International Pinotage Day celebrates the uniquely South African grape – merging Pinot Noir and Hermitage (Cinsaut) grapes.
Pinotage is one of these varieties that are almost only grown in one single country. In the case of Pinotage the only country where you will find it is in South Africa. It is also unusual in that it is a very recent grape variety. It is not an ancient domestic variety. In fact, Pinotage was created by Abraham Izak Perold in 1925. He was professor of viticulture at the Stellenbosch University. He made a crossing of the two French varieties Cinsault and Pinot Noir. At the time Cinsault (or Cinsaut) was sometimes called Hermitage so the name of the crossing became Pinotage. His aim was no doubt to combine the prestigious qualities of the Pinot Noir from Burgundy with the heat resistant and productive Cinsaut.
But the professor left his job at the University shortly after making the crossing and the grape was forgotten and almost disappeared until some ten years later when a student found a few abandoned plants in the old over-grown garden of the professor. The first wine made from Pinotage was produced in 1941.
Today Pinotage is an emblematic grape of South Africa. Few, if any, other countries grow Pinotage.
It is a grape that has been often misunderstood and that certainly merits more attention than what it gets today. It is sometimes criticised for having a smoked or burned (or Bakelite) character. Personally I have rarely found that in any Pinotage wines that I have tasted. Perhaps some of them have a certain smokiness but no more than, for example, barrel aged Syrah from the Rhone valley or oak aged modern style Bordeaux wines have. I wonder if this “smokiness” of Pinotage is one of these urban myths that exist in the wine world? Or perhaps it is something that exists in the cheapest of the cheapest versions of them sold in bulk or in bag-in-box. Well, if that is the case, then all you have to do is to avoid those and instead go for the better examples sold in bottle, of which there are many.
Pinotage typically produces full-bodied, powerful wine with a lot of fruit, plums, cherry, cassis, sometimes spicy. Quality Pinotage have good ageing potential. Some are oak aged to give a bit of extra tannin and sometimes vanilla or spice. (A version best avoided are the very peculiar “coffee Pinotage” that have been vinified with special oak treatment to bring out coffee like burned aromas.) You can find Pinotage both as pure varietal wines and in blends. It is perhaps not the greatest and noblest of the varieties grown in South Africa but it is unique for this stunningly beautiful wine country and something that every wine-lover should try.