Contrary to what some may believe, the Pinotage grape is not a hybrid: it is 100% vinifera.
Pinotage arose in South Africa in 1925 when Professor Abraham Izak Perold crossed Pinot Noir with Cinsault, both vinifera grapes. To find out more about this unique South African contribution to the world of wine, please visit Peter May's Pinotage Club blog and the Pinotage Association website.
In addition to being a supporter of non-vinifera grapes for cool-climate viticulture, I have been an ardent fan of South African Pinotage since 1998. Below is an open letter which I have written to all producers of varietal Pinotage in South Africa.
An Open Letter in Support of Pinotage
My first experience with Pinotage came in 1998; it was a 1995 Zonnebloem from Stellenbosch. I had never before tried varietal Pinotage simply because I hadn't known about it. I was immediately struck by the uniqueness of its aromas compared to those of the ubiquitous Cabernets and Merlots that I was focusing on in those days. Pinotage had its own distinctive nose typically comprising wild strawberry, banana, earth, elderberry and leather. I was fascinated by the uniqueness of this wine which, although strictly speaking was a "New World" wine, had something very serious and classical about it. I later came to more precisely identify that character as being a mix of jubilant forward fruit married to a savoury mid-palate and a stern, dry, tannic structure - all these aspects being fascinatingly intertwined into a single wine. I loved the Lapsang Souchong-like smokiness in the finish, as well as the similarity of the finish to certain black-skinned table grapes that can have a nice tannic kick when you chew the skins. I also immediately found foods that I felt matched naturally with Pinotage, and began buying more Pinotage after that one tasting than any other red vinifera wine.
Over the years I have found that Pinotage goes really well with any food containing tomatoes, eggplant and bacon (the savoury aspect marries well to these) as well as sharp, old cheeses. Beefsteak grilled over hardwood coals is yet another sublime match; I especially enjoy oaked Pinotage with this (oaked Pinotage is actually my favourite sort in general). Cheddar cheese and potato perogies topped with fried bacon bits and onions - a well-known meal among those of Polish extraction! - is a surprising but very apt match for quality Pinotage as well. And I can't think of any better wine to serve with any food cooked outdoors over hardwood - in effect, braaied food - than Pinotage.
In recent times, it seems, the debate has heated up over whether Pinotage should even be South Africa's flagship variety - and there are voices that even call for its outright elimination from Cape Blends. I cannot ally myself with those views, since what they entail is that South Africa should simply get on the bandwagon of conformity and uniformity, and just produce more of the standby wines that are already so prevalent around the world. Now, this is not to say that South Africa's Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Shiraz aren't world class - they most certainly are - but surely Pinotage is a grape that first appeared on South African soil; it is a uniquely South African creation; there is history behind it, and the wine is unlike any other. This, and the fact that quality viticultural and winemaking techniques are available today, should be reason enough to see the value in making top-notch estate-grown Pinotage for South African wine lovers and the rest of us who love South African wine to enjoy.
This Canadian is a supporter of Pinotage who really would like all South African producers to know that they are doing something wonderful: they are adding to the diversity of the world wine tapestry by producing fine varietal Pinotage. Please continue making the finest, most classical Pinotage wines you can. Don't listen to the hype out there that would see this classic South African red grape torn out or relegated to low-quality bulk wines. Pinotage is a wine that has many admirers, and I hope that this fact will always be your strength and hope as you work in the vineyards and cellars of South Africa's winelands.