Wine, Spilled: Pinotage

row-of-reds

Photograph: Gagen Indra

Welcome to Wine, Spilled, a weekly column in which EMD's Justine Sterling shares the myths, legends, tall tales, and short stories of the wine world, and recommends a couple bottles that won't break the bank. Today's wine: Pinotage

For the most part, grapes are old things. Sure, there have been innovations in cultivation and processing, but on the whole most varietals have been around for a long time; long enough to have ancestors who were consumed by Roman emperors or Vikings. But that’s not to say all grapes are old. There’s one notable newbie: the baby of the bunch at only 85 years old, Pinotage.

Perold's Monster

pinotagebush

Photograph: Mark McLellan

Like many stories about organisms invented in laboratories, this one starts with a German-educated scientist with a dream. South African Abraham Izak Perold received his Ph.D in Chemistry from the University of Halle an der Saale in Germany in 1904. Upon returning to his home country, he was promptly sent out on a mission by the Cape government to collect grape varietals that might thrive in South Africa. He returned with 177 and was made the first professor of viticulture at the University of Stellenbosch.

While there, Perold began a private project. He wanted to create the ultimate grape: an easily cultivatable Pinot Noir. In order to achieve this monster/miracle, he crossbred the delicate and complex Pinot Noir with the tough-skinned and plentiful Cinsault (known as Hermitage in South Africa, hence the name "Pinotage," though "Herminoir" was also considered). His experiment produced only four seeds, which he planted at the Welgevallen Experimental Farm in 1925. In 1927, he received an offer for a job with the KWV, a winemaking co-operative in Paarl, and abandoned his little monsters.

The history of Pinotage may have stopped there if it had not been for Dr. Charlie Niehaus. By chance, an afternoon’s bicycle ride took Niehaus past Perold’s old home just as a team from the university was beginning to clear out the now-overgrown garden. Having heard of the seedlings, he stopped and dug them out, rescuing them from disappearing into a sea of forgotten experiments. The plants changed hands a few times over the next decade until their first commercial plantings at Myrtle Grove in 1941. Though the grapes thrived, the wines they produced were, initially, dismissed as unimpressive at best.

pinotage vines

Photograph: Mark Turner

Then, in 1961, things took a turn for the little crossbreed: a 1959 vintage was deemed Grand Champion at the Cape Young Wine Show, and it sparked a dramatic rise in Pinotage plantings. The vines were easy to grow and ripened quickly, which, while great in terms of plentiful production, resulted in wines that did not reach their full potential due to overproduction. These wines were used to fill out low-priced blends. The Pinotage that was being produced also garnered a reputation for having a paint-like or nail-polish-esque quality — the term “rusty nails” was thrown around in certain tasting notes. In short, success was quickly halted for the just-blossoming Pinotage.

There were some producers who saw the potential in Pinotage. They believed it could be to South Africa what Zinfandel was to California, or Sauvignon Blanc was to New Zealand. Researchers found that grapes fermented at too low of a temperature could result in an acrid odor and corrected the error. The resulting wines were dark, chocolaty, deeply smoky and thoroughly unique. Though the grape to this day still has dissenters who believe it holds no value on its own, and although it makes up only around seven percent of South Africa’s vineyards, it has become a distinctly South African symbol with a devoted following.

So how to use this odd, young, Frankenstein’s Monster of a grape? There are a few different styles of Pinotage: the young, bright, and funky style; the full, dark and fruity style; and the aged, oaky, earthy style. Each has their own use, but all have a certain degree of smokiness in common that make them an ideal match for summer’s favorite meaty treat: barbecue. Smoky wine meets smoky meat. Add a cigar to the evening to complete the smoky trio (only a couple of puffs though, kids – and don’t inhale).

Pleasant Pinotages

4 Comments

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  1. Chantal

    What, no Kanonkop?

  2. Some nice myths recounted, but I cannot understand the Frankenstein monster description. Pinotage was created by sexual reproduction in the vineyard and selected by man for cultivation, just like every other grape variety.

    There are many other wine grape crosses created by man including Ruby Cabernet (bred by Dr Harold Olmo in California) and Petite Sirah (bred by Dr Durif in France) not to mention Traminette and a host of others in Finger Lakes.

    Most commercially available fruits and vegetables are also the result of man's breeding.

    I agree with Chantal: it is a shame large production brand name wines were listed but not Pinotages from top estates such as Kanonkop, Bellevue/Morkel, Kaapzicht, DeWaal or even a Beyerskloof from the Pinotage master himself, Beyers Truter. Or Californian examples such as Fort Ross or Vino Con Brio.

    Cheers
    Peter May
    author of
    PINOTAGE: Behind the Legends of South Africa's Own Wine

  3. Justine

    Peter, thanks for the input. All of those producers you mention are great but I was trying to stick with bottles people all over could find readily. But thank you for mentioning them so that people will recognize them if they stumble into them on a particularly interesting wine list or in a great store!

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