The Story of Pinotage: South Africa’s Very Own Black Grape

If you love wines from the Rainbow Nation, no doubt you’ve had a glass or two of South African Pinotage.  And you will know that there is no wine more polarizing out there – very few people ‘don’t mind’ Pinotage, its love or hate.  How much do you know about this incredible South African grape?  Here at RAKQ we love knowing why South African wine is so good, so keep reading to dig into the enthralling history of this wine.

 

The Pinotage Origin Story

Abraham Izak Perold

In 1925, Abraham Izak Perold, the first Professor of Viticulture at Stellenbosch University, created Pinotage.  Inspired by his love of Burgundian wines, he crossed Pinot Noir and Cinsault.  He was well aware that Pinot Noir was not well suited (at that point in time) to the South African climate, and so he crossed it with the well-suited Cinsault (known then as Hermitage).  Since its creation, it has not always been smooth sailing for this red wine grape.  Perold left the University of Stellenbosch shortly after he crossed Pinotage.  It was all but forgotten until 1941, when, while renovating his old property, Perold’s Pinotage was rediscovered and the grape entered the winemaking game.

 

The Critics

With regards to winemaking, its ability to produce high yields led to years of, at best, undistinguished and, at worst, near undrinkable wines.  Yesteryear’s tensions in South Africa’s political landscape didn’t exactly put winemaking front and centre either, and the quality of wine suffered as a result – as was noted by critics and wine consumers.

 

This grape’s fortunes started to change in the late 20th century when ambitious winemakers, like Beyers Truter, decided to take new approaches in the vineyard and winery with the objective of teasing out better quality wines.  This renaissance included a stringent selection of the best grape clones, improvements in farming, and finessed winemaking and maturation processes.  The best-in-class Pinotage winemaking process closely emulated that of a Cabernet Sauvignon – substantial oak contact and more aggressive methods of tannin, colour, and flavour extraction in the winery.  This worked, and the first premium Pinotage, like Kanonkop, was born.

Kanonkop, Estate Pinotage 2020

The Fame

Seeing the massive success at Kanonkop, most Pinotage winemakers attempted to copy this process in their winemaking – generally speaking, resulting in substantially inferior results.  Pinotage, when made in this style, is incredibly susceptible to notes of burnt rubber, which is as pleasant as it sounds.  It seemed to be forgotten at the wayside that this red wine is a crossing of Pinot Noir and Cinsault – two of the lightest bodied red wines available!  There are now, thankfully (in our opinion), a growing number of younger winemakers, like Angus Paul, that are making Pinotage with much gentler means of extraction and more sparring use of oak.  The results are deliciously juicy wines full of red fruit and spice.

Angus Paul, Transient Lands Pinotage 2021

 

Today, almost all Pinotage plantings are in South Africa (about 99%).  Like one of its parents, Pinot Noir, it can be difficult to cultivate and vinify.  This grape appears in very small quantities across other New World regions and a handful of Old World countries – there is even a tiny planting in the UK.  Nowadays, wine lovers get to enjoy a range of Pinotage in single-variety wines and Cape Blends with Bordeaux grape varieties.  There are as many nuanced expressions as there are grape growers, winemakers, and terroirs.  Notably, much Pinotage increasingly expresses the fine qualities of its parent grapes, Pinot Noir and Cinsault.

 

Cheers to Pinotage!

 

Pinotage in Brief

ColourMedium to deep ruby.
Main Aromas and FlavoursRed cherry, black cherry, bramble, blackberry, fig, mint.
Oak and Maturation AddSavoury notes, baked earth, coffee, chocolate, smoky hints.
AcidityMedium
TanninsMedium to high
BodyMedium to full
AlcoholTypically, 14 – 15%
Ageing PotentialFinest examples have structure to age for upwards of ten years.
StylesSingle-variety wines and Cape blends.
Food PairingMedium-bodied styles go well with ratatouille and curry. Full and powerful, Pinotage is an excellent wine to pair with grilled or barbecued meats.  It also goes well with vegetables that feature rich and even slightly spicy sauces.  Osso buco is also a great match.  Perfect with cheese and charcuterie.  Full styles pair with dark chocolate and truffles.

 

Pinotage Styles

This red wine has the flexibility to appear in everyday table wines and serious, structured reds suitable for cellaring.  Pinotage also appears in a Cap Classique (Traditional Method) sparkling wine style.

 

Fun Fact

The name Pinotage is a portmanteau of its parents’ names, “Pinot Noir” and “Cinsault”.  The latter used to be called “Hermitage” in South Africa hence the contemporary name.

 

If you found this article fascinating, please join our South African Wine Club to build your wine knowledge.

 

This blog was edited and posted by Digital Squeak