What is Pinotage? | A South African Speciality

Harry Lambourne
30th October 2023

If you’re a lover of South African wine, you’ve likely come across Pinotage. This delightfully unique offering has found great success here. In many respects, it is South Africa’s grape variety.

Yet, compared to other grapes varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay, it is a relatively new creation that is due to celebrate its 100 year anniversary very soon!

This article will serve as a guide to all things Pinotage. We’ll take you on a quick tour of South African wine in general, then we look into this interesting grape variety in greater detail. This will include both the structural characteristics of Pinotage, as well as the tasting notes which are most commonly associated with, this grape variety.

Let’s begin your journey into the world of Pinotage.

The History Of South African Wine

Walker Bay - South African Wine
Walker Bay – Home of Great South African Wine

South African wine became a fixture in the global wine market during the 1990s, after Apartheid trade sanctions were removed. However, winemaking in this country dates back hundreds of years.

The first vines were planted around 300 years ago by Dutch Colonists. South Africa was primarily a restocking station between Europe and the East Indies. Yet, settlers noted some indigenous grape varieties and attempted to turn them into wine. The results were underwhelming.

Soon, ships were bringing over European grape cuttings, (MacNeil 893). The first grapes could very well have been Chenin Blanc and Muscat of Alexandria.

The former is still planted across South Africa today and becomes some of the world’s finest white wines when grown here. The latter may have fell slightly out of favour today, but it was one of the first wines to put South Africa on the map. The sweet South African Muscat wines of Constantia were even referenced in Jane Austen’s ‘Sense and Sensibility‘. Mrs Jennings mentions some of the “finest old Constantia wine”.

Sense and Sensibility. An early proponent of South African wine.
Sense and Sensibility, Jane Austen

The history of South African wine is not without issues which are greater than the world of wine. Indeed, there are some injustices which must not be forgotten. Vines couldn’t be harvested by machine or plow, which led to the colonists of the time to use slaves. Malay, Madagascan and Mozambique slaves were used. Sadly, this is an unavoidable part of the history behind the wine of this area, (MacNeil 895).

It would be a long time until South African wine took shape. Even more modern iterations were generally centred around large coops which often used most of the grapes for cheap table wine or brandy. Until 1990, 70% of grapes were used for these purposes, or simply discarded, (MacNeil 897).

Though, the 1990s were an undeniable turning point. Apartheid ended, as did the trade sanctions which were imposed on the Apartheid government. The doors of commerce swung open and winemakers broke away from large coops and cheap table wine. Instead, they look to produce their own, high-quality wines.

Today, South Africa produces vast amounts of fantastic wine and one of their most famous exports will be our focus for the remainder of this article. It’s time to talk about Pinotage.

What is Pinotage
Pinotage Vines in South Africa

The Pinotage Grape Variety

The name Pinotage could lead you to believe that this is a light and fresh wine like Pinot Noir. However, like Syrah, it’s much more bold and BBQ friendly. Though, the Pinot in the name is no accident.

Pinotage is a crossing. This means that the grape variety comes from combining the cuttings of two pre-existing grape varieties. In this case, Pinotage is a crossing of Pinot Noir and Cinsault. The Pinotage grape variety was created back in 1925 by Dr. Abraham Izak Perold. It was a bold move to create a grape variety which would be hardier than the current styles of Pinot Noir which were struggling to find their feet in South Africa.

The end result was indeed a hardier grape. Pinotage grapes are dense and dark, with big and booming tannins. They produce full bodied wines which are deeply powerful and when done properly stand up to long-term ageing.

Yet, it would be quite some time before truly exceptional expression of this grape variety would emerge. Kanonkop was one of the most producers to excel with this grape variety and even today, they continue to produce world-class Pinotage.

What Does Pinotage Taste Like?

Pinotage can vary greatly in quality and this can be a big factor in the tastes which you will experience. Interestingly, a taste of burnt rubber can often be attributed to this grape variety. However, the best examples of this wine will be able to mask this tasting notes. So, if you’re getting big hits of burnt rubber, it might be time to look for a better bottle of Pinotage!

Beyond that, far more ‘usual’ and frankly enjoyable tasting notes are also common with these wines. Pinotage will deliver big on powerful fruit flavours. Notes of plum, cherry, blackberry and strawberry are all common, as are subtle notes of banana and banana peel.

Pinotage is also frequently aged in oak casks. This imparts even more complex aromas. Pinotage is known to exhibit flavours of tobacco, smoke, liquorice, dark chocolate and even bacon. These are due to the time spent in oak.

All this points to great examples of this wine being rich and complex concoctions which are able to provide a wealth of tasting notes to rival any number of great red wines.

That’s our look into the unique and exciting Pinotage. When done properly, it can be truly astounding. We highly recommend you search out a bottle of Pinotage and see what South Africa can do!

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Works Cited

MacNeil, Karen. The Wine Bible. Workman Publishing Company, 2015.

If you’d simply just like to learn more about wine from the comfort of your own home, be sure to check out our online blog and sign up to our mailing list. We’re always looking to teach people about different regions, grape varieties and producers. Beyond that, you can expect to find a whole host of playlists, cocktail cards and recipe cards packed full of wine pairing ideas. There might even be some special offers along the way so make sure that you don’t miss out!

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