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A science professor, Abraham Izak Perold, first developed the Pinotage grape varietal from the Swartland region of South Africa (a valley around 50km North of Cape Town) in 1925. It was a crossbreed between two grape species; Cinsaut (as it is known in France) or Hermitage (as it is known in South Africa) and Pinot Noir.

Professor Perold intended to create a wine that would be as delicious as Pinot Noir yet as productive as Cinsaut and at the same time, retain and combine the delicate elegance of Pinot Noir and the hardy nature of Cinsaut.

He had taken time to study and understand Pinot Noir and see just how much it struggled to thrive in South Africa’s climatic conditions. On the other hand, he had noted that Cinsaut was thriving in the same terms and was quite productive.

Though Professor Perold was successful with the cross yield and consequently having the first few seeds planted in his vineyard, it is another scientific researcher that advanced the crossbreed idea (Pinotage). He ensured that the first few vines that had been forgotten were grafted onto a disease-resistant variety. The first yield from this was then commercialized in the year 1943.

Pinotage is a renowned unique South African grape wine with a beautiful deep, bright color, characterized by a velvety tannin together with rich plum aromas. To the nose, Pinotage creates a ripe red fruit illusion while in the mouth, it blasts fruity tight tannins with gentle acidity as well as evident vanilla that has been gained from the maturation in oak barrels. Pinotage also provides its consumers with a sandstone round on the palate. Dark cocoa aromas, as well as cherry tones, are also noticeable in this wine.

It has also been said to serve as a great blend with other wines like Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz to make signature cape blend-styled wines.

Development

Outside the Republic of South Africa, Pinotage has not had enough success. It, however, is grown in small quantities in Hawke’s Bay and Auckland, two of New Zealand’s North Island regions and parts of Israel, the United States, Zimbabwe, Switzerland, and California.

The beauty of Pinotage vine is that it can withstand drought conditions and is not susceptible to diseases like some other known grape varieties. It does well in deep soils that have a good water retention ability.

Though Pinotage thrives well in sunny climates, too much exposure to heat towards the end of the growing season does much damage to the fruits. The heat causes the grapes to adopt an acetone aroma that can easily throw one off balance (like one in nail polish remover) or at times, exhibit an unpleasant rubber-like characteristic. This can also happen during the fermentation process as it is still likely to take on the strong acetone flavor if subjected to high fermentation temperatures.

For this reason, constant monitoring at the vineyard is required. Even more, care is needed during the fermentation process to ensure that the environment is controlled and at its optimal.

Fermentation control is also essential to curb coarseness of the grape and a bitter taste that tends to accompany the acetone character. If not well handled, Pinotage is likely to have a raspberry vinegar taste.

Production and Appellation

Regular harvesting of Pinotage grapes is done at the harvest season. Fermentation then takes place between five days to a week after pressing before the must is subjected to malolactic fermentation. Then, aging is allowed to take place in French oak barrels for about eighteen months.

French barrels are a preferred fermentation medium for Pinotage because they can allow for cool and long fermentation periods that minimize the volatile esters that are often manifested in the final wine product in the form of volatile acidity.

Pinotage grape skins are also known to be rich in tannin, cyanidin, and anthocyanin. These compounds can, however, be controlled naturally by limiting the maceration fermentation time. Alternatively, reducing a prolonged skin contact period of the grapes can also lessen the strong berry fruit character that Pinotage displays.

Winemakers have discovered other ways of containing these negative characteristics of the grape. At times, they let the grapes ripen to maximum levels before harvesting them. The must is then subjected to a limited oak exposure oak experience. This is also done to retain the fruitiness in the wine. 

Another experimented-upon and well-known approach is to ferment the wines fast in hot temperatures. This helps to reduce the rigid tannin effect Pinotage grapes have before they can finally transfer to oak barrels where they are then allowed to ferment further in ideal cool conditions.

Styles

Pinotage comes in different styles and qualities that are dictated by the vine climatic conditions before and during growth, the vine management style employed, and, most importantly, the winemaking. There are some reasonably cheap, easy-drinking table wines, light-bodied wines, as well as concentrated, full-bodied red wines, often with great balance and elegance.

The acidity levels in the Pinotage grape are generally low, and many winemakers have found ways of acidifying the wines to their preference early in the fermentation process. This ensures that acids are well balanced and integrated.

The volatile palate on Pinotage wine makes it loved and hated in equal measure. Still, well-aged Pinotage wines also have a distinct black fruit and banana- a vanilla flavor that they often acquire from oak barrels.

Food Pairing

Pinotage is such a light, easy-going, and versatile wine that can excellently be paired with seafood like salmon, spicy Asian food, rich sauce dishes, braised eggplant, pizza, pasta in a tomato sauce or other slow-cooked foods. 

A mature version is a perfect pair of meat like the famous South African oxtail stew as well as cured cheese.

Out there in the market, the well-known Pinotage wines and blends include;

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

Last Thoughts: Pinotage

For a long time, Pinotage was used to produce low-quality commercial wine in South Africa. This was primarily associated with its wide availability and high yield. But over the years, many winemakers have taken time to understand the art of producing more exceptional quality wines from this grape varietal. Pinotage winemaking process is a delicate one and therefore needs a good understanding of this grape variety as well as extra care during fermentation.

The rich tannin and anthocyanin elements in its skin often discouraged winemakers from producing a sole component wine. This has, however, changed with time. New technologies of curbing the unpleasant and robust acetone character have been designed. Maceration fermentation and a good understanding of the ideal fermentation conditions and period have seen this narrative changed for the better.

Lately, Pinotage is gaining popularity among consumers as there now exists subtle wine styles as well as the concentrated wines that match their preference. Additionally, there are current ways to manage the acetone character that often kept people away.

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