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Pinotage

The result of a 1cross between the Pinot Noir and Cinsault varieties, Pinotage was created in South Africa in 1925, by Stellenbosch University Professor A.I. Perold, during experiments to develop new varieties.

Pinotage cluster photo. Although there is a very low rate of success when breeding new vine varieties, this cross, eventually called 2Pinotage, showed promise. It is often said that Professor Perold intended to get Pinot Noir’s flavor from a vine with the robustness of Cinsaut, but Perold was the leading viticulturist of the day and he knew that result was unlikely. As plausible a motivation is that Pinot Noir was his favorite variety and Cinsaut was the dominant red variety in South Africa at the time.

Initial tastings did not sufficiently impress, so Pinotage was largely ignored until 1961, when a 1959 vintage 3Pinotage won the Grand Championship at the Cape Young Wine Show, South Africa's long-running and uniquely-themed wine competition.

There was a subsequent rush towards planting Pinotage vines. The vines proved easy to grow and high sugar levels were easily achieved, it is a good cropper and many farmers overproduced. The resulting wines didn't show the early potential and Pinotage tended to be used to bulk out popular-priced blends. There was also a tendency for the wine to show a sweet paint or nail-varnish-like bitterness. And as such it suffered descriptions such as "rusty nails".

A few wineries began to specialize in pinotage and showed that a wine worthy of serious consideration could be made. But plantings declined year by year. Pinotage acreage sunk to around 2% of total area by 1993, with prices and demand for Pinotage grapes dropping, much was distilled for brandy.

Again, a wine competition proved savior. In 1991, Kanonkop Estate's winemaker Beyers Truter entered his Pinotages at England's International Wine and Spirit Competition. These so impressed the judges that he was presented with the "Winemaker of the Year" award - becoming the first South African to win this honor.

Pinotage gained international attention, and wine drinkers keen to enjoy a new taste clamored for the unique wine, causing the price of Pinotage grapes to shoot up 500% by 1995. Again winemakers started taking the wine seriously and many even invested in French oak casks to age it. Wine Spectator Editor James Suckling was at a 1995 Cape of Good Hope tasting of old Kanonkop Pinotages when he declared, "What the hell's going on around here? These are spectacular …… SPECTACULAR! Why did you murder the grape?"

Reacting to renewed interest, The Pinotage Association was formed, research funded, and an annual Pinotage Top 10 competition begun. Research found that fermentation at too low a temperature was the cause of the nail-varnish problem.

The ending of apartheid not only removed trading sanctions, thus opening up new markets, but also created a great international interest in all things South African. And what was more South African than its own varietal? On the other hand, vineyards could finally import vine stocks and the inclination was to plant more fashionable world varieties. At the start of the twenty first-century, demand for Pinotage is increasing and the acreage now forms almost 6% of the South African total for wine grapes.

Pinotage may be made in several different styles: young, light, and fruity, like Beaujolais, deep and rich like a Cotes du Rhone or Zinfandel, or elegant and restrained like Bordeaux are the most common styles. There are also popular 'blush' versions and several fortified into Port-style sweet dessert wines. Pinotage can also be a component in sparkling wine and at least one producer makes Methode Champenoise sparkling red Pinotage.

So what should you expect in a red Pinotage? Good depth of flavor, a unique individual fruity refreshing wine. Some tasters remark on a banana-like taste. I have noted bramble fruits and a velvet texture. It is a dinner wine, with good levels of alcohol giving depth and structure and keeping ability. But - like Zinfandel - there is no old-world style for winemakers to model on, so opening a bottle from a new winery is very much an adventure.

Diemersfontein winery pioneered a popular Pinotage that has coffee and chocolate flavours, arising from a combination of a particular vineyard and toasted barrels, and the giant KWV followed with a similar wine called Café Culture.

The words "bush-vine" on a South African label indicate that the vines are old, planted before machine harvesting. Although not legally defined, the practice of labeling wine as a "Cape Blend" usually means Pinotage with Bordeaux varieties. Warwick Estate’s ‘Three Cape Ladies’ and Kaapzicht Estate’s ‘Vision’ are two leading examples and E & J Gallo markets a Cape Blend in the USA under the Sebeka label.

Pinotage is not unique to South Africa. New Zealand, where the relatively thick, rot-resistant Pinotage skin is an added benefit in the humid north island, has been making it almost as long. Israel now has two wineries making Pinotage and there are at least six producers in Canada. Brazil and Zimbabwe also make wine from Pinotage and Australia will be soon. In the United States, Virginia has three wineries growing and making Pinotage and planting is increasing in 4California where nearly 20 wineries are currently producing it.

by Peter F. May


NOTES
1. Pinotage is a cross - not a hybrid. A hybrid results from two different species, usually vinifera with native American labrusca or rotundifolia vines, of the same genus (vitis). Cinsault and Pinot Noir are of the same genus and species, both vitis vinifera. RETURN

2. Cinsault was known then in South Africa as Hermitage, hence the name Pinotage. Cinsault is spelled Cinsaut in the Cape and was a major red variety in the 1920s, but now rarely found as a varietal and plantings, currently 3% of the South African vineyard total, are diminishing. RETURN

3. The first varietal Pinotage wine offered for sale was from the 1959 vintage, made by Pieter Morkel at Bellevue Estate sold in bulk to Stellenbosch Farmers Winery, who, following up on its win at the '59 Cape Young Wines Show, released it as a varietal Pinotage under the Lanzerac label (no relation to the current South African winery by that name) in 1961. RETURN

4. In California, Steltzner has been growing Pinotage from the early 1970s and produces about 450 cases annually. The Matsen Family, owners of Vino Con Brio have the largest planting of Pinotage in the entire U.S. at 8 acres. RETURN


RELATED LINKS
The Pinotage Association promotes and advances wines made from this grape.
AUTHOR
Peter F.May is the author of PINOTAGE: Behind the Legends of South Africa’s Own Wine and founder of
The Pinotage Club, a free and noncommercial organization whose aim is to promote, encourage, and publicize Pinotage. A newsletter is free on request. In addition to his interest in Pinotage, Peter collects wine labels and publishes the Unusual Wines site to promote wine diversity, featuring labels, varieties and wines of unusual origin. His book Marilyn Merlot and the Naked Grape was inspired by the site. Peter also contributed to PfW's Understanding Wine Labels article.

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