We all know that feeling. You made it through the holidays, your wines are resting peacefully in your cellar, but there’s something missing. You’re getting that “itch.” You go down to your cellar and see that a few of your barrels are empty, and that French oak barrel shouldn’t be empty too long . . . so you start Googling and then you find that there is a spring wine season! Your prayers are answered! You can scratch that winemaking itch and get moving on your next vintage. Believe me, your French oak barrel will thank you.
Not all winemakers know this but your favorite wine grape distributors bring in wine grapes and juices from South American and South Africa in the springtime. Specifically Pinotage and Cabernet Sauvignon from South Africa, Malbec from Argentina, and Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Carmenere, Merlot, Malbec, Petite Verdot, Pinot Grigio, Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, Syrah, and Viognier from Chile. Your distributors also bring in fresh juices from these regions.
Making wine from these grapes and juices is very different than the California grapes and juices. The grapes have a much longer ride and the regions where the grapes are grown give off very different characteristics. Argentinean and Chilean grapes tend to have a lot of fruit-forward notes, dark berry flavors, with cigar and earthy undertones; as opposed to the South African grapes that have a brighter fruit profile such as cranberry and raspberry.
In the spring of 2016 we decided to make a Pinotage. Neither of us had ever made one before and we were excited to try out a new wine grape variety and region. Pinotage is a red wine grape that is South Africa’s signature variety. It was bred there in 1925 as a cross between Pinot Noir and Cinsault (also known as Hermitage) – thus the name Pinotage. It is the second most planted grape in South Africa.
As a winemaker it was very exciting to get a chance to make wine from South Africa. It was also exciting to make a wine we have never made before. The grapes came in 20 lb. (9 kg) cases and were simply immaculate. The berries were in very good condition with no mold or decay. The one thing we did notice about the grapes is the skins were different in texture. They chewed for a long time and can almost be described as leathery. We have never seen that on a California or South American grape before.
The initial numbers on the grapes were workable. The Brix came in at 25, which would result in an alcohol of 13.75%. There was no adjustment needed on the sugar level. The pH and titratable acidity (TA) came in at 3.91 and 6.2gm/L respectfully. Tartaric acid was added to get the pH to a desired level. One thing we have learned is every grape is different – they cannot be handled by mathematical formulas only. Always bench test your adjustments; the results are not always linear. Our goal is to get the pH AND the TA to the ideal levels. This is not always possible, but an experienced winemaker will have to make the best decisions.
After adding tartaric acid, we ended up with a pH of 3.5, which is an ideal number. The TA only rose to 7.5 gm/L. As we stated above these grapes did not show the linear relationship between the pH and TA – meaning it is not always true what the pH goes down, the TA goes up.
So these were good starting numbers to release the grapes for fermentation. Something Frank and I swear by is always making your adjustments before fermentation. Once fermentation starts it is a moving target. And once the wine has completed fermentation, you really should not be making major pH/TA adjustments. We went with D254 yeast, simply because it always does a good job and we have never made these grapes before. Next year we think we might try the BDX yeast.
We processed these grapes with the same protocol as a California vinifera. We cold soaked the grapes 3–4 days. Cold soaking not only gives you time to work on the wine before fermentation, but allows the wine to “bleed out” and stabilize. The skins break down and you get the tannins and color to stay with the must. While the grapes were in a cold soak we made the Brix, pH, and TA adjustments. We also added normal additives such as tannins, Opti-red, oak powder, etc.
The fermentation went well. A normal 3–4 punch downs a day is a good protocol. We checked the temperature every morning and evening. It ran from 70–80 °F (21–27 °C) the entire fermentation, a good temperature for reds.
The pressing went well. The skins were still like little pieces of leather – we will never forget that about Pinotage. The fresh pressed juice had a cotton candy nose to it, which we found unusual but pleasing. It has faded off to a bright red berry nose as time has gone on.
Once the wine was racked 2–3 times, it was moved to a Hungarian barrel for 8 months. It is now back in the tank for final adjustments before bottling. The final numbers are all good. The pH is 3.52, the TA is 0.62 and the alcohol level is 14%.
The nose has red berries such as raspberry and cranberry. It is a clean nose with a “fruity” character.
The palate had red licorice and tobacco, and reminds me of a Pinot Noir. The tannin level is medium, which we find perfect for this wine. Big tannins would have overtaken this particular lot of Pinotage. It is an easy drinking wine. It has a sweet fruity presence, yet there is no residual sugar. This will make a good red for the summer for those red drinkers who refuse to go to whites at that time.
So there it is. We made our first South African wine from grapes. It was exciting and a learning experience for both of us. Each season we will try to process them differently to create other sides of this wonderful wine — Pinotage!