Pinotage wine comes from South Africa and has been around for almost 100 years. It was created by a scientist and combines two very common varieties into something that not a lot of people have heard of. It’s perhaps one of the most interesting wines out there, and it’s worth a closer look.
What is Pinotage Wine?
Pinotage is an interesting variety. Most people either love it or hate it. It hails from South Africa and comes from a unique cross between Pinot Noir and what the French call Cinsault, but what the South Africans call Hermitage.
These two grape varieties were first crossed in 1925 by Abraham Perold, a scientist at Stellenbosch University. This new red wine combines the grapes and their names to create a Pinotage wine. From what we can presume, this cross came about because Perold wanted to combine the elegance of Pinot Noir with the hardiness of the Cinsault grape.
Here we are with a red wine blend that stands on its own after almost a century. It tastes nothing like either of its parent grapes and is often more comparable to a Shiraz than Pinot Noir. It’s a dark grape with an unfortunately dark reputation that not a lot of people know about, so let’s change that, shall we?
A good Pinotage wine is great. It goes well with barbecue, spicy foods, and so many other things. It has a bold flavor that can stand up against food with as much personality as it has. Here are some of the flavors you might expect from a great Pinotage wine.
Pinotage usually has deep flavors of black or purple fruits, but sometimes you’ll taste the bright flavors of red fruits like raspberry. You might even taste bell pepper or red licorice. However, it’s not just a sweet, fruity wine that people with sensitive tastes like. In some Pinotage wines, you can taste the sweet and sour sauce, dried leaves, hoisin, bacon, sweet pipe tobacco, and rooibos.
The tannins in Pinotage wine are bold but sweet, like liquid smoke. They’re usually low acidity, but most vintners, like those in Australia, Argentina, and California will make their wines more acidic during the fermentation process. As long as it’s well done, the acidification is integrated and hardly noticeable.
Pinotage is very volatile, and it’s easy to get it wrong. A bad Pinotage wine is sharp and pungent. It may smell a bit like nail polish remover. This is a sign that the wine has a lot of volatile acidities or bad acid. It can also be over-extracted, meaning it spends too much time on the seeds and skins. This makes Pinotage taste like burnt tar.
Compared to other wines that have been around for centuries, Pinotage is a very young variety. It was first conceived by Stellenbosch University’s first Professor of Viticulture, Abraham Izak Perold. He created Pinotage wine in 1925 by combining the grapes of Pinot Noir with Hermitage.
He loved Pinot Noir wine but found that it struggled in the climate of South Africa. However, Hermitage is robust, so his hope was that the combination of these two characteristics would create something that was flavorful, but that was also hearty and stable.
After Perold planted his cross in 1925, he promptly forgot about them. In 1927, he accepted a job at KWV cooperative and the garden continued to grow, unattended. As it got bigger, the university hired a cleanup crew to tear it out, and just as the crew was about to get started, Charlie Niehaus walked by.
This young lecturer had been informed of the unique seeds and Perold’s experiment, so he was able to stop the crew and save the seedlings from destruction. The university still needed the vineyard cleaned up, so everything was transplanted right down the road at Elsenburg Agricultural College and entrusted to CJ Theron, who was Perold’s successor.
Theron decided the best thing to do was to graft these plants onto something more stable, so in 1939, he used established rootstock from Richter 57 and Richter 99 in Welgevallen, close to where these grapes first began life.
On one of Perold’s visits to his old colleagues, Theron brought him to see the grafted vines, and they choose the one that was doing the best for propagation and named it Pinotage. In 1941, the first Pinotage wine was made at Elsenburg using Myrtle Grove’s first commercial plantings, which were farther down the road near the coast.
1941 was a big year for Pinotage because its vines were also planted at the Kanonkop Estate. Although this wasn’t the original location, the wines from these particular vineyards have grown famous. They age for up to 25 years, so the estate has been dubbed a formidable leader in making red wines on the Cape.
