October 8th is International Pinotage Day. What’s Pinotage, you may inquire? You wouldn’t be alone in asking.
Pinotage is the flagship grape of South Africa, a red wine grape that is native to the country.
The term refers to both the grape and the wine made from that grape.
The history of Pinotage is below, but as a brief introduction, the variety was produced by crossing Pinot Noir and Cinsault*. It’s considered South Africa’s signature wine grape.
In addition to producing varietal† wines, Pinotage is also commonly blended with other varieties, producing what is referred to as a Cape Blend in South Africa.
The grape produces deep red wines with smoky dark fruit flavors and earthy accents of bramble. The wines are high in tannins.
Here are the Wine Enthusiast’s reviews of the top Pinotage wines.
> Red wine holidays.
The Pinotage crossbreed was created in South Africa in 1924 by Abraham Izak Perold, a Ph.D. chemist and the first Professor of Viticulture at Stellenbosch University, in the Western Cape province of South Africa.
He was attempting to combine the best qualities of the robust Hermitage grape (the earlier name for Cinsaut) with the less hardy Pinot Noir, a grape that makes great wine but can be difficult to grow.
Perold planted four seeds from his cross in the garden of his official university residence at Welgevallen Experimental Farm. Then, he apparently forgot about them.
In 1928 Perold left the university to take a job with KWV wine cooperative. The garden became overgrown.
The university sent in a team to clean up the garden. In an instance of being in the right place at the right time, Charlie Niehaus, a young lecturer who knew about the seedlings, happened to pass by. He rescued them from the prospect of the trash heap.
The young plants were moved to Elsenburg Agricultural College, where in 1935, Perold’s successor, C.J. Theron, grafted them onto another rootstock.
Perold saw the newly grafted vines when he visited. The vine that was doing best was selected for propagation and was christened Pinotage.
The first Pinotage wine was made in 1941 at Elsenburg. In that same year, Pinotage vines were planted at the Kanonkop Wine Estate, producing wines that can mature up to 25 years and have achieved world fame.
Pinotage began to win awards in South African wine competitions. This early success, and its easy viticulture, prompted a wave of planting during the 1960s.
The wine has had its critics, some calling the wine’s pungent aroma reminiscent of paint, nail polish remover, or burning tar.
The grape has seen its plantings rise with the current fashion in South African wines.
In the post-Apartheid early 1990s, when the world’s wine market opened to South Africa, winemakers ignored Pinotage in favor of more internationally recognized varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah [source].
Towards the end of the 20th century, the grape’s fortunes began to turn. By 1997 it commanded higher prices than any other South African grape.
But more than 40 years after completely dismissing the grape, many in the U.K.’s wine trade (one of South Africa’s main export markets) still malign it.
However, perceptions are slowly changing, especially among younger members of the British wine trade [source].
Beyond South Africa, Pinotage is now grown in Brazil, Canada, Germany, Israel, New Zealand, Switzerland, the U.S. (Arizona, California, Michigan, Oregon, and Virginia), and Zimbabwe, and German winemakers have recently begun experimenting with the grape.
Celebrate International Pinotage Day by trying a bottle!
 Pinotage with venison. “If ever you meet a cynic who claims that Pinotage cannot make great wines,” says Robert Parker of the Wine Advocate, “then pour them a glass from Kanonkop and they will soon change their mind” (photo © K. Crause | Kanonkop Wine Estate).
*Cinsault, also spelled Cinsaut, is a red wine grape used in Rhône blends and Provençal rosés. The grape itself delivers fresh, punchy reds that are floral, fruity, and somewhat smoky. Its heat tolerance and productivity make it important in the Languedoc-Roussillon region of southern France. It is often blended with other grapes, such as Grenache and Carignan, to add softness and bouquet.
†A varietal wine is a wine made primarily from a single, named grape variety, and that typically displays the name of the variety on the wine label. There are numerous varietal wines, but examples of some of the most popular include Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, and Merlot.
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