Pinotage is a hardy red wine grape variety that is South Africa’s curious contribution to the history of wine making. South Africa‘s signature variety where it makes up just 6% of the vineyard area but is considered a symbol of the country’s distinctive winemaking traditions. When produced well the grape variety displays a range of red and black fruits like plum, currants, cherry and blackberry, banana and herbaceous characters. It gains additional complexity when aged in oak with notes of smoke, spice and chocolate. Pinotage is a good vineyard performer. With intensely coloured grapes, easily attained ripeness by mid-vintage, and good fixed acidity. It is a substantial bearer, and thus can be attractively priced for the quality. Despite being a cross from a Burgundy and Rhône grape, Pinotage reflects none of the flavours of a French wine. Outside of small plantings most notably in New Zealand and some wineries in the United States, Pinotage has yet to develop a significant presence in any other important wine region.
In 1925 Stellenbosch University Professor (of Viticulture) Abraham Perold crossed Pinot Noir and Cinsaut, then commonly, and still sometimes still, called Hermitage in South Africa. Hence the name. In vineyard and bottle, the wine disguises its parentage well. Professor Perold was attempting to combine the best qualities of the robust Cinsaut with Pinot noir, a grape that makes great wine but can be difficult to grow. Perold planted the four seeds from his cross in the garden of his official residence and then apparently forgot about them. After leaving the University in 1927 another lecturer (Charlie Niehaus) noticed and rescued the plants.
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It was not until 1961 that a bottle of Lanzerac wine displayed the name Pinotage prominently. Often scorned, even in the Cape, as a coarse red with flamboyant sweetish paint-like pungency. Often marked for a potential burnt rubber character. Pinotage has, however, also produced rich, long-lasting and deep coloured wines whose wild fruitiness has been tamed by time and good oak. Some winemakers have experimented with letting the grapes get very ripe prior to harvest followed by limited oak exposures as another means of taming the more negative characteristics of the grape while maintaining its fruitiness. In recent years South African winemakers have experimented with producing Pinotage in a lighter style, picking grapes earlier for lower sugar and using whole bunches in fermentation to increase the acidity, a style more similar to the parent grape Pinot Noir.
Pinotage plantings vary a lot by fashion. Largely ignored for half a century, the wine grape variety began gaining recognition internationally in the late 1980s. Still remains predominantly grown and produced in South Africa, with some attempts in Zimbabwe. By the 1990s, a few producers began treating Pinotage more carefully, and expensively, ignoring the generalization that Pinotage should be made to be drunk young. Cold fermentation tended to retain the volatile esters it which characterized the wine. Harvesting sooner to avoided excessive alcohol, fermenting at higher, more traditional temperatures, and then maturing in new French barrels, has produced Pinotages with more finesse, some classic sweet berry flavours and tannic length. Although occasionally blended, it retains such a flavour that it usually dominates anyway. Its novelty appeals to many foreign visitors to South Africa.