Its first accolades came in 1959 when the Bellevue Winery Pinotage won the Cape Wine Show. It was the first ever wine to put the name Pinotage on the label when it went to market in 1961 under the Lanzerac brand of Stellenbosch Farmer’s Winery. This success, coupled with the easy-growing nature and low maintenance of the Pinotage grape prompted a rush of plantings in the 1960s.
Today, winemakers continue to experiment with less ripe extraction and producing wines that are more fruity and less oaky. In the past decade, Pinotage exports have more than doubled as more and more people want to give this unique variety a try. It’s still not as well known as other wine varieties, but that will likely change as it gets older and you tell all of your friends about it.
How to Make Pinotage
Pinotage grapes grow very vigorously, just like the Cinsault parent. They are easy to grow and they ripen early in the season with very high sugar levels. They are versatile and can grow as bush vines or on trellises. Older Pinotage vineyards are mostly planted in the bush vine style and seem to have a higher concentration of fruit and more depth to their wines.
These bush vines can produce up to 6.8 tons of grapes per acre, but some vintners restrict their yields to less than half that by using techniques such as bunch thinning and water stress. This helps control the grape’s coarseness and isoamyl acetate. If not controlled properly, Pinotage can possess volatile acidity, which is a wine fault that makes it taste like raspberry vinegar.
In the 1990s, vintners began experimenting with long, cool fermentation to reduce the potential of volatile esters and minimize exposure to oak. This has become a popular method for fermenting Pinotage today.
Because the Pinotage grape is high in tannins naturally, it is often tamed by limiting its maceration time. However, limiting skin contact may also reduce the blackberry, damson, and mulberry fruit flavors that Pinotage drinkers love. Instead, vintners experiment with different methods to maintain fruitiness while taming out the negative characteristics, like waiting to harvest the grapes until they are very ripe, and then limiting exposure to oak.
Types of Pinotage
Pinotage is host to a wide variety of styles. This large spectrum includes cheap, light-bodied wines with strange aromas like paint, banana, rubber, and acetone. However, it also includes full-bodied wines that exhibit elegance, balance, and fully developed fruit flavors with a smokey, sweet finish.
Most Pinotage styles have rustic profiles with earthy aromas and taste up front, followed by berries dark in color and stout tannins, and with low acidity. This flavor profile is highly volatile, and many people either love it or hate it.
Pinotage doesn’t have a distinct array of styles, only the marked differences between how the grapes were harvested and who produced the wine. Unlike other wine varieties that include still or sparkling and red or white, Pinotage is always still, always red, and always exhibits the same characteristics that make it a Pinotage wine.
However, there are blends available from several wineries. Some feature a predominant Pinotage flavor while others, like the Pinotage Rose from Lanzerac, are lighter, gentler, and more like perfume with rose petals.
Pinotage Wines to Try
Pinotage isn’t as well known as other wines, so it may be tough to know which to try or what you may like. Here are our top picks.
Lanzerac Pinotage 2017
Given that Lanzerac was the first to sell Pinotage wine commercially, we think you ought to try it. Their Pinotage has a deep color with the smell and taste of ripe berries and plums. It has a lingering aftertaste and can be velvety or luxuriously chocolatey on the tongue with even a hint of caramel.
This full-bodied wine is aged for five to ten years and has complexity with an elegant fruit and wood balance. Its tannin structure allows it to age well, giving it the magnificent texture we’ve come to know and love from this winery. They definitely know what they’re doing, and they’re one of the best.
Kanonkop Pinotage 2017
Another early player in the Pinotage game produces a flagship wine that shows even more complexity is the Kanonkop Pinotage. While it boasts ripe tannins and deep red fruit flavors, over time it will age to exhibit forest floor and other secondary characteristics.
You’ll notice licorice, black plum, and menthol up front that become more intense with aeration. It’s a medium-bodied wine with red fruit, complimentary acidity, oak notes, and a smooth, dark chocolate finish.
