23 March 2017

Anthony Hamilton-Russell's Observations on Pinotage

As I fly home today after three weeks of enjoying superb Cape wines, many under labels I've never seen at home and brands I'd never even heard of previously I am reminded of Anthony Hamilton-Russell's long championing of Pinotage.

 Anthony Hamilton-Russell owns Southern Right Winery, (Pinotage and Sauvignon blanc specialists), Hamilton Russell Vineyards (Pinot Noir and Chardonnay) and Ashbourne (Pinotage and Sauvignon blanc/Chardonnay).

The following text comes from a PDF on the Southern Right web site.
Observations on Pinotage
Anthony Hamilton-Russell

Being “uniquely” South African is not enough to make Pinotage an attractive prospect for South African exporters. It is its South African origins combined with its ability to make great wine that make it an attractive prospect. 

I am convinced that the intrinsic qualities of Pinotage lend themselves to the making of great, age-worthy, origin expressive wine with a uniquely South African style and personality. 

I am also convinced that one day South Africa’s most internationally famous wine will be Pinotage based. 

The grape should not be blamed for much of the indifferent wine made from it. Imagine judging the quality potential of Cabernet only ever tasting mid to late-1980’s South African Cabernet. Luckily, every other variety we work with has an international benchmark somewhere to excuse the grape and point a finger at the producer or choice of site. 

As our wine industry internationalised, South African producers went from being over-confident on shaky foundations to lacking confidence on far firmer foundations. This lack of confidence has made far too many producers avoid anything that has not been successfully done by one of our international competitors. 

We run the risk of entrenching a “follower” mentality in the wine industry and being an industry of imitators not innovators. 

If we look at the top-end of our industry we are all too often essentially making South African imitations of somebody else’s wine styles. It is quite bizarre, that in South Africa, Rhonerangers are regarded as innovative. They have not even been the first to imitate the Rhone. 

Pinotage is the path of most resistance to Shiraz’s path of least resistance and it requires confidence and persistence to pursue this path. No international umbrella brand has been built through the efforts of others to trade on. 

I have generally found that wine-lovers with a confident and experienced palate, really respect great Pinotage – while inexperienced palates are reluctant to like something that has not been visibly and widely liked internationally – unless of course they don’t know what they are tasting. 

Pinotage as a variety still caries a “ball and chain” of associations with the old South African wine industry.  Many capable winemakers keen to be associated with all that is new and modern are reluctant to associate with the grape. 

It was a mistake to think that Pinotage could be South Africa’s signature red at all price points. I am increasingly convinced that it only really shines at the top-end, in the hands of focused boutique producers. Too few people are familiar with these wines and too many are familiar with high volume, hot climate, high yield lowend Pinotage. 

For far too many producers, Pinotage is an afterthought in a range of “international” reds. It is a difficult grape to grow and to vinify and unlike Shiraz in this country is highly site specific. It will punish a lack of physiological ripeness particularly hard (with esters and possible bitterness) and only really excels at low yields, while having a tendency to over-crop. It also does best with prolonged, expensive wood treatment. Those without focus and mental and financial commitment, will fail to excite with the variety. 

If more of our top producers, had the courage and confidence to put their backs into Pinotage (blended or otherwise) with more persistence, we would create a top-end sector of great interest to international consumers and of great value to the industry.  And we would finally have a top-end category not defined by its similarity to another country’s benchmarks. Producers working towards this are the innovators in the industry.


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