Pinotage: South Africa’s Flagship Variety

Every wine lover, wine enthusiast, and wine blogger should have the opportunity to taste a wine made from the Pinotage grape varietal. The red grape is native to South Africa, from the vineyards around Cape Town, and it’s the South African wine for excellence.

Wine lovers visiting the country find Pinotage wines an experience between Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, as the wine is round and fruity but structured and age-worthy.

Pinotage is as synonymous to South Africa as Riesling is to Germany, or as Sangiovese is to Italy. The red grape is akin to the country’s vinophile DNA. After all, it came from here and was designed specifically for the country. The vine’s unique feature is that it has a noticeably young history.

Professor Abraham Isak Perold of Stellenbosch University was the first to cross Pinot Noir and Cinsault successfully in 1925. In some parts of South Africa, the latter grape variety is still known as Hermitage.

Pinotage was created in an effort to make Pinot Noir better adapted to the South African climate. South Africa was too hot and too dry for Pinot Noir in some places, while other places were too wet and too cold. As a result, Professor Perold used Pinot Noir as one of Pinotage’s parent vines. It is unclear why he chose Cinsault for the other part.

The Flavor of Pinotage

While the fine tannins and cherry flavors in Pinotage are inherited from Pinot Noir, its characteristic raspberry notes are derived from Cinsault. The grape inherited its medium-full body from both parents, and the same is true for the grape’s medium-high acidity.

Pinotage berries are similar in size to Pinot Noir berries, but the African vine produces more grapes. Pinotage benefits from a strict selection to achieve good to outstanding qualities. Furthermore, the grapevine feels especially good on slopes and floors with a lot of water storage, especially if planted in clay or calcareous soils.

Pinotage in a nutshell:

  1. There are around 8,000 hectares of vineyard planted with Pinotage, accounting for 14.4% of the total vineyard land in South Africa, specifically in Stellenbosch, Paarl, and Swartland.
  2. 4,731,035 liters of wine are produced for domestic consumption.
  3. 16,947,477 liters of wine are exported yearly.

The Curious Origin of Pinotage

When Prof. Perold bred Pinotage in 1925, he planted the few resulting seeds in his garden, where they were forgotten. After all, phylloxera raged in South Africa in the 1920s, so this was a high-risk venture. Perold did not hand over the vines to Charles Theron, his successor at the university, until the early 1930s.

He named the variety “Perold’s Hermitage x Pinot” at first, propagated it on phylloxera-resistant rootstocks, and began breeding with it. He took his time. It wasn’t until 1941 that a barrel of wine was vinified as a trial for the first time.

The new breed was planted on the Myrtle Grove Farm near Elgin in 1943. Nothing specific is known about the wine and it’s possible that the grape variety would have been forgotten if it hadn’t been for Charlie Waal, who liked the grape’s fruity flavor. He mentioned the new varietal to his two friends, Paul Sauer and Peter Morchel. As luck would have it, one owned the Kanonkop winery and the other the Bellevue wine farm. Both had “Perolds Hermitage x Pinot” planted immediately.

A grape variety makes a career

Peter Morchel presented his new wine at the Cape Wine Show in 1959 under the grape variety name Pinotage and received better ratings than any submitted Cabernet Sauvignon. This elicited the first raised eyebrows. Paul Sauer’s Kanonkop-Pinotage achieved a similar result at a Wine Show in 1961. Suddenly, everyone wanted to grow Pinotage. That was the true beginning of South Africa’s national vine.

Pinotage was on everyone’s lips in South Africa and found international success after apartheid ended in the 1990s. Despite the grape’s success, only about 14.4% of South Africa’s vineyards are planted with Pinotage, with a total area about 8,000 hectares. However, the winemakers who cultivate it do it expertly. Pinotage wines range from deep and complex to fruity-spicy, depending on whether they have aged in oak.

Pinotage: From Cape Blend and the Rest of the World

Pinotage is still a lesser-known varietal; some wines are hits while others are misses. Still, Pinotage adds much-needed variety to the red wine market. Pinotage is also used in blends, often with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, resulting in a Cape Blend. By blending the country’s signature varietal, winemakers can polish its rough edges and give the wine age-worthiness. Pinotage has a bright future indeed.

Winemakers outside South Africa began to grow Pinotage inspired by the Cape’s success. Grape growers cultivate the variety in Zimbabwe, New Zealand, Canada, Brazil, Israel, and California. The vineyards are small, and the wines are erratic, so they are not a significant factor in the international market. Winemakers have also experimented with Pinotage in Argentina and Australia. Have you tried red wine made with Pinotage?

Date for your diary:

International Pinotage Day is celebrated on the second Saturday in October!

Want to read more? Try out these books!

Pinotage, Pinotage: South Africa’s Flagship VarietyPinotage, Pinotage: South Africa’s Flagship Variety
 

References:

Wine Grapes: A Complete Guide to 1,368 Vine Varieties, Including Their Origins and Flavours. Jancis Robinson 2012

Wine. Years. People. Events. Massandra Wine Collection 2010

The World Atlas of Wine: 8th Edition. Johnson, H & Robinson, J. 2019

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