Pinotage, the wildest grape in the Cellar - Zonnebloem

The Wildest Grape in the Cellar

Posted on: 1 December 2020

Pinotage. A wine that received quite some bad rap in those early years when winemakers ventured into the unknown whilst understanding this uniquely South African cultivar. But if you are a new-comer or doing something groundbreaking, it’s never easy, is it?

Today however, it is a celebrated grape varietal and us winemakers have had to learn the hard-way how to approach Pinotage. We have all upped our game and turned this grape varietal into rather remarkable, memorable wines.

The Pinotage grapes are the first red cultivars to be harvested for Zonnebloem, ripening earlier than the rest leaving our Pinotage tanks pressed and out of the cellar before any other grapes come in. I think the wine gods knew how difficult it would be to produce a good quality Pinotage, so its early ripening means that it gets our undivided attention in the cellar during fermentation.

I often feel like Pinotage is a wild animal that I am trying to tame during fermentation, it turns bitter very quickly. During harvesting, we taste the juice every morning and evening to see which aromas are developing during the fermentation and whether it is necessary to press the tank.

Like many things in life, when it comes to when to press, timing is everything. Leaving the wine on the skins too long results in a bitter flavour to the wine. We never ferment dry on the skins as the high alcohol extracts a bitterness too and we always allow for natural settling before racking our wine to barrel for malolactic fermentation.

I wish I could have witness when scientist Abraham Perold first crossed Cinsaut and Pinot Noir in creating what was christened Pinotage, in 1925. A mixture of nervous excitement and uncertainty I assume, since everyone at the time was planting European varietals – the dependable cultivars that we knew suited our warmer South African climate.

What would life be like without my wild grape varietal in the cellar? Rather boring. Although the dependable cultivars are safer options, taming the rather seemingly untameable is as challenging and exhilarating as I would assume reining in a wild Mustang would be. The bond, excitement and expressiveness, certainly lasts for a lifetime.

Bonny van Niekerk
Red winemaker – Zonnebloem