Meet the Pinotage pundits who topped the final list at the 2017 Diners Club Winemaker of the Year competition
It hasn’t always been plain-sailing for Pinotage, the uniquely South African grape cultivar created by Abraham Izak Perold in 1925. Presumably, the University of Stellenbosch professor hoped that crossing noble Pinot Noir with disease-resistant Cinsault (then known as Hermitage) would result in wines reminiscent of great Burgundy, but prove easier to grow.
Unfortunately, Pinotage grew all too vigorously in sunny South Africa, and it has taken several decades for producers to work out how best to handle it to avoid unpleasant acetone aromas and jammy or bitter flavours. Happily, the judges didn’t find too many of those in the 2017 Diners Club Winemaker of the Year line-up, with the four runners-up showing that Pinotage is in safe hands.
DGB Bellingham Cellar
Bellingham Homestead Pinotage 2016
Niël Groenewald is living proof that appearances can be deceiving… You might think that at over two metres tall, the DGB Bellingham winemaker would have been a great rugby player: In fact, he was better at athletics. You might also expect that he’d compare his personality, in wine terms, to a full-bodied blockbuster. Instead, he says he’s more like Pinot Noir: ‘Difficult to handle but, when treated well, will make the best wine in the world.’
Interestingly, he was deliberately trying to express Pinotage’s Pinot heritage in his Homestead Pinotage Reserve 2016: ‘A new and refreshing style with sour cherry and strawberry flavours and only a hint of oak.’ The grapes came from low-yielding bush vine vineyards in the Bottelary Hills area of Stellenbosch, with viticulturist Stephan Joubert guiding them through the warmer 2016 vintage, which was relatively dry and disease free, but resulted in a smaller crop than usual.
Harvested by hand, the grapes were then bunch sorted and berry sorted before being slow-fermented on the skins in open fermenters with regular punch-downs for colour and flavour extraction, then moved into a tank to undergo malolactic fermentation, and finally into barrels. ‘This is a great wine that happens to be Pinotage,’ says Groenewald, a strong believer in minimal intervention. ‘I see myself as a “fermentations controller” – not “making” anything, just guiding a process and keeping the yeast happy.’
Following stints at Neethlingshof, Seidelberg and Perdeberg Co-Op, the University of Stellenbosch-trained winemaker has been Bellingham’s winemaker for 13 years, and he is proud that the historic DGB-owned cellar in Wellington was the first to produce Shiraz and Rosé in South Africa. ‘We have an experimental cellar and a boutique cellar within the bigger setup, and we harvest 35 different varieties each year. No Cab or Merlot, but a very strong focus on Chenin Blanc, Shiraz and Pinotage.’
He feels that South Africa’s ‘own’ grape is perfectly adapted to local conditions. ‘However, you need to respect it and treat it differently from any other red variety, both in the vineyard and cellar. If treated correctly, it has the purest of fruit and wonderful agreeability.’
Determined to change the world’s perception of South Africa as a cheap and cheerful wine producer, Groenewald’s motto in life is #LiveLife. ‘Never be sorry the next day about something you did not experience.’ He loves cooking, reading, travelling with his wife, Marti, and playing with their son, Phillip.
Môreson Widow Maker Pinotage 2015
Born in King William’s Town in the Eastern Cape, University of Stellenbosch-trained winemaker Clayton Reabow reveals that he has gone back to his French Huguenot roots in working at family-owned Môreson in Franschhoek. ‘I find it peculiar that 330 years after the first French Huguenots arrived, I have settled in the same valley, plying the same trade as my ancestors.’
Married to Leigh, with whom he has two daughters, he says his motto in life is ‘to value and trust myself and others’ – and when it comes to wine, he is first and foremost a champion of Chardonnay. ‘At Môreson, our singular goal is to produce the world’s best Chardonnay in an innovative and sustainable manner.’
He also has a collective vision: ‘To establish Franschhoek as one of the best wine appellations in South Africa. Championing our Wine of Origin Franschhoek status is very important to us.’
The big question is how Pinotage fits into the picture – and, in short, it doesn’t! ‘It’s the only wine we produce that isn’t from Franschhoek,’ says Reabow. ‘For years, we questioned ourselves and our integrity as Franschhoek producers, but eventually we decided that Pinotage is part of our heritage.’
For Reabow, however, embracing Pinotage was also challenging on a personal level: ‘When I began working at Môreson in 2007, it was not a cultivar I was particularly fond of, and in turn it was not fond of me. For years, I did my utmost to try and manipulate this “legacy wine” to be different, but nothing seemed to work. After seven vintages, I decided to call it quits and allow the wine to naturally obey itself. The result has been five outstanding back-to-back vintages in which the wine is a true expression of itself and the site on which it is grown. My winemaking philosophy of “keep it simple and do the basics right” is very pertinent for this wine.’
