The future of SA wine?

The ABSA Top Ten Pinotages were announced this week. Spar have taken a leaf out of ABSA’s book and their new Sauvignon Blanc Challenge (run in conjunction with WINE magazine) also presents a Top Ten, although they perversely list eleven wines. Which sounds like an eminently sensible thing to do as how do you compare a grassy cool climate Sauvignon with a tropical fruit salad from a warmer appellation? As Meerendal GM Guy Kedian puts it: “there are as many styles of Pinotage as there are producers.”

But that said, the ABSA Pinotages do have one thing in common: moron-strength alcohol levels. The average is 14.65% and the range extends from the positively teetotal Fleur du Cap 2005 at 13.57% all the way up to the swingeing Marianne at 15.82%. The last named is made by Frenchman Michel Rolland, arguably the most famous winemaker in the world and the high alcohols are a result of an insistence on physiological ripeness of the grapes.

I spoke to Abrie Beeslaar, winemaker at Kanonkop, one of the highest rated Pinotage producers, on the subject of high alcohol levels in SA reds – and Pinotage in particular. A vertical tasting of Kanonkop vintages from the early ‘90s side-by-side those of a decade later is revealing: the ‘90s wines all have 10% less alcohol for wines made from grapes harvested from the same vineyard at approximately the same harvest date.

Abrie offers several explanations – from Global Warming to cleaning-up the vineyard for leaf-roll virus. As he commented “the worse a vineyard looks, the better the wine you can make from the grapes – totally contrary to what we were taught at University.” Leaf roll virus inhibits sugar accumulation and increases hang-time – leading Beeslaar to comment “I don’t believe leaf-roll virus is 100% negative” – a point often made by Chardonnay champion Mike Dobrovic with his Mulderbosh barrel fermented wines made from grapes grown on virus-infected vines.

He notes that Pinotage fermented in traditional open cement tanks (like those from Jacobsdal, Kanonkop and Allée Bleue) can expect up to 1% lower alcohols as compared to those fermented in stainless steel tanks.

The last word goes to Kedian: “to those who say that Pinotage is not the varietal we should pin our flag to, I totally disagree. We should ignore the pretentious folk trying to turn it into something it isn’t, for their own benefit. At the end of the day, it’s only wine – not some mystical thing.”
p101 The future of SA wine?
The Top Ten, their alcohol levels and a tasting note

Bon Courage 2006 Alc 14.49%
Opaque, blue/black, ripe plum with nose with vanilla and spice. Rich, succulent mouth with layers of berry flavour. Big and powerful. Lots of potential.
Fantail 2006 (Morgenhof) Alc 13.58%
Warm spices. Hints of mint. Firm yet fine grained tannins with lots of potential.
Fleur du Cap 2005 Alc 13.57%
Black cherries and mint chocolate. Very structured tannins balancing acidity.
Four Paws 2006 Alc 15.75%
Brambles with a hint of grapefruit. Fresh acidity, lively expression on palate, firm tannins and essence of fennel on finish.
Marianne 2004 Alc. 15.82%
Deep core, wide, bright purple edge. Ripe plum, chocolate, mint and cherry on the nose with a hint of vanilla. Sweet fruited mouth with supple tannins.
Moreson 2006 Alc. 14.49%
Aromas leap from the glass. Rich, full fruit with chocolate and cherry. Supple tannins. Lots of potential.
Pulpit Rock 2006 Alc. 14.38%
Ripe black fruit with minty notes. Delicate. Yet firm tannins with balanced acidity.
Simonsig 2005 Alc. 15.01%
Ripe plum nose with cherry and vanilla. Big and full in the mouth with great oak support. Super texture, great structure, amenable tannins. Lots of potential.
Stellenzicht 2006 Alc. 14.83%
Medium depth, bright blue/purple. Rich, ripe plum. Rich, full fruited, well rounded mouth with developing complexity.
Windmeul Reserve 2006 Alc. 14.56%Deep purple rim. Rich, full ripe plum and cherry on the nose with same flavours in the mouth. Supple tannins,. Lots of complexity.

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