Pinotage: A True South African Original
Love it or hate it, there’s nothing quite like pinotage. The grape and its resulting wine are purely South African, but you’ll also find tiny pockets of it in other regions, including Israel, New Zealand, Canada, and California.
There’s a distinctness about pinotage that makes it instantly recognizable. The aromatics are incredibly spicy, with black fruits, chocolate, and coffee notes. In particularly hot vintages, you might get volatility, which gives rise to acetone or burnt rubber notes. Please note that if you find these aromas in your pinotage, they are not desirable. Because of this, quality-minded producers take vineyard management very seriously, ensuring meticulous canopy management, especially at the end of the growing season.
That being said, there are loads of excellent-quality pinotage wines that can be had on a budget, so it’s worth exploring if you love big reds and if you’re looking to try something that’s a few yards off the beaten path!
The Legacy of Pinotage
Pinotage is a cross between pinot noir and cinsault—two French grapes that on their own have little to no resemblance to their offspring. The name itself is a mashup of parental names, as cinsault was locally known as Hermitage at that time. Its creator, Abraham Perold, was the Professor of Viticulture at Stellenbosch University. He was hoping to create a hardier grape than pinot noir, which can be very challenging to grow. The first seedlings were planted in 1924, but it wasn’t propagated or planted commercially until 1941.
The vines thrived remarkably well in the South African climate. In the late 1950s and early ‘60s, pinotage began to win awards on the global stage, inspiring other winegrowers in the country to plant widely.
Of course, it wasn’t an easy road. Early efforts were inconsistent, and the British wine masters were not impressed, which killed its prospects for the export market. However, a handful of loyalists persevered, and the quality began to improve until it eventually took its rightful place as the king of South African red wines.
What Does Pinotage Taste Like?
Pinotage can be medium to full-bodied, depending on where it’s grown. It shows medium tannins and has a distinct black fruit character, with typical aromas and flavors of blackberry, fig, cherry, coffee, earthy chocolate, and spice. In hotter years, it can become jammy with low tannins and very high alcohol content.
Pairing Pinotage with Food
Roasted meats are ideal for pairing with pinotage, as are smoked meats and all kinds of barbeque (known as Braai in South Africa). You’ll find pinotage to be an excellent match for pepperoni pizza or any kind of spicy sausage, charcuterie, or game meats. Try it alongside roast venison with wild blueberry compote—absolute heaven!
Pinotage is uniquely South African, but if you come across an example grown and made elsewhere, just know that it’s a rare find. Unlike merlot or shiraz, pinotage has a rather niche audience, so anyone making it outside SA is doing so purely out of passion.
Bottom line? If you’re the adventurous type, give pinotage a try. It’s an unexpected delight that invites discovery and rewards the curious.