As has been the case for the past 23 years, the Widow Maker Pinotage 2015 was sourced from the same dry-land vineyard in Stellenbosch, planted in 1994. ‘It is farmed by a very passionate viticulturist, Vaatjie Jacobs, for whom I have a lot of respect. His knowledge and experience are invaluable.’
The result is a wine that is bold with fruit and natural tannins. ‘In other words, we are not looking to produce a lighter style of wine that favours its Pinot Noir lineage.’
Rooiberg Winery Pinotage Reserve 2016
‘I just love a challenge,’ says André Scriven, senior winemaker at Rooiberg Winery in Robertson, explaining why he enjoys working with Pinotage. ‘It can be difficult to work with in the winery but it’s probably the most versatile red variety, making the most elegant and vibrant rosé wines by far, not to mention many different styles of red wine.’
In the Pinotage Reserve 2016 that impressed the Diners Club judges this year, Scriven says he was aiming for a serious, full-bodied wine with primary red fruit, supported by well-integrated oak flavours. ‘The biggest challenge is to make this wine approachable and accessible to drink while still “young” but also able to age for a good few years.’
He’s confident he’s achieved it thanks to sourcing the fruit from two distinctly different areas – one a warm, dry area for ‘huge tannins and extract, together with a very dark colour’; the other a cooler area for ‘elegance and abundant red fruit flavours’ – both vineyards carefully monitored by VinPro viticulturist Hennie Visser and Rooiberg cellarmaster André van Dyk. Blended to achieve ‘primary upfront fruit but with sufficient tannins and good acid balance’, the wine spent 14 months in new and second-fill French and American oak (as well as a portion in polymer Flexcubes) prior to bottling. ‘What makes this wine special? Everything! It was made with every drop of passion I have.’
University of Stellenbosch-trained Scriven has been at Rooiberg – a 15 000-ton former cooperative – since 2008, having worked at McGregor Winery and Ashton Winery before that. ‘What makes Rooiberg unique is that we cater for a broad spectrum of wine lovers, but quality always comes first. My personal philosophy is to take the grapes that nature gives you and use any tools available to make the best wine possible. I’m a winemaker! I make wine! So if by using good manufacturing practices I can make a wine better than it would’ve been without interfering, why not?’
It’s an approach that seems to be working for the man whose mottos in life are ‘when nothing goes right, go left’ and ‘if it doesn’t open, it’s not your door’. His secret talent is playing the trumpet (he was in the school cadet band) and staying fit is an obsession. His biggest passion, however, is his family: ‘My beautiful wife Mari – who by the way is also a winemaker – and my two children, Izak and Mila.’
De Wet Viljoen
Neethlingshof Pinotage 2016
Neethlingshof winemaker De Wet Viljoen doesn’t hesitate when asked which wine best describes his personality. ‘Pinotage! Do not judge the book by its cover. Open it, give it a chance, and you will be amazed by what it has to offer.’
Married to Annelie Viljoen, famously the first woman to have been appointed as a grape buyer by drinks giant Distell in 2007, the father of three boys rather surprisingly claims to be quite shy. ‘I guess it must be the wine that sometimes brings out my alter ego…’
He already had a BSc in genetics and microbiology from the University of Stellenbosch when he decided to study viticulture and oenology, as well as business management. After a two-year stint at Wamakersvallei (and two harvests at La Crema in California), he joined Neethlingshof in 2003 as winemaker/estate manager – a position he still holds today.
The only recent change is that the historic Stellenbosch estate is no longer owned by Distell. ‘We’ve gone back to being a family-owned business, which brings a lot of new challenges but also some very exciting opportunities. Neethlingshof has a sense of place – in other words, terroir – which you can only express if you produce estate wines or single-vineyard wines, which we do. The history of the estate, the natural beauty and the people make this a wonderful place to work.’
Viljoen says his Pinotage 2016 falls ‘somewhere between modern and traditional’ in style, with its terroir-specific dark fruit/Christmas cake flavours and long, silky finish. ‘It comes from two different vineyards at Neethlingshof, both planted in 1996. Our viticulturist, Hannes van Zyl, has been with the farm for almost 16 years so he knows the specific dos and don’ts of each block. We were already tested by the drought in 2016, but the fact that Pinotage is an early-ripening cultivar helped as the vines did not stress later in the season. We had smaller berries and much more concentration than normal.’
The wine spent 10 months in a combination of French and American oak, with Viljoen preferring to keep things simple in the cellar. ‘We focus on berry selection and trying to work as gently as possible, with minimal interference.’
What he loves about Pinotage is that it can be crafted in a variety of styles: ‘It’s a bit like learning to ride a bike. Once you understand the grape, you will be forever intrigued by it.’