What do you get when you cross pinot noir with Hermitage? Pinotage.
It’s not a joke — it’s what really happened in South Africa in 1925. A professor at Stellenbosch University named Abraham Perold came up with the idea to genetically cross the two grape varieties and create an entirely new one. It worked, and to this day, South Africa claims the grape as its own.
To be quite specific, the cross was between pinot noir and the red blending grape cinsault. But South Africans referred to cinsault as “Hermitage” back in professor Perold’s day, and that is why the new grape was dubbed pinotage. I think it was a good call because “pinsault” would have been a pretty lame word.
To say pinotage correctly, pronounce the final syllable as if it were the first word in Taj Mahal. Unlike that revered building in India, though, pinotage has its detractors. Some are right; not all bottles drink well. But there are perfectly good examples of pinotage mingling with the bad.
When pinotage is good, it can offer a wild array of aromas and flavors, from raspberry, strawberry and cherry to plum, vanilla and coffee, with herbs, minerality, earth, spice, mushrooms, marshmallows and grill smoke also in the mix. Some pinotage bottlings send forth aggressive tannins, while others verge on silky. And colors range from deep crimson to see-your-fingers-through-it pink-ish. (And we’re not even talking about pinotage rosé; we’re talking about the straight-up red stuff.)
Prices range vastly too. This is not necessarily a bargain wine. But it is also not prohibitively expensive, even at the higher end of its price spectrum. Three of the best, most interesting bottles in a recent tasting retailed for about $40 each. That’s not cheap, but it’s also not out of the question, especially considering that the bottles would do fine aging in your cellar for several years.
When you pull one out of storage (or open it three hours after you purchase it), drink it with grilled meats, lamb, venison, a hearty stew or burgers. South African pinotage can express itself slightly more Old World than New World in some cases, but there are plenty of others that offer brighter New World fruit and freshness. The grape is grown and vinified in other parts of the world — from New Zealand to California to some degree — but South Africa is where winemakers know it best.
You could safely put pinotage in the same category as some other wines that people reject wholesale (chardonnay and merlot spring to mind), instead of considering them bottle-by-bottle, glass-by-glass. So here’s what you do. Look past the reputation, put aside the prejudice, forget what you’ve heard about the funky pinotage aromas of yore, and explore a wine style from a faraway land. Track down some pinotage, assemble a group of loved ones (or liked ones), taste and discuss. You might be surprised.
Below are some notes on nine South African pinotage wines from a recent tasting. They’re listed in ascending order, according to price. Each is composed of 100 percent pinotage.
2012 Fairvalley Pinotage Fair Trade-certified grapes went into this wine, which was aged for six months in French and American oak. Smoky, spicy and earthy, this wine leaned more toward savory than fruity. It offered a pleasant freshness, though, due to its bright acidity. Plus it’s immensely affordable. $11
2015 Ken Forrester Wines Petit Pinotage Black cherries and a whiff of smoke sum up this easy drinker from the Stellenbosch region. With no exposure to oak, the wine had a soft and round mouthfeel, and would be a nice match for foods with a bit of spice. $12
2014 Backsberg Pinotage This winery celebrates its centennial this year, and this wine, made of grapes from both the Paarl and Wellington regions, offered a hint of strawberry along with damp earth, minerality and smoke. At 14 percent alcohol, it was among the more potent bottles. $16
2014 Lammershoek Winery LAM Pinotage Looking at this one, you would swear that it’s pinot noir, not pinotage. But it is the latter. Light in color and alcohol (11.5 percent), this unfiltered wine offered notes of orange zest, cranberry, herbs and crushed rock, all leading to a clean finish. $16
2014 Warwick Estate Old Bush Vines Pinotage This single-vineyard Stellenbosch bottling delivered smoke and cedar, red fruit, clove, vanilla and crushed rock. With bright acidity and 13.5 percent alcohol, the wine could age in the bottle for up to eight years. Pair it with stew or curry. $20
2013 Beaumont Pinotage From the cooler Bot River region, this medium-bodied wine offered bright cherry notes kissed by vanilla and leading to a refreshing, clean finish. Pinotage was the first style of wine this winery made two decades ago, and this one is worth a try. $33
2011 Simonsig Redhill Pinotage Raspberry, plum, vanilla, forest floor and savory backyard grill smoke characterize this nicely structured wine from the Stellenbosch region. Aged for 15 months in French and American oak barrels (71 percent of them new), this wine comes from a renowned producer. $38
2013 Bosman Family Vineyards Pinotage Full of raspberry, baking spices, floral notes, dark fruits, anise and vanilla, this wine was elegant, lively, mouthwatering and rich all at once. It is proof that good versions of pinotage do well after a few years of bottle aging. $42
2013 Kanonkop Pinotage From one of South Africa’s most legendary and respected producers, this full-bodied, brightly acidic beauty offered plum, blueberry and other dark fruits, plus more savory notes of mushroom and earth. This is a complex wine that would be great with grilled meats. $42