Does Pinotage Deserve Another Look?

Pinotage, for the uninitiated, is a grape created in South Africa in 1925 but currently grown—in a fairly limited fashion—in many other parts of the world.

Does Pinotage Deserve Another Look

Pinotage, for the uninitiated, is a grape created in South Africa in 1925 but currently grown—in a fairly limited fashion—in many other parts of the world.

THERE ARE VERY FEW wines I truly don’t like, and only one that I’ve ever declared I despise. Except that wine writers are not supposed to “despise” wines. While we can be disappointed, or crestfallen, or even seriously dismayed by certain bottlings, to “despise” a wine is unprofessional—or so I was told by a reader who wrote recently to upbraid me after reading of my professed enmity toward Pinotage.

Never mind that this particular reader also happened to be a Pinotage grower—I decided that he might have a point. Were my feelings about Pinotage really fair—or, for that matter, accurate? After all, it had been quite a few years since I tasted much Pinotage; perhaps there had been some changes in winemaking or viticulture. Perhaps there were even some overlooked gems?

Pinotage, for the uninitiated, is a grape created in South Africa in 1925 but currently grown—in a fairly limited fashion—in many other parts of the world. It was created in Stellenbosch by Abraham Izak Perold, a professor of viticulture at Stellenbosch University. A cross between Pinot Noir and Cinsaut, the workhorse red grape of the Rhône (then also known in South Africa as Hermitage), Pinotage was also called Perold’s Hermitage x Pinot, but Prof. Perold preferred the Pinotage name. (The other instance in which “Hermitage” was appropriated in another country was Penfold’s Grange, of Australia—once known as Grange Hermitage until it was shortened to simply Grange at the behest of the European Union.)

According to the newly published 1,200-page compendium “Wine Grapes,” by Jancis Robinson, Julia Harding and José Vouillamoz, “Pinotage is either South Africa’s signature red variety or its worst vinous ambassador.” I’m assuming the latter assessment has mostly to do with the trademark Pinotage aromas, which typically can include spray paint and burnt tires (although bananas and smoke have been detected as well).

The spray-paint and burnt-tire aromas are the characteristics that I particularly hated (or, rather, objected to). Apparently, Pinotage growers aren’t too keen on them either, as “Wine Grapes” says that research is under way at Stellenbosch University to determine their cause. A definitive cause has yet to be found.

But this hasn’t kept Pinotage from spreading to other parts of the world. Pinotage is grown in many places outside of South Africa, including California, New Zealand, Australia and Washington state. It’s even planted in the Okanagan Valley of British Columbia. (Tim Martiniuk first planted Pinotage back in 1998 at his Stoneboat Vineyards and says it’s quite popular, though he admitted a sommelier once crossed himself before tasting the wine.)

Despite such incursions, Pinotage is still pretty hard to find on restaurant wine lists and retail-store shelves. Apparently I’m not the only one who needs to be convinced of its charms. Even an adventurous professional like Eamon Rockey of Aska in Brooklyn hasn’t got a Pinotage on his list. “My best experiences with South African wine have been Chenin Blanc and Vin de Constance,” he explained in an email.

John Gorman, the vice president of sales and marketing for Southern Starz, a California-based importer specializing