Wine Spotlight - Pinotage

October 10th marks "International Pinotage Day". In celebrating this unique and misunderstood grape, I offer a glimpse into it's history and factoids. The name Pinotage is a little bit misleading because it sounds so much like Pinot Noir. It is easy to assume they taste alike. Not true. In fact, the South African grape looks and tastes more like Shiraz even though Pinotage is technically related to Pinot Noir. So why haven’t we heard more about this deliciously dark grape? If you love a bold barbecue-friendly wine, Pinotage wine is worth checking out. Try Pinotage with roasted meats and vegetables topped with flavorful sauces such as teriyaki, plum sauce, and barbecue.

Pinotage is a grape crossing of Cinsault and Pinot Noir. It was first crossed in South Africa in 1925 in the gardens of scientist Abraham Perold. Perold observed how Pinot Noir struggled in South Africa’s climate, so he crossed them with a very productive species: Cinsault (called Hermitage). Perold’s goal was to create a wine that was as delicious as Pinot Noir but grew as well as Cinsault.

The result of the crossing between Cinsault and Pinot Noir was unexpected. The Pinotage grapes were extremely dark in color and the wine they created was bold and high in tannin. Despite the difference in flavor, Pinotage would eventually become the 2nd most planted grape in South Africa.

Since Pinotage is such a productive wine grape, producers often made very low-quality commercial wine with it. It didn’t help that Pinotage was such an inky grape, making it possible for wineries to stretch their wine as thin as possible. What the winemakers didn’t realize back in the 1980’s and 1990’s was that Pinotage is a tricky wine to make well. Fortunately, in the last 15 years, several producers have banded together and focused on reducing the crop yields and used careful winemaking techniques to manage this unique grape.

Pinotage is dense in color and bold in flavor with notes of plum sauce, fig, menthol, tobacco, black cherry, blackberry, tar and licorice. Most Pinotage is full-bodied with medium-high tannins, low acidity, and over 15% ABV.

You should expect tannins to be bold but to have a sweet note on the finish –almost like flavored smoke. As far as acidity is concerned, the grape is typically high pH (low acidity) so most winemakers will acidify their wines early in the fermentation process so the acids are more integrated. Many wineries in hot climates, including California, Australia and Argentina, acidify their wines. Well-integrated acidification is unnoticeable although some tasters appear to be more sensitive to this trait than others.

It’s interesting to note that the skins of Pinotage are so rich in tannin, anthocyanin and cyanidin that many winemakers in South Africa will ferment wines fast and hot (to reduce rigid tannin) and then finish the fermentation separated from the skins.