Delheim Pinotage 2016
This hand-harvested Pinotage grape showcases rich color and juicy red fruit flavors with perfume and clove undertones. Savory cranberry and rich plum in the middle give way to a soft, oaky finish and perfect balance.
Diemersfontein Pinotage 2016
This Pinotage vintage has a strong feel of freshly brewed coffee and rich dark chocolate. It also shows a bit of mint and baked plums. The velvety tannins and smooth balance leave a lingering aftertaste.
Flagstone Writers Block Pinotage 2017
This Pinotage wine is ruby red with a ripe balance of blackberry, mulberry, Indian spice, and chocolate. You may notice a hint of mint and bramble underneath with rich strawberry, blackberry, and cherry flavor. Oak, dark chocolate and vanilla undertones are also present in a long, luscious finish.
Moreson Widowmaker Pinotage 2016
This Pinotage is heavy and rich. You can recognize it by wild cherries and prunes as well as cinnamon and clove flavors. It’s a delicious, full-bodied meal by itself. The oak tannins are well-integrated with the plum flavor for a smooth and elegant feel and a mocha chocolate bouquet.
Stellenbosch Vineyards Credo Pinotage Reserve 2014
This vibrant red Pinotage has prune and cherry aromas with rich fruit flavors, balanced tannins, and a long aftertaste. This hand-harvested wine is cool fermented and matured in oak barrels for a light, oaky feel.
Windmeul Pinotage 2017
The Windmeul Pinotage is smooth, deep red, and medium-bodied. You’ll notice plums, berries, and bananas with a comforting chocolate and coffee aftertaste. The balance is smooth and delightful.
Pinotage is a South African wine, so it should come as no shock to you that it pairs well with hearty meals and savory meat. It’s a bold wine, deserving of only the most robust food flavors. You may choose to pair it with the leg of lamb, spicy Indian cuisine, smoked duck, or pulled pork, but here are some traditional South African dishes that would be fun to try along with your new bottle of Pinotage wine.
This is South Africa’s national dish. It’s a flavorful casserole full of curried meat and bright colors, so this dense recipe pairs well with an earthy Pinotage to bring out the diverse flavors and rich, smooth texture. The recipe is also easy to swap with lamb or beef for richer flavors.
This dish is influenced heavily from Indian cuisine, as is much of South Africa’s food, and this recipe is made from spicy rice that always seems to find its way to the dinner table no matter what else is being served.
Cape Malay Fish Curry
A milder version of Indian curry with bold sauce makes a great pairing with smokey, oaky Pinotage and bright fruit undertones. These two complement each other well and leave your belly full and happy.
Braai is South African barbecue, so the smokey flavors from the grill match those of the Pinotage for a delightfully rich, savory mix. This ideal pairing will leave you more than satisfied with your meal choice.
Serve up this sophisticated South African sausage with curry spices and barbecue flavor for an elegant spin on the traditional American hot dog. Elevate your picnic or weekend get together with something new and different.
This meat and vegetable stew is a traditional South African recipe cooked in a three-legged pot, but you don’t have to go that far. Any pot will do. Spike this hearty dish with plenty of spices so it can stand up against the bold flavors of your Pinotage wine.
Soup in a bread bowl is a comforting meal for anyone. The soft bread filled with your favorite soup really hits the spot. Try your Pinotage with this classic meal or stuff hollowed bread with spicy curry as the South Africans do.
No matter what you choose, throw silly rules out the window with this one. Pinotage can go with anything. For something different, try it with a winter bean soup, freshly grilled game fish, sushi, or oysters. And if all else fails, combine Pinotage with you for the ultimate pairing.
Fun Facts about Pinotage Wine
By now, you know a little bit more about Pinotage wine, but here are some other fun facts we haven’t already mentioned.
Pinotage Didn’t Always Have a Good Reputation
Pinotage grapes grow quickly, and they’re easy to cultivate with very little maintenance. This led many producers to make commercial wines of very low quality that didn’t taste very good but were cheap. They stretched their grapes as far as they would go to sell more wine and make more money, which led to the idea that Pinotage wine wasn’t very good.
The problem is that Pinotage wine is actually very good when made well. The grapes are easy to grow, but the wine is tricky to make. Now, vintners tend to focus more on reducing their yields to control more of the grape’s flavor so that the wines they make are rich and bold instead of thin and watery.
Pinotage being hard to make is part of the reason why it garnered so much criticism. It can develop isoamyl acetate very easily during winemaking, which is why if it’s not made well, it can smell like paint or taste like rusty metal.
Pinotage plantings have ebbed and flowed, following current South African wine fashion, and it wasn’t always popular or well-recognized. In fact, at the end of Apartheid in the 1990s, the wine market began looking at South Africa more seriously, but choose more common varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon or Syrah.
It wasn’t until around the year 2000 that Pinotage grapes demanded higher prices and more attention than any other South African grape. Today, South Africa is proud of its Pinotage, although it is produced in small quantities in other parts of the world now.
Pinotage is Considered a New World Wine
Part of the criticism of Pinotage comes from the fact that it’s considered a New World wine. Common wine trends in South Africa tend to reflect European styles and flavors, and Pinotage doesn’t do any of that.
Pinotage is unique, and despite being a cross between two grapes that produce Old World wines, it doesn’t produce the flavors that Old World wine-lovers expected. While there’s certainly nothing wrong with that, Pinotage still has some work to do to get recognized in other wine regions throughout the world.
There is a Wave of Pinotage Experimentation Right Now
Because Pinotage is a young wine, it hasn’t been around for centuries of experimentation, so new methods of making it continue to be discovered. Right now, vintners are experimenting with grape extraction before they fully ripen in an attempt to strengthen the fruit flavors and diminish the oak. As the demand for Pinotage wine continues to grow, this experimentation will continue because more people will discover Pinotage wines they love and be willing to try more.
Pinotage Sales are Stimulating the Local Economy
As the popularity of Pinotage grows, the local wine economy has experienced a surge. In ten years, exports more than doubled. More competitions are awarding their top prizes to Pinotage wines, confirming its quality and ability to stand on its own among Old World wines.
Pinotage is Grown All Over the World
Other than South Africa, there are Pinotage regions in Canada, Brazil, Israel, Zimbabwe, New Zealand, and the United States. You’ll find Pinotage in Virginia, Oregon, Michigan, California, and Arizona. Winemakers in Germany have also begun experimentation with the Pinotage grape.
Pinotage Makes Great Blends
Pinotage makes up about 6% of South African vineyards and is considered a prominent symbol of the winemaking traditions that make South African wine distinct. South Africa is also known for its Cape Blends, which require Pinotage as a component.
You’ll find rose varieties, barrel-aged wine, Port-style wines, and sparkling red wine all made with a Pinotage component, although none are 100% Pinotage wine. The most recent trend is coffee-style Pinotage. It takes a skilled winemaker to exhibit such precise control over the Pinotage grape.
Pinotage is a Super Grape
There aren’t many other super grapes in the world, but Pinotage is one of the few. It’s among the German Scheurebe and the Austrian Zweigelt, all of which were the rage in the 1920s when Pinotage was created.
These super grapes are easy to grow, versatile in making other blends and wine varieties have friendly food pairing qualities, and they age gracefully. Pinotage is still young but is already starting to blossom as a super grape in its own right.
If you’ve been aching to try something unique and have a passion for contributing to the world wine industry, give Pinotage a try. You won’t be disappointed by it’s rich, bold flavor and versatility of food pairing options. If you enjoy drinking your wine by itself, you can do that, too.
Pinotage may be the most widely underestimated or misunderstood wine in today’s wine economy, but it’s appreciated by those who truly know how to make it, and choosing a good Pinotage will start you out right on the road to loving this wine rather than hating it.