Pinotage: A Grape South Africa Should be Proud to Call Their Signature Red

Welcome Oddbinites… Oddbiners… Oddities? We’ll work on that. Today, we’d like to tell you the tale of the wine worlds’ ugly duckling which, just like the original fable, involves intrigue, mistaken identity and some very poor ornithology. This is the story of Pinotage.

Like many great stories, this one begins with a man called Abraham, Professor Abraham Perold to be precise. While working for the University of Stellenbosch in 1927, Professor Perold contrived to create a varietal as nuanced and as graceful as Pinot Noir that would be able to thrive in the warmer microclimates of South Africa. Professor P (that’s what his students called him… probably) set to cross Pinot Noir with Cinsault in the hope the result would be a grape with all the complexity of Pinot, with the heat and draught resistance of Cinsault.

Depending on your feelings towards Pinotage, it is either one of the wine world’s great tragedies or great mercies that Professor Abraham Perold would never try the wine from this crossing as it wasn’t until 1941, the year of Perold’s death, that the first Pinotage was vinified at Elsenburg Agricultural College.

Professor Abraham Perold - Founder of the Pinotage grape

Practically since that first bottle the varietal has divided opinion, even within South Africa. For every winemaker who considers it a unique selling point for the Cape, there are just as many who think that it’s an embarrassment that Pinotage is considered their signature red.

We’re not going to lie to you, in the past Pinotage’s poor reputation wasn’t entirely undeserved. For much of the 90s and 00s it was a standing joke at blind tastings that any sub-par bottle was met with a chorus of “o it must be a Pinotage!” (We didn’t say it was a good joke).

The main evidence tasters put forward in the case of Pinotage’s inadequacy is its propensity to smell like acetate - nail polish remover – or banana if you’re being polite.  We’ve heard others describe Pinotage as having a slight tar like odour- at a tasting a few years back one bottle was accused of offering an experience “like walking past roadworks on the north circular.” Of all the strange descriptors that get ascribed to wines, that definitely doesn’t seem like an endorsement.

Yet this is where our ugly duckling begins to show some very swan like features (elegant neck and all). For over the last decade, advocates of Pinotage have started insisting that these traits attributed to Pinotage are signs of poor winemaking not an inherent characteristic of the grape. During apartheid, when South Africa’s wine industry was stagnating due to the nation’s isolation from the rest of the world, and the new winemaking techniques that were emerging, many South African wines had this acetate note. But winelovers knew how good Chardonnay, Cabernet and Shiraz could be, so a bad example was a one off. But Pinotage was only made in South Africa, thus people only tasted bad examples. Now that apartheid has long ended, winemaking techniques in South Africa have caught up with the rest of the world and in fact become a hot bed of experimentation and modernisation. Along with it, the quality of Pinotage has soared; red fruit scented with an earthy complexity and a firm mouth filling structure this is a grape that more and more South Africans are proud to call their signature red. Pinotage has come a long way and still has a distance to go to completely reinvent its reputation, but with wines like the ones below it won’t be long until Pinotage is known for all the right reasons.

The Grape Grinder Pinotage 2018

Radford Dale Vinum Pinotage 2018