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I write as I approach the end of a week of intensive tasting in South Africa, where I have been hugely impressed by the quality of the wines of the best producers and by the much broader range of wine styles and provenances than there was on my last visit, a shockingly long seven years ago.
As regular readers of JancisRobinson.com may be aware, I have been bleating on for years and years about what a wonderful source of underpriced fine white wine South Africa is. It has taken longer for red wines to please this finicky international palate. Mainstream Cape winemakers seemed stuck in the oak-corset groove for longer than was seemly, and the country's serious vine-virus problems for too long compromised full ripeness of red wine grapes.
Several times during this visit I have been asked wistfully if I didn't think that South Africa needed a signature grape with its being clear that they had South Africa's own cross Pinotage in mind. As it happens, to my mind the days of a country's needing one principal grape to make an impression are long gone. Today Argentina is pretty keen to throw off the all-Malbec shackle, and many New Zealand winemakers are desperate to prove they can produce something other than Sauvignon Blanc. There was also the problem with Pinotage, the curious 1925 cross of Pinot Noir and Cinsaut (then known in South Africa as Hermitage), that its combination of thick skins and delicate flavours made it very difficult to vinify satisfactorily and for many years it was dogged by its reputation as smelling of paint, the result of water stress and/or too hot a fermentation. See Richad on Why is Pinotage misunderstood?
I have so far tasted only a handful of Pinotages but the Bosman Pinotage served by British Airways on the way out was a much better wine than the 2010 St-Émilion currently being served in business class. Of the examples tasted in South Africa, almost all of them have been well made, individual and paint-free, with Fram Wines Pinotage 2012 Citrusdal Mountain the most fascinating. It comes from the most extraordinary arid wine country in the far north west of South Africa not all that far south of the Namibian border where just three isolated farmers grow particularly old and interesting vines. These vines are on the Laing farm, Henk Laing himself having once had the misfortune to be gored by a buffalo. (It's that sort of place.) The soils are so old they are studded with seashells from the distant Atlantic, surf country for the Swartland young guns who are doing so much to revitalise the Cape wine scene. Leader of the pack Eben Sadie has called this area Skurfberg (even though the real name, for one part of it, is Skurfkop – it's complicated).
I tasted this wine with Rosa Kruger and Eben Sadie on an expedition to this far corner of the Cape wine map, the only red in a line-up of stunning whites grown up here. We tasted them in the kitchen of Basie and Rita van Lill, another of the farmers scouted out by the indefatigable vine queen of South Africa Rosa Kruger. Eben's picture above shows some of the whites we tasted below the van Lill's keys. As Eben wrote when sending me this picture, 'we all get handed keys in this life and all that needs to be done is we need to open the doors. Skurfberg is one of those magical doors in South African terroir.' Rosa recalled how energetically she tried to get someone to take this Pinotage fruit. After tasting this wine, Eben regretted he hadn't.
It is now available under the label of Fram, a brand-new enterprise based in Stellenbosch and started by Thinus Krüger (no relation), who made wine at Fleur du Cap and Boschendal before embarking on the choppier but more satisfying waters of independent existence. And amazingly, despite the youth and small scale of his operation, the wine seems to be available in the UK (Prohibition Wines in Muswell Hill, London), the US (the redoubtable K&L of San Francisco) and Germany (Wein-Deko.de) according to Wine-searcher.com. Fram wines are imported into the US by the enterprising new South African young gun specialist pascalschildt.com. My tasting note below.
Fram Wines Pinotage 2012 Citrusdal Mountain 17 Drink 2016-2022
Laing fruit. Small vines and quite early picking. Very small-shooted vines. Dark crimson. Full, rich and round. Super charm on the nose and lots of both structure and fruit. Dry finish and well-managed oak. Appetising. Very spicy. Good balance. No Pinotage negatives. There's a real future to this wine. 14%
The South African wine industry certainly hopes there is a real future for Pinotage of which they grow about 6,000 ha - that's about 6% of Cape vineyard. This country is a major player that deserves more attention.