Understanding Pinotage, The South African Way

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“Pinotage is the juice extracted from women’s tongues and lion’s hearts.  After having a sufficient quantity one can talk forever and fight the devil” – Kanonkop Wine Estate

Everyone wants something uniquely South African to take home, whether it’s a traditional African drum displayed in the foyer, a South African artwork, a cup of Rooibos tea, or in extreme cases a lion in the backyard… And while some of these things may be unachievable (I’m referring to the lion terrorizing the neighbourhood), there’s nothing quite like a glass of wine to take one back to South Africa, the adventures, the wildlife and the scenery. What better way to do that than with a uniquely South African varietal?

With this I present Pinotage.

So what is Pinotage? Pinotage was created in 1925 by Dr Abraham Perold.  He was the first professor of Viticulture at Stellenbosch University.  He cross-fertilized Pinot Noir with Cinsault (at the time known in South Africa as Hermitage). He took the pollen from Pinot Noir and put it on the flower of a Cinsault vine. He hoped to combine the bold, dark fruit flavours and spiciness of the Cinsault as well as its ability to grow in a large range of different conditions with the elegance and finesse of Pinot Noir with its delicate red fruit flavours, fragrant and earthy notes.

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Pinotage Grapes, courtesy of Google Images.

Perold took the four seeds from his cross and planted them in the garden of his official residence at Welgevallen Experimental Farm.  He kind of forgot about them and when he left the university in 1927 the garden became overgrown. The university sent in some gardeners to clean it up and Charles Niehaus, a young lecturer, rescued the young plants. They were moved to Elsenburg Agricultural College under Perold’s successor, CJ Theron.

In 1935 Theron grafted them onto strong, healthy rootstock. After showing this to Perold they chose the one that was doing the best for propagation.  They weren’t exactly very creative and christened the varietal as Pinotage (“Pino” from Pinot Noir and “Tage” from Hermitage). In 1941 the first wine was made at Elsenburg and the first Pinotage vines were planted at Kanonkop Estate.

The varietal first got recognition in 1959 when a wine made from Pinotage became the champion wine at the Cape Wine Show. This wine was the first to mention Pinotage on its label in 1961 under the Lanzerac brand. This prompted mass plantings all over the Cape in the 60’s.

Pinotage has not always had a great reputation though. In 1976 a group of British Masters of Wine visiting South Africa were very negative about Pinotage saying it tasted like “rusty nails” and “nail varnish”, so in the 80’s very few vines were planted. In 1989, Beyers Trutter from Kanonkop made a Pinotage which won him the Robert Mondavi trophy in 1991. This opened the world to Pinotage again.  Pinotge became known as “Red Gold”, the trump card of the South African wine industry and once again everyone started planting Pinotage.

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Beyers Trutter from Kanonkop made a Pinotage which won him the Robert Mondavi trophy in 1991.

With the end of Apartheid and sanctions lifted in the early 90’s and Nelson Mandela elected as president in 1994 the world wanted something unique from South Africa so a lot of Pinotage was exported.  Unfortunately it was not always good quality (when quantity increases quality decreases and vice versa).  This once again gave Pinotage a bad name.  In 1995 the Pinotage Association was formed to look after the quality of Pinotage and since then the quality has drastically improved.

So before I get carried away with the history of Pinotage, let’s talk about styles and flavours instead.

Pinotage can be tricky to make and if not looked after can develop estuary and acetone notes.  But when well cared for it is beautiful.

There are two main styles in which Pinotage is made, a lighter style which is red fruit driven and not heavily oaked and then a bolder style with robust red fruit, floral characteristics and caramelized banana.

With the lighter style one can expect primary flavours of light red fruit such as strawberries and raspberries with perfume notes such as roses, violets and lavender.  The secondary flavours (from ageing in oak barrels) include soft cinnamon, a drop of pepper, cloves and a light hint of vanilla.

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Oak barrels courtesy of Kanonkop Wine Estate

With the bolder style one can expect caramelized bananas, red fruit such as plums, cherries, raspberries and strawberries, dark fruit such as black berries, floral notes such as violets, roses and lavender.  You can experience secondary flavours such as coffee, chocolate, vanilla, coconut and toasted marshmallows from American oak and star anise, soft cinnamon, a drop of pepper, cloves and a hint of vanilla from French oak (the traditional style).

In South African there has been a trend to produce more Pinotage in a way that brings out strong coffee and chocolate flavours and usually these wines use this in their marketing with the words such as “mocha” or “java” or “coffee” appearing on the label.  I personally try and avoid these as I prefer Pinotage made in the traditional style which exhibits the red fruit, but to each his own.

Wine-red

 

Rich Laburn
Rich Laburn is filmmaker, photographer and writer who is based at Londolozi Game Reserve in South Africa. Spending his time capturing scenes of the wild and communicating the beauty of the African bushveld, he runs the Londolozi Blog as a way to entertain and engage people wishing to visit these wild lands.
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