The Origins of Pinotage – South Africa

South Africa – The Home of Pinotage

It may be surprising to some that the Pinotage cultivar actually originated in South Africa. In order to better understand the history of wine in South Africa, it’s necessary to do a quick recap.

Although South Africa has technically been producing wine since the 1600s, prior to the end of Apartheid in 1994, much of the wine was produced in larger quantities and was of poorer quality. The outbreak of Phylloxera (a sort of aphid, that lives on and eats the roots of grapevines) caused many farmers to replant vineyards with grapes that would bring them high yields, like Cinsault.

In the early 1990s, there was actually so much of an excess of wine that we had what some have called a “wine lake” – with wines being thrown away into the rivers and streams. Around this time, KWV took control of pricing in South Africa and imposed the pricing on wines and offered to buy some of the excess wine. Thus, there was not much of a necessity to produce better quality wines.

Fortunately, after the end of Apartheid in 1994, South Africa was now able to export wines and therefore the need arose to produce some more premium wines that could compete with those made internationally. Once the early 2000s arrived, the South African wine market was flourishing and is still expanding today.

Image cred: Cape Town Etc

When and How was Pinotage Created?

In 1925, a chemistry doctor – Dr Abraham Izak Perold – crossed the Cinsault (Hermitage) and Pinot Noir cultivars together. It is unclear WHY he paired these two in particular but it can be assumed that he thought the high-yielding Cinsault would be a match for the great-tasting-but-less-yielding Pinot Noir. He ended up with four seeds which he planted in his own garden at Welgevallen.

Years later, these growing vines were almost forgotten about, but fortunately, they were safely moved to Elsenberg, which has become generally accepted as the site where the first Pinotage was made in 1941 by lecturer, CT de Waal.

How did Pinotage get its Name?

So this part is unusual because the name “Pinotage” should not technically exist. Professor CJ Theron from Elsenberg, along with Dr Abraham Izak Perold, named the new varietal after its parents – Pinot Noir and Hermitage. For some reason, Cinsault was known here in South Africa as Hermitage. It’s odd because Hermitage is not a varietal, but actually an appellation from Northern Rhône in France, where only Syrah is grown and not Cinsault. Anyway, Hermitage is what both men believed Cinsualt to be and thus the name Pinotage was born.

Image Cred: Blog of Wine Explorers

So Who Made the first Pinotage?

Well, the first planting of the varietal for commercial purposes was in 1943 on Myrtle Grove near Sir Lowry’s Pass. But it was only in 1959 when Bellevue’s Pinotage sparked international interest (and the same in 1961 with Kanonkop’s Pinotage) at the Cape Wine Show.

But the first labelled Pinotage bottle was in 1961 when the Stellenbosch Farmers’ Winery sold the Bellevue Pinotage under the name Lanzerac Pinotage.

(Side note: These Pinotage vines at Bellevue are actually still in use! Although, granted, they only produce a limited number of bottles. Originally planted by PK Morkel in 1953, the Pinotage currently being produced from these old vines is aptly named ”1953”, and it is most certainly worth a try! – See image below)

Pinotage Since Then

Despite the fact that this newly-found varietal became popular rather quickly, it did not do as well as might have been expected. Inexperienced farmers were suddenly planting the varietal all over the place, resulting in Pinotages that were of a much poorer quality than those orginally produced by Bellevue and Kanonkop. Foreigners who came here intrigued by the varietal found the wines to be terrible and claimed they tasted of acetone and rust. Soon winemakers lost their enthusiasm for the varietal and many gave up the challenge of producing quality Pinotage.

Fortunately, in 1987 (great year, by the way), Beyers Truter from Kanonkop was named The Diner’s Club Winemaker of the Year for his Pinotage. People were then pleasantly surprised to see how well Pinotage could age and were enjoying the newly-found flavours of berry and chocolate and even banana. As if that achievement wasn’t enough for South Africa to boast about, Beyers Truter also won the International Wine Maker of the Year Award in 1991 at the International Wine and Spirit Competition for his Pinotage. This put South Africa back on the map and, arguably, was the start of larger quantity premium wine production in South Africa.

What Flavours can you Expect to Find in a Pinotage Today?

Pinotage today is made in a variety of styles. It is sometimes blended with international varieties into what is commonly known as a “Cape Blend”. On it’s own, it can either be made into a fruity, lighter style, with flavours of red berries, or, it can be made from older vines into a more full-bodied, spicier style. With the addition of oak, Pinotage can also be made into a style with more coffee or chocolate aromas.

It’s generally a full-bodied wine with medium tannins and, with age, can also develop meaty or vegetal flavours and aromas.

Image cred: Wine Folly

Where Can I Buy a Decent Pinotage?

Other than the mentioned Pinotages from Bellevue and Kanonkop, there are quite a few good examples currently being produced. In fact, the 2018 Absa Top 10 Pinotages were announced last month. Here they are below:

Allée Bleue Black Series Old Vine Pinotage 2016; Beyerskloof Diesel Pinotage 2015; Diemersdal Pinotage Reserve 2017; Fairview Primo Pinotage 2016; Flagstone Writer’s Block Pinotage 2016; Kaapzicht Steytler Pinotage 2015; Kanonkop Pinotage 2013; Lyngrove Platinum Pinotage 2016; Môreson The Widow Maker Pinotage 2015; Rijk’s Reserve Pinotage 2014

I’ll be trying out the Flagstone Writer’s Block Pinotage for my next UNUSUAL WINE OF THE MONTH, so stay tuned!

There are also some good Pinotage Rosés as well as Cape Blends for you to try. You can find out more from The Pinotage Association HERE.

Image Cred: Perdeberg Wines

Which Foods would Pair Well with a Pinotage?

The flavours of Pinotage, as mentioned above, are mostly of plums, black and red cherries and sometimes, red berries – coupled with the spiciness/earthiness and sometimes vegetal or meaty flavours. It’s full bodied but usually with medium tannins and so it pairs well with game meats or even lean meats. In South Africa, we even have a festival dedicated to Pinotage and Biltong, (also known as dried meats) as they are such a well-suited pair.

Pinotage also goes nicely with aged cheeses, roast meats like chicken, as well as Italian dishes, like pizzas and pastas.

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Cover Image cred: Perderberg Wines
Thanks to www.pinotage.co.za and www.winefolly.com for a lot of the extra info that I have yet to learn from my WSET studies.