Spioenkop’s Pinotage plantings in 2008 were the first of this uniquely South African variety in the Elgin Valley and today the farm remains almost the only one in the area with a Pinotage vineyard in production. In part it was done out of respect for one of Koen’s mentors, Francois Naudé, who made numerous award-winning Pinotages at L’Avenir in Stellenbosch before specialising in the variety under his own label. Primarily, however, Koen planted Pinotage because of his firm belief in its future. “It’s my biggest passion,” he says.
“The parents of Pinotage were Pinot Noir and Cinsault. The cross inherited 70% of its characteristics from the Pinot Noir of Burgundy and it was born with genes of elegance. From the Cinsault, from the Rhône Valley, come the strong colour, spiciness and a fuller structure.” One of the challenges for the winemaker, says Koen, is to manage the aromas by way of vinification processes, to counter what gave Pinotage a bad reputation in certain quarters during the ’90s.
“If we dwell on the areas where Pinot Noir is growing in South Africa, the climate tends to be too warm and the wines tend to be off-balance – with their fine genetic structure, the noble Pinot Noir grape can’t deal with over-ripe phenols. It’s the climate that can lead to a perfect balance between the acidity and the tannins, which is the precursor for a wide smell spectrum. Simply put, Pinot Noir doesn’t like temperatures above 27ºC – higher than this and delicate smell profile transforms into a certain sweetish, preserved kind of aroma.
“Even in Burgundy, France, there is a big diversity of structures, colours and aromas from the north to the south of the region. In the north they tend to have more depth, length and colour-intensity than they do in the south. For example, the north’s Nuit St George, Vosne Romanée and Vogeot have a richer, clayish ground with good warmth-absorption qualities that contribute to a deeper structure of the wine. Whereas the south has more lime in the soil, which can result in very fine, elegant wines – provided the temperatures don’t get too high, in which case they can end up with unbalanced wines with a scentless profile. The terroir has to be 100% on your side.
“Pinotage too, being genetically Pinot Noir-minded, also has good structure and smell if the vines are planted in clayish grounds – even if the temperature is at the high end of the acceptable spectrum. To some extent, its Cinsault genes help Pinotage to deal with the temperature stumbling block – but only up to a point.”
Koen is convinced that Pinotage is up to the challenge of winemaking conditions in the Western Cape – provided the winemakers also have a passion for Pinot Noir, provided they can control the grape with knowledge, insight and experience. “Planting Pinotage at certain heights and in the cooler areas can enable this grape to express its innate origin in revealing its elusive sensual side. The coolness, less sunlight hours, wind and the clay soils on certain slopes will bring out a new style of Pinotage.”
The wind? This contributes to smaller, more concentrated berries on the vine, says Koen. “Smaller because the wind limits the speed of growth and is a kind of catalyst for soil types like those in clayish ground which can lead to lascivious wines. More concentrated in terms of acid, tannin and flavours in general.
“We’re talking about the perfect balance, about giving Pinotage a new dimension. The aromas will be finer, speaking more about the terroir and the fruit. Up front: cherry, raspberry, strawberry, black olives, elderberry and violet. In the middle: support from earthy, stony graphite elements. A wine that is fresh and delicate, with medium, balanced alcohol levels. Pinotage that expresses the minerality, extraction and sensuality of a deep, concentrated Pinot Noir, but with its own distinctive colour and unique spiciness.”
And different styles to accompany different foods, depending on the dish, the ambience, the company… “For example,” says Koen, “a Kanonkop Pinotage to go with a good steak, but a Spioenkop Pinotage to go with a fine dish of duck. If you wish to drink a somewhat fuller wine, choose a Pinotage from Stellenbosch or the Swartland. Whereas if you’d prefer a glass of wine that is elegant and not high in alcohol, go for a Spioenkop Pinotage from Elgin!”