There was general excitement at the results of the early commercial plantings of Pinotage vines. The grapes ripened early, high sugar levels were achieved easily and the vines stayed healthy and vigorous. The early wines also showed a deeper, more intense ruby colour than either parent did. Some tasters liked the vinosity of the newcomer, others were deterred by the acetone-like quality which was to bedevil Pinotage's development for many decades.
The first real recognition came in 1959 when a Bellevue red wine made from Pinotage was designated the champion wine at the Cape Young Wine Show. The feat was repeated in 1961 by a Pinotage from Kanonkop Estate. Stellenbosch Farmer's Winery (SFW) was first to use the name Pinotage on a label when, in 1961, they marketed the 1959 champion Pinotage wine, from Bellevue Estate, under the Lanzerac brand.
This success, and the knowledge of how robust and early-ripening the variety was, inspired more and more farmers to plant Pinotage. Many farmers over-produced and a lack of skill in handling those grape in the cellar resulted in wines of lower quality. Much of the harvest was used to bulk out popular blends, or for cheap jug wines, or was even distilled for brandy.
Pleasant berry, banana and chocolate flavours develop
A few producers kept the faith. They continued to look for ways to improve the quality of the grape. More particularly, they concentrated their efforts in the cellar. They remained convinced that Pinotage could take up a place in the front ranks of the great varietal wines of the world. It was a lonely row to hoe, until another wine competition re-energised the Pinotage industry.
The Diner's Club Winemaker of the Year focuses on a specific varietal or wine category. The 1987 competition was dedicated to Pinotage. The winning wine was made by Beyers Truter at Kanonkop. Wine lovers went back to their cellars and opened the old bottles of Pinotage that they had stored right at the back. They were very pleasantly surprised at how well the wine had aged. Pleasant berry, banana and chocolate flavours had developed.