Looking for a red that’s every bit as good as a Pinot noir, but without the Pinot price? How about a lip-smacking citrusy white for less than $10? Grab some bottles of Pinotage and Steen. Never heard of them? Listen up:
Pinotage is a red wine grape grown almost exclusively in South Africa, where it was originally bred. It’s a cross between two grapes of French origin – pinot noir from Burgundy and cinsault from the Rhone valley – created in 1925. Pinotage speaks for South Africa the way Riesling speaks for Germany, or Talladega speaks for race cars – you won’t find a famous Italian Pinotage, trust me.
Despite being the birthplace of Pinotage, South Africa hasn’t always been proud of the wine (conveniently called Pinotage) the grapes produce. Many South African vintners avoided planting the grape because experts say Pinotage is unlike either of the French grapes its inventor hoped to emulate. To love Pinotage, some say you have to embrace the “New World” quality of the wine, rather than hoping it will resemble an “Old World” Burgundy.
Pinotage also has a little quirk in the aroma department, which sensitive sniffers find unsavory. Specifically, it sometimes has a faint whiff of paint – or paint thinner. Combine quirky aromas with an obscure name and you can see why many South African winemakers decided there probably was more money to be made by planting syrah (shiraz) or cabernet sauvignon.
During the late 1990s, though, for a variety of reasons (including an upsurge in national pride accompanying the end of Apartheid), Pinotage became more popular and could command higher prices than any other South African red wine. Today, some South African vintners adore the grape and bottle wines that are 100 percent Pinotage. Others remain less convinced, however, and use Pinotage primarily in blends with other red grape varieties (South African wines classified as “Cape Blends” are required to contain at least 30 percent Pinotage).
Overall, despite the close association between grape and country, less than 10 percent of South Africa’s vineyard acreage is planted in Pinotage. An even smaller percentage of vineyards in the U.S. (Virginia and California) and New Zealand are devoted to the grape. Did I mention that it’s challenging to grow, on top of everything else?
The vines actually tend to produce too many grapes, resulting in thin juice lacking flavor concentration. Even when grown and made well, Pinotage wines are earthy and high in tannin – and highly tannic wines have fallen out of fashion in the U.S. market (as well as in Britain and some other markets). Have you ever wondered why merlot-based Bordeaux wines and “Bordeaux-style blends” are more popular right now than cabernet-based reds? Because merlot grapes make less-tannic wines.
Now, all this lengthy explanation has been a lead-up to the real news: I’ve found, as I hinted before, a Pinotage you’re likely to enjoy drinking, at a price you’ll definitely enjoy paying. It’s the Nederburg Winemaster’s Reserve 2011 Pinotage. It is a smooth, food-friendly wine with bright acidity and just enough tannin to give it some backbone.
Contrary to what folks say about Pinotage being unlike “Old World” wines, Nederburg’s 100-percent Pinotage flavors bear more than a passing resemblance to a French pinot noir. There are cherry, red plum and blackberry notes, blended with some oaky spice and white pepper. The aromas are likewise fruity, although a crabapple fragrance sneaks in from somewhere and, yes, there’s a bit of paint-thinner resin. The color is deep ruby and dark, but clear and clean.
All in all, Nederburg Pinotage was much lighter and more refreshing than I’d expected, and exceedingly drinkable (if the entire bottle disappeared in one sitting, I wouldn’t be surprised). It was decently dry, not a New World fruit bomb.
Whatever unpleasant fragrances it had were insignificant and not mirrored in the taste. For the price – $10.99 – it was an amazing surprise. Try it lightly chilled with venison, lamb chops, duck or (brace yourselves) Mu Shu Pork. Seriously.
(Western Cape; 14 percent ABV; available on line and at larger retailers.)
Now for the Steen: What you really need to know about “Steen” is that it’s not a scary new grape; it’s just the South African name for chenin blanc – the main white-wine grape grown in France’s Loire Valley. When I get to rule the universe, there will be no more of this name-changing business as grapes travel from country to country. Syrah won’t become shiraz in Australia, grenache won’t become garnacha in Spain, and Steen will simply disappear.
The French use chenin blanc to make a wide range of wines – including dry versions from Anjou, off-dry from Vouvray, sparkling Crémant de Loire and sweet dessert wines called Coteaux du Layon.
In defense of the South Africans, they may not have known they were growing chenin blanc when they called it Steen, although it’s the country’s most widely planted grape – comprising almost one-fifth of all vineyard acreage. Historians think chenin blanc vines were imported into South Africa as early as the mid-1600s but it wasn’t until 1965 that grape botanists (botanists who specialize in grapes, not grape-flavored botanists) definitively proved Steen was chenin blanc.
Ken Forrester Wines’ 2013 Petit Chenin Blanc uses the grape’s true varietal name on the front label and relegates “Steen” to the back, keeping pace with changing times and, more importantly, producing an outstanding wine for less than $10.
It’s very fruity, with peach and pear aromas followed by citrus flavors and loads of tart acidity. Its taste is very similar to an Australian sauvignon blanc, incorporating grapefruit, mango and green apple notes, and its acidity means it pairs well with most appetizers and cheeses. I’m not the only one who likes it, by the way; Wine Spectator gave it 88 points, while Wine Enthusiast gave it 87 points and a “best buy” rating. (Western Cape; 13 percent ABV; available at World Market among other retailers.)