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Pinotage, the World’s Most Divisive Wine

No grape is as loved and as maligned as South Africa’s signature red variety

Tšepang Molisana By August 17, 2021
Entrance to Kanonkop Wine Estate
Entrance to Kanonkop Wine Estate. Photo courtesy of Kanonkop.

Since its birth, Pinotage has been relegated to the realm of Brussels sprouts and other indigestibles.

But, like Brussels sprouts, it’s all in the preparation. A person could be forgiven for assuming that Brussels sprouts are supposed to taste like soggy cardboard until they’ve experienced Brussels sprouts sauteed in olive oil, or roasted in the oven.

So, too, with Pinotage. “I’m from the U.K. and when I first came to South Africa, I didn’t think much of Pinotage. In fact, it’s probably fair to say that I hated it,” says Cathy Marston, Cape Town-based founder and educator at the International Wine Education Center and MW student, who moved to South Africa in 2001.

“It is equally fair to say that in the time that I have been in this country, no other grape has even come close to matching the upward curve of improvement Pinotage has achieved in the last 10 years or so it’s not a curve, it’s more of a vertical line actually,” says Marston.

And yet, almost no grape on earth is as attacked as Pinotage.

Rocky beginning

Google the word Pinotage and you’ll find plenty of articles explaining why it doesn’t deserve its bad reputation. The search may also turn up a reference to Lettie Teague, wine columnist for the paywalled Wall Street Journal, whose dislike of the variety is well known.

To be fair, there is badly made Pinotage, just as there is badly made Pinot Noir or Cinsault. Yet to write off an entire variety because of improper winemaking is to sell it short.

“Pinotage can be versatile depending on the growing conditions. It is inherently a very sensitive grape, both in the vineyard and cellar,” says Lourens Van Der Westhuizen, winemaker at Arendsig. “You have to keep your eye on it.” 

Lourens Van Der Westhuizen at work at Arendsig. Photo courtesy of Arendsig.

Lourens Van Der Westhuizen at work at Arendsig. Photo courtesy of Arendsig.

Arendsig is renowned for its site-specific wines grown in Robertson. “The grape is only 60 years old, which means that we have only had 60 opportunities to make the wine and see the impact of different methods,” Van Der Westhuizen goes on.

Pinotage owes its genesis to equal parts chemistry and tenacity. In 1925, scientist Professor Abraham Izak Perold crossed Pinot Noir and Cinsault in his laboratory, and left the forlorn seeds to their own devices. A handful of samples were rescued from Professor Perold’s overgrown garden by Dr. Charles Niehaus, a lecturer at Stellenbosch University; Professor Perold had abandoned it to join the KWV cooperative in 1927. Years later, in 1941, winemaker C.T. de Waal vinified Pinotage for the first time.

In 1959, the Stellenbosch Farmers’ Winery vinified Lanzerac Pinotage, the first time that Pinotage had appeared on a label. Its beginnings were promising: in 1959, Bellevue Wine Estate in Stellenbosch was awarded the prize for the best wine at the Cape Wine Show with this nascent cultivar. In 1987, Diners Club Winemaker of the Year went to Beyers Truter, then winemaker at Kanonkop Wine Estate, for his Pinotage.

Abrie Beeslaar, the current winemaker at Kanonkop, suggests, “Pinotage should be a quality wine first, and secondly a Pinotage. This means structure, balance, elegance and finesse.” He adds that Pinotage that comes from old, unirrigated bush vines “definitely adds to quality. In the cellar, you must be ready for fast, vigorous fermentation and you must be able to understand the microbiological side of winemaking.”

This is the key: Pinotage has often been criticized for its banana and nail polish aromas, which turn out to be down to the winemaking, not the grape itself.

Abrie Beeslaar, winemaker at Kanonkop Wine Estate with old vines of Pinotage. Photo courtesy of Kanonkop.

Abrie Beeslaar, winemaker at Kanonkop Wine Estate with old vines of Pinotage. Photo courtesy of Kanonkop.

“Pinotage should be a quality wine first, and secondly a Pinotage. This means structure, balance, elegance and finesse.”

Reconsidering old prejudices

The past 20 years has seen an explosion of Pinotage experimentation and research, leading to a new understanding of how to get the best from the grape. When made well, Pinotage offers spice and black and red berry flavors that are quite unlike those of its parents. It’s also flexible, as it can be made into rosés and fruity, simple wines, and bigger, more structured and long-living reds.

“It has a fascinating way of showing red berry characters, leaning towards strawberry and raspberry flavors,” says winemaker Christa von La Chevallerie of Huis van Chevallerie, who has farmed a hectare, about two and a half acres, of Pinotage for over 20 years. She has also created the first 100% Pinotage rosé sparkling wine from Swartland grapes, the Huis van Chevallerie Circa Pinotage. 

Von La Chevallerie adds that pét-nat Pinotage is big in Japan and that the grape has potential global appeal.

Meanwhile, Kanonkop is renowned for Black Label, a full-bodied Pinotage. Arendsig, on the other hand, makes both the fuller style of Pinotage, and the light, red, fruitier style.

Pinotage, South Africa’s unique grape, has come into its own, and it turns out not to be one thing, but many.

3 Pinotage wines to try:

bottle of David and Nadia Topography Swartland Pinotage 2019

David and Nadia Topography Swartland Pinotage 2019 ($29)

This Swartland-grown Pinotage is elegant, with a light ruby color and light-to-medium body, it is a sagacious iteration of Pinotage. Fragrant red fruits on the nose, and medium tannins and a lingering finish on the palate.

bottle of Arendsig Inspirational Batch 8 Robertson Pinotage 2018

Arendsig Inspirational Batch 8 Robertson Pinotage 2018 ($33)

Produced from the grapes of a single vineyard on a mountainside in Robertson, a warm climate region in South Africa’s Western Cape. With dark cherry and ripe, red fruit notes, this is a medium-to-full bodied Pinotage that shows plenty of restraint.

bottle of Kanonkop Stellenbosch Pinotage 2018

Kanonkop Stellenbosch Pinotage 2018 ($42)

Kanonkop was a pioneer of Pinotage, and this iteration is bold and big, with a spicy and meaty entrance, followed by hints of red fruit. The Pinotage has moderate tannins and a long, rich finish.