Cape (?) blends

Caveau, the wine bar on Heritage Square, recently held its first wine festival, the theme being blended reds. Staged inside the courtyard of the square in the company of one of the oldest (if not the oldest) vine in South Africa, the ambience was pleasantly civilised.

Until the debate on Cape blends and the place that pinotage has in said blends. I was chairing the debate between Nico van der Merwe (of Saxenburg and Mas Nicolas wines) and Mike Ratcliffe (of Warwick), thinking it would be a quick half and hour affair. Over an hour later, and the audience was still asking valid questions and putting out strong opinions.

It would be presumptuous to say which side won the day; Van der Merwe related how he felt it was restrictive to insist that pinotage goes into a Cape blend, arguing that pinotage didn’t have any special birthright, that all red blends made here could be called Cape blends. Ratcliffe was pro-pinotage, his primary point being that this is our unique offering in the wine world and as such a point of difference that we would be foolish not to employ in our desire to make a difference on the crowded international shelves. A Cape blend, he reckons should contain what is unique to the Cape.

Opinion from the floor ranged from pinotage lovers who felt it was a variety that we could go to war with; to tasters who felt we should show the best we have, regardless of what goes into it. Happily, there was no knee-jerk anti-pinotage-at-all-costs voice, surely a sign that the variety is maturing beyond the dispute over its very right to life. With the many cellars involved in its production, it’s here to stay.

The name “Cape blend” is of course a powerful tool in the international market, for our Cape of Good Hope is a hook that carries significant recognition-value. At present, there is no legislation that prevents a bottle from saying Cape blend without it containing pinotage, though the local Veritas competition now has a category for Cape blends and specifies a minimum of 30% pinotage.

Platter says “blends with pinotage” alongside “shiraz-based blends” and others – a direction that more than one participant in the debate also agreed with. “Just make the wine a good one” seemed to be the most people’s primary interest, which is the simple truth that all this interest in categorisation often forgets.

Two last thoughts. “Bordeaux blends” are the model for this definition of wine and these contain up to five distinct and (significantly) legislated varieties. But there used to be other varieties snuck in there before legislation, like shiraz. Also, Bordeaux is a viticulturally contained area of reasonably uniform conditions – which the Cape certainly is not. Can pinotage be expected to perform well enough everywhere, or must producers buy it in to make Cape blends?