3 Rijk's Pinotage's in Top 6.
Rijk's winemaker Pierre Wahl declared
"The Pope of Pinotage"
Rijk's has become a trailblazer, with several accolades in previous Classic Wine category tastings, and no less than three wines in the Top Six of the Pinotage. The most awarded Pinotage producer in the last 10 years. Cathryn Henderson gets to know winemaker Pierre Wahl, who converts wine-lovers to this heritage wine through his belief in its quality.
The Pope of Pinotage
There's clearly something special happening at Rijk's in the heart of quaint Tulbagh, as it continues to make a frequent appearance in techelons of Classic Wine tasting categories.
In the Top Six Pinotages of this issue, there were two 4½-Star wines, the Rijk's Reserve 2008 and the Private Cellar 2007, and in addition, the 4-Star Private Cellar 2008. An exceptional accomplishment in light of the fact that Rijk's wines also starred in the Classic Chenin Blanc Top Ten with the 4-Star Rijk's Reserve Chenin Blanc 2008, and the 4-Star Rijk's Private Cellar Bravado 2005 made it into the Top Six red blends.
Spending time with the self-declared 'Pope' of Pinotage is enlightening, and his enthusiasm for the variety: contagious. Pierre Wahl is making some of the finest examples of this wine in the country, and is Popelike in his passionate pursuit of converting naysayers into ardent believers of the quality in this native, heritage wine.
Getting it right
Pierre discovered that what works for him is the use of open fermenters and punch downs, gentle treatment and fermenting at warmer temperatures to get rid of any acetone characters. It's about using old-fashioned techniques in a modern cellar.
Pinotage also has an inherently high level of malic acid. 'Before fermentation, tartaric acid is added and one can forget to compensate for the extra loss of malic acid during conversion of the acids. There is then a bigger shift of pH after malolactic fermentation; you can end up with wines with a pH of 3.7 and the greater likelihood of bacterial spoilage.' Pierre adds, 'Pinotage is also forgiving; you can still get freshness from the variety even in warm years. There is a smaller window to work within as Pinotage in Tulbagh, ripens in the middle of summer, end of January.'
At Rijk's, the berries tend to be small, with great concentration – the ratio of skin to juice is high. Grapes need to be pressed before they have fermented dry at about 12% alcohol so that the extraction of bitterness is less likely. Pierre also blends the pressed juice with free run as it enhances concentration. 'If you ferment dry on the skins, it's important to keep those juices separate,' he comments.
Qualities in an excellent Pinotage
Pierre remarks that all their red wines have distinct minerality, red berry fruit and cherry characteristics. With Pinotage, his aim is to get spice from the Cinsaut part of the crossing, and the red cherry notes from the Pinot Noir 'parent'. He also looks for that 'Cabernet-like structure' with tannins that ensure it can last 15 to 20 years, yet are not 'dried out.' It must be elegant, with good, fresh acidity. He finds that bush vines also impart a spiciness and a tight tannin structure.
The Rijk's Reserve comes from a selection of 10 of the best French oak barrels. The intention is to show the quality of the grape itself and Pierre finds that the French oak uplifts the pure varietal character. He often finds that his Reserves have less new wood than Private Cellar. The Reserve has depth and intensity, deep plum fruits and an element of 'gun flint'. It's a classic and will also age well.
Rijk's Private Cellar sometimes does better in competitions, as it has that extra spice from the American Oak, and outperforms the Reserve due to this extra dimension and complexity. Last year the Private Cellar 2007 won the Trophy for the Best Pinotage at the Old Mutual Trophy Wine Show. Rijk's Private Cellar has 60% French and 40% American oak with the selection for the Reserve carried out before blending. American oak is known for imparting vanilla and spice and even some coconut flavours. The Private Cellar wine has red and black fruit, some bramble, cassis, spice and juicy plums; the acidity is linear and the tannin rounded.
There is consistency between the two ranges, but the Reserve simply has greater purity of fruit, where the variety must stand out, the wood is there only to soften the tannins. Pinotage has a lot of fruit factor, able to take on the oak. Each year Pierre selects a particular block for the Reserve selection but it is more about the top 10 barrels.
Compared with 2008, the 2007 vintage has huge fruit intensity and a lot depends on what happens during the growing season. It's also an early ripening variety and rainfall during this time, particularly during the later stage, will have an impact. In 2007 it was cool with quite a bit of rain and longer ripening. The wine tends to be richer and more complex, intense with both black fruit and red berries. Faster ripening normally produces more red fruit characters. It was warmer in 2008 with a shorter ripening time. There are good varietal characteristics in the wines and there is more minerality as a result of this warmth. Pierre prefers to pick early, because if left too long the wine can become jammy. They tend to pick at sugar levels of about 25° Balling and about 14.5% alcohol. The result is then a good balance of tannin as well as fresh fruit characteristics.
In cooler years it's best to let the grapes hang longer, as tannins will not yet have sufficient phenolic ripeness. The 2008 is on the market and Pierre ideally would also like to keep it back four years. The wines spend 20 months on oak and two years in bottle before release so they are at their optimum. Interestingly, the last seven vintages of Rijk's have also appeared in the Absa Top 10 Pinotage.
Rijk's focus on three wines : Chenin Blanc, Pinotage, Shiraz.
Rijk's was originally established in 1996, and in 1997 legendary Gunter Brozel, retired cellarmaster from Nederburg, was consulted. It used to produce some 10 varieties and now focuses on three: Chenin Blanc, Shiraz and, of course, Pinotage. This focus has now led to three wines in three labels, the Reserve, the Private Cellar and the Touch of Oak ranges. A 136ha farm with 20ha now under vine, 12ha of Pinotage, the plan is to expand to 30ha under vine.
With Pinotage, PI-45 is the only clone on the market and at Rijk's they have been replanting with new vines that are now two years old and will produce a small amount next year, perhaps two tons per hectare. Inbetween vine rows, the soil is covered with straw to prevent evaporation and help with microbes, and a cover crop is planted to put back the nitrogen. One-third of the vineyards is planted as bush vines and two-thirds trellised (extended Perold system), generally in an east-west direction.
For the bush vines, raised wire ensures the bush keeps a crown shape to help prevent that 'cooked' or jammy flavour. With Pinotage, a mix of trellising allows for different characters, more complexity and flavour spectrums. Also in use is something called the V-system, designed by owner Neville Dorrington. It can become labour intensive but the open 'V' of the trellis allows filtered sunlight onto the bunches.
Ultimately though, Pierre simply wants his wines to be known as 'Tulbagh wines'. Chenin, Pinotage and Shiraz are certainly a magic trio for a patriotically iconic South African farm...
At Rijk's Private Cellar we are extremely proud of our wines. For more info, please
visit our website www.rijks.co.za
or email email@example.com.