an ultra-premium priced Pinotage can only enhance the overall status of the variety.

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