The future of SA wine?

Neil Pendock November 2, 2007 3

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.”
ABSA Top Ten Winemakers
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.


  1. Neil November 2, 2007 at 5:26 pm -

    Alas, the Fleur du Cap alcohol level of 13.57% turns out to be a misprint. It should read 15%. Ouch! This brings the Top Ten average up to 14.8% – Port, anyone?

  2. Sue Courtney November 4, 2007 at 6:52 am -

    Are the alcohol levels you quote stated on the label on the each bottle? Or are wines in South Africa allowed a tolerance in the stated alcohol level on the label.

    If your answer to the first question is ‘No’, then how did you come up with the precise two decimal point places.

    BTW, the Fleur de Cap Pinotage 2005 alcohol level is stated as 15.28% at this link

  3. Neil November 4, 2007 at 9:32 am -

    The alcohol levels come from a booklet of winners produced by the organizers. In SA, a 0.5% tolerance is allowed, so on the label, the value would typically be rounded down – hence Fleur du Cap were within their rights to ‘fess up to 15% when they are actually 15.28% – which takes the average up to 14.82% – pretty scary!

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