rethinking pinotage

Let's talk about Pinotage. It's a grape variety that is associated with burnt rubber, paint aromas, neither of which sounds attractive. That reputation comes from several factors: South Africa's wine industry stalled in the twentieth century because of apartheid and the dominance of the government-controlled co-op KMV; quality in general wasn't as high as it should have been, and when South Africa re-emerged internationally in 1994 after the transition to democracy, there was a focus on inexpensive wine for exports; when a group of British MWs visited South Africa in the 1970s, they really didn't like the Pinotage they tasted—and their opinion lingered.

But it's been long overdue to rethink Pinotage—after all, those MWs visited in the 1970s, three decades before the resurgence in quality South African wine. There are now some wonderful wines being made from the grape variety, and I think that trend towards quality is only going to continue.

What is Pinotage? It's a grape variety created by I.A. Perold, a Stellenbosch professor, in 1925, by crossing Pinot Noir and Cinsault. This may seem an unusual combination, as Pinot is a cool climate variety and Cinsault a warm climate variety. But both have red fruit aromas, high acidity, light tannins, and a fresh, bright profile—and that's what the best Pinotage tastes like.

At the time, nothing was done with the professor's experimental crossing. After his retirement, there were just a handful of vines outside his office from which cuttings were taken to propagate the variety. It wasn't until 1961 that the first varietal wine was commercially released—just a decade before those MWs visited.

Pinotage as a variety is still young, and the wines continue to be perfected by producers. It's been made in heavily oaked, Cabernet style; it's been made in a raisined, Ripasso style; the best are light, fresh, youthful, but with a fine, ageworthy structure that makes you rethink Pinotage.

The best wines come from producers who limit yields; plant on difficult, rocky soils; manage the canopy to ensure even ripening; and handle malic fermentation to stop the wines from being too flat. As with most other grape varieties, understanding how Pinotage works in the vineyard and winery is key to making the best wines.

In the past, I've had Pinotage in the club from David & Nadia in Swartland which you could easily mistake for Beaujolais. More recently, I’ve been shipping Pinotage from Scions of Sinai, a producer based in Stellenbosch. I love both wines: light-bodied but with ripe red fruit aromas. These wines make you rethink Pinotage and realize that, at essence, it is a crossing of Pinot Noir and Cinsault, full of crunchy red fruit aromas.