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The Unique Story of South African Pinotage Wine
Everything you need to know about South Africa’s signature variety
If Pinotage was human, it would undoubtedly be the underrated high school kid that always seems to be picked last for sports teams, is occasionally bullied and is given quite a tough time due to its misunderstood and delicate nature.
With that said, you can think of this piece as the cool kid that recognises something special in the South African red grape varietal and defends it in a simple way – by stating facts and giving a bit of context.
So we’ll start right at the beginning to show how the back-story of the wine adds to its already rich and delicious taste and calls for more attention to be given to this unique viticultural cross.
THE BIRTH OF SOUTH AFRICAN PINOTAGE WINE
Once upon a time – 1925 to be precise - Abraham Izak Perold, the very first professor of viticulture at the University of Stellenbosch, had a look at grape variants Pinot Noir and Cinsaut (which was known as Hermitage) and thought to himself, “Hey, let me give viticulture a bit of a switch up by cultivating these two grapes together to see what will happen,” and voila, Pinotage came to life.
Okay, so it wasn’t as simple as that, but some say that Perold’s actions remain a mystery as he left no notes to account for his choice of mixture, while others claim that he noticed how the Pinot Noir grape struggled in South African climate and so decided to give it a ‘stronger’ companion –Cinsaut – to facilitate its growth.
The story gets even more intense: if it wasn’t for a man named Dr. Charlie Niehaus, Pinotage wine would cease to exist! Because Perold grew the grape seedlings in his home garden in Welgevallen, when he moved houses he left the seedlings behind. Just as a team of gardeners was about to cut through the weeds and plants, Niehaus cycled past Perold’s former house and was able to save four seedlings – or so the story goes. –In short, the winemaker’s sense of adventure and experimentation coupled with Niehaus’s perfect timing have given South Africa its very own signature grape and, of course, some delicious red wine to sip and swirl.
SOUTH AFRICAN PINOTAGE WINE – BABY STEPS
From its inception, Pinotage has had to fight tooth and nail to get some recognition, and it was only when the Kanonkop Pinotage was appointed the Best Red Wine at the International Wine and Spirits Competition in London in 1991 that the South African varietal truly received recognition from the global community. This win saw wine lovers take Pinotage a bit more seriously, and thus the competition created a separate category for the variety, which signified its official welcome into the international world of wine.
PINOTAGE WINE PERSONALITY
The grape is delicate yet volatile and it needs some serious work in order to grow into a unique, luscious and beautiful variant. If not grown correctly, the grape poses a risk of giving wine an acetone-like taste and smell (an eventuality which hasn’t had a positive effect on the wine’s popularity).
Winemakers who get it right soon come to be familiar with the grape’s versatility and are able to create different types of wines – from the light, drinking type to the more serious, barrel-aged Pinotage. Some have even started innovating, creating the new coffee-type Pinotage wines.
Good Pinotage does a wonder to the senses as it can treat the palate and nose to berry like tastes and smells. Some are so unique that hints of red licorice, rooibos, banana, chocolate, dried leaves, sweet and sour sauce, sweet pipe tobacco and even bacon can be traced.
The tannin structure can be a bit of a beast, as bitterness can hit the back end of the tongue, so if you’re not used to Shiraz-like tannin levels, prepare yourself accordingly.
The ageing of Pinotage wine depends on the vintage and style you are dealing with. Some Pinotage wines are better enjoyed when more mature, while others give your palate a flavourful treat while they’re still young.
Pinotage really is quite a special wine, and here are FIVE FACTS TO PROVE IT:
1. It has a formal fan club dedicated to telling the world just how awesome it is: Due to the initial unpopularity and misconceptions around the wine, organisations like the Pinotage Association and popular fan site The Pinotage Club are doing as much as possible to change the bad rep. The best way, they reckon, is to not only educate winemakers on how to cultivate the best crop possible, but to also teach connoisseurs how best to enjoy the varietal.
2. Pinotage wine has its very own day (yep, you read right) to celebrate (once again) just how awesome it is: The International Pinotage Day takes place on Saturday, 11 October.
3. It’s inspired the best wine event in the world: Named the best wine event in the world (by the 2014 Drinks International Wine Tourism Awards), the Pinotage on Tap wine festival at Diemersfontein Wine Estate is dedicated to proving just how yummy the varietal can be when paired with the right venue and atmosphere. Since 2004, the shindig has given old and new Pinotage-lovers alike a reason to have a good time in the presence of Pinotage. The event has also grown so large that a Durban and Johannesburg leg have been set up to satisfy vino lovers on a national scale.
4. White Pinotage and Pinotage bubbly actually exist: Given its history, it comes as no surprise that the red grape has inspired winemakers to be daring and come up with interesting wine spin-off styles. In particular, Mellasat Vineyards has created the world’s very first white Pinotage while KWV’s Café Culture has added coffee Pinotage bubbly to their range.
5. It’s gone global: The rest of the world is hopping onto the Pinotage train as more countries are growing the grape and more restaurants are adding it to their wine list (which is great news for SA). Zimbabwe and New Zealand are now the largest Pinotage producers after South Africa.
WINE AND FOOD PAIRINGS – THE PINOTAGE WAY
Pinotage is a socialite when given the chance, and it’s medium to full-bodied nature makes it easy to pair with almost any food you can think of. A medium-bodied Pinotage goes well with fresh fish and sushi. It’s also further brings out tasty flavours in yummy dishes like curry and ratatouille. Red meats are well accompanied by a full-bodied and oaked version of the wine.
Pinotage is the kind of varietal that inspires you to experiment. Toss a bit of it into a sauce you’ve always wanted to spice up or pair it up with something you couldn’t even possibly think would work. Experimentation is the reason for its existence, and will surely continue to be one of the reasons for its attractive flair.
SOUTH AFRICAN PINOTAGE WINE RECOMMENDATIONS
- Diemersfontein Reserve Pinotage 2011
- Barista Pinotage 2012
- Van Loveren African Java Pinotage 2013
- Kanonkop Black Label Pinotage
- Rijks Reserve Pinotage 2010 (Absa Top 10 Pinotage winner)
- Manley Pinotage 2011 (Absa Top 10 Pinotage winner)
- Beyerskloof Pinotage 2011
- Maastricht Pinotage 2011
- FRAM Pinotage 2012
- Spier 21 Gables Pinotage 2011
- Eikendal Pinotage 2012
by Dudu Luthuli
News: It’s here. The official 2019 Platter’s selection of South Africa’s best wines.
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