"Pinotage is the juice extracted from women’s tongues and lions’ hearts. After having a sufficient quantity one can talk forever and fight the devil."
Quote hanging on the wall of Kanonkop's tasting room in Stellenbosch.
Image provided courtesy of Kanonkop Wine Estate.
What is Pinotage?
The (some would say illegitimate) offspring of Cinsault and Pinot Noir is South Africa’s national grape. This status has more to do with it being a grape developed in South Africa rather than any great historical love, although this is most definitely changing.
From the start it was a controversial grape with many critics and few champions. The critics focused on the common aromas of over-ripe banana and flavours of rusty nails and nail polish (none of which one would hope to find in a wine). The champions on the other hand saw a wine capable of perfumed subtlety as well as ripe fruited power that could be South Africa’s unique red wine.
South Africa doesn’t have a great history with Pinot Noir. The climate is largely too hot and many of our soils aren’t particularly suitable to the varietal. BUT South Africa is very suitable for Mediterranean varietals such as Cinsault or Hermitage as it has been known. So, in 1924 A.I. Perold, the first Professor of Winemaking at Stellenbosch University, decided to cross these two varietals in the hope that it would make an easier to grow Pinot Noir.
It was not a grape that immediately set the world alight and flew under the radar for a number of decades. Its first brush with celebrity came in 1959 and 1961 when Pinotages from Bellevue and Kanonkop won champion wine at the Cape Young Wine Show. Unsurprisingly, the award came along with great disbelief that the young upstart could stand up against the more noble of the red cultivars.
Pinotage bush vines on Kanonkop estate. Image provided courtesy of Kanonkop Wine Estate.
The 1990s were when Pinotage was tentatively welcomed onto the world stage. In 1991, Beyers Truter, the winemaker at Kanonkop and fervent champion of Pinotage was named International Winemaker of the Year at the International Wine & Spirit Competition held in London. This wine was celebrated for its similarity to Pinot Noir with a flavour that was ‘delicate, subtle, understated even, but persistent with red fruit and floral notes.’ Then in 1995 the editor of a prominent American wine publication visited the Cape and, while tasting a selection of Pinotages proclaimed, ‘What the hell is going on here? These are spectacular, spectacular!’ While these were massive steps forward for both the varietal and South African wine as a whole, the public did not feel as confident about the varietal and sales still remained low.
If the 1990s saw a critical acceptance of Pinotage, 2000 was the year that the public decided to get to know Pinotage a lot better. This was the year that Diemersfontein, a wine farm in unfashionable Wellington, released their first vintage of the now (in)famous ‘chocolate coffee’ Pinotage. Never one to be described as subtle or nuanced this was the wine that allowed many first time wine drinkers to actually taste a defined flavor in a glass of wine and proclaim, ‘I taste COFFEE!’ It was also the wine that made many critics cradle their heads in their hands and wonder just how hedonistic the wine world was becoming. Despite the iffy critical reception this was the wine that brought Pinotage to the masses and spawned countless imitators and even an annual festival in its honour.
It has been proved that when Pinotage is fermented at temperatures over 37° Celsius many of the unpleasant flavours and aromas associated with the varietal get burnt off. Due to this you will often see barrels of Pinotage fermenting outside in the sun rather than hidden in the cellar.
Image provided courtesy of Kanonkop Wine Estate
What to expect
As you can see there are two major trains of thought when it comes to Pinotage. One, where the winemaker takes inspiration from the grape’s parents, Pinot Noir and Cinsault, and aims for a more subtle, fragrant wine, whereas, on the other side of the spectrum we have big, serious Pinotages that have spent considerable amounts of time in oak.
Flavourwise, Pinotage is generally a fruit dominated wine and depending on the ripeness of the grapes when picked it can vary from red fruits such as raspberries and strawberries to dark fruits like blackberries and even plums. In well-made Pinotage one should find flavours beyond that of pure fruit such as rooibos, a fragrant South African herbal tea, tobacco smoke, tar and sometimes a distinct meatiness that has been described as crispy bacon fat.
Pinotage has truly come of age in the last decade. It has the ability to create subtle fragrant wines as well as wines that can stand up to any roast meat you could throw at it. If you haven’t given it a try yet, then why the hell not?
Which to tryPremium -
- Kanonkop Black Label Pinotage 2013 – R1,450.00 from farm (equivalent to $95 USD)
If you have the money then this is the Pinotage to try. Tim Atkin has given it 97 for two years in a row and made it his Red Wine of the Year once. It is made from the oldest block of Pinotage in South Africa and can only be called a fitting testament to our national grape.
- Beyerskloof Diesel Pinotage 2012 – R575.00 from farm (equivalent to $38 USD)
This is one of the best examples of how Pinotage can handle some serious oaking. 20 months in 100% new French oak barrels could be too much for most wines but this has the fruit and fine tannins to stand up to it. Just don’t expect to drink it within the next 2 – 3 years.High Brow -
- Kanonkop Pinotage 2013 – R310.00 from farm (equivalent to $22 USD)
This is the original high-brow Pinotage. It is so good it prompted Tim Atkin to say, ‘I’d like to give a bottle of this reliably delicious wine to all the people who say they hate Pinotage.’ If you know anyone who immediately dismisses Pinotage why not get them a bottle?
Made by Abrie Beeslaar, the winemaker at Kanonkop, this is a more aromatic and subtle Pinotage that pays great homage to the grapes parent, Pinot Noir.Easy Drinking -
- Diemersfontein Pinotage 2014 – R110 from farm (equivalent to $7.60 USD)
The original coffee-chocolate Pinotage and it certainly makes for easy drinking. If you want to try something different and don’t care too much about subtlety then invite some friends over and give this one a go.
- Spice Route Pinotage 2014 – R100 from farm (equivalent to $7 USD)
If you enjoyed the Diemersfontein Pinotage but hoped for slightly more subtlety then this is the Pinotage for you. Some bold dark fruits and a delicious smokiness follow a nose like a cigar humidor and while it’s not for the understated, it sure is delicious.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jon is a photojournalist currently living and working in Cape Town, the Mother City of South Africa. He is extremely passionate about South African wine and has made it his life’s mission to seek out all of South Africa’s weirdest and most wonderful wines. In addition to exploring wine regions both near and far, his main interests are documentary and architectural photography.