Pinotage // PIN-ə-tahzh is a red wine grape that is South Africa's signature variety. It was bred there in 1925 as a cross between Pinot noir and Cinsaut (Cinsaut was known as "Hermitage" in South Africa at that time, hence the portmanteau name). It typically produces deep red varietal wines with smoky, bramble and earthy flavors, sometimes with notes of bananas and tropical fruit, but has been criticized for sometimes smelling of acetone. Pinotage is often blended, and also made into fortified wine and even red sparkling wine. The grape is a viticultural intraspecific cross of two varieties of Vitis vinifera, not an interspecific hybrid.
Pinotage is a grape variety that was created in South Africa in 1925 by Abraham Izak Perold, the first Professor of Viticulture at Stellenbosch University. Perold was attempting to combine the best qualities of the robust Hermitage 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 at Welgevallen Experimental Farm and then apparently forgot about them. In 1927 he left the university to take up a job with KWV co-operative and the garden became overgrown. The university sent in a team to tidy it up, just as Charlie Niehaus happened to pass by. He was a young lecturer who knew about the seedlings, and rescued them from the clean-up team. The young plants were moved to Elsenburg Agricultural College under Perold's successor, CJ Theron. In 1935 Theron grafted them onto newly established Richter 99 and Richter 57 rootstock at Welgevallen. Meanwhile, Perold continued to visit his former colleagues. Theron showed him the newly grafted vines, and the one that was doing best was selected for propagation and was christened Pinotage. The first wine was made in 1941 at Elsenburg, with the first commercial plantings at Myrtle Grove near Sir Lowry's Pass. Also in 1941 Pinotage vines were planted at the Kanonkop Estate, the wines of which have later risen to great fame and can mature up to 25 years, so that this estate has even been called "a formidable leader of Cape’s red wine pack."
The first recognition came when a Bellevue wine made from Pinotage became the champion wine at the Cape Wine Show of 1959. This wine would become the first wine to mention Pinotage on its label in 1961, when Stellenbosch Farmer's Winery (SFW) marketed it under their Lanzerac brand. This early success, and its easy viticulture, prompted a wave of planting during the 1960s.
Despite the reputation for easy cultivation, the Pinotage grape has not escaped criticism. A common complaint is the tendency to develop isoamyl acetate during winemaking which leads to a sweet pungency that often smells like paint. A group of British Masters of Wine visiting in 1976 were unimpressed by Pinotage, calling the nose "hot and horrible" and comparing the taste to "rusty nails". Throughout its history, the grape has seen its plantings rise and fall due to the current fashion of the South African wine industry. In the early 1990s, after the end of Apartheid, the world's wine market was opening to South Africa wine and winemakers ignored Pinotage in favor of more internationally recognized varieties like Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon. Towards the end of the 20th century, the grape's fortunes began to turn, and by 1997 it commanded higher prices than any other South African grape. Despite this, there remains a segment of South African winemakers, such as André van Rensburg of Vergelegen, who believe that Pinotage has no place in a vineyard.
Oz Clarke has suggested that part of some South African winemakers' disdain for Pinotage stems from the fact that it's a distinctly New World wine while the trend for South African wine is to reflect more European influences and flavors. Despite being a cross from a Burgundy and Rhône grape, Pinotage reflects none of the flavors of a French wine. While not a criticism itself, outside of small plantings most notably in New Zealand and the United States, Pinotage has yet to develop a significant presence in any other wine region. In the early 21st century, several of South Africa's top producers have turned from focusing predominantly on Pinotage to using it more as a blending component, or have stopped using it at all.
In addition to South Africa, Pinotage is also grown in Brazil, Canada, Israel, New Zealand, United States and Zimbabwe. In New Zealand, there are 94 acres (38 ha) of Pinotage. In the US, there are plantings in Arizona, California, Michigan, Oregon and Virginia. German winemakers have recently begun experimenting with the grape.
The majority of the world's plantings of Pinotage is found in South Africa, where it makes up just 6% of the vineyard area but is considered a symbol of the country's distinctive winemaking traditions. It is a required component (30-70%) in "Cape blends". Here it is made into the full range of styles, from easy-drinking quaffing wine and rosé to barrel-aged wine intended for cellaring. It is also made into a fortified 'Port wine' style, and even a red sparkling wine. The latest and fastest growing trend is the production of coffee styled Pinotage. The grape is very dependent on the skill and style of winemaking, with well made examples having the potential to produce deep colored, fruity wines that can be accessible early as well as age.
Pinotage is experiencing a mini renaissance in South Africa with an increasing number of producers exploring a bright and juicy expression of the variety that shows off the fruit rather than oak, and showing real finesse with less ripe extraction.
Pinotage is however been made more and more in other countries than its native South Africa. Nowadays, Pinotage has also been planted quite heavily in New Zealand and Zimbabwe, with other wine growing nations such as Switzerland, Germany, the US, Israel and Brazil.
The vines are vigorous like their parent Cinsaut and easy to grow, ripening early with high sugar levels. Pinotage can be grown via the trellised system or as bushvines (untrellised). The older Pinotage vineyards are predominantly planted as bushvines and it is perceived that these lend to more concentration of fruit and depth to the wine. It has the potential to produce yields of 120 hl/ha (6.8 tons/acre) but older vines tend to lower their yields to as low as 50 hl/ha. Yield restriction is managed through water stress and bunch thinning. In winemaking, controlling the coarseness of the grape and the isoamyl acetate character are two important considerations. Volatile acidity is another potential wine fault that can cause Pinotage to taste like raspberry vinegar. Since the 1990s, more winemakers have used long and cool fermentation periods to minimize the volatile esters as well as exposure to French and American oak.
The grape is naturally high in tannins which can be tamed with limited maceration time but reducing the skin contact can also reduce some of the mulberry, blackberry and damson fruit character that Pinotage can produce. 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. Newer clones have shown some potential as well.
Perold's Hermitage x Pinot. The alternative name 'Herminoir' was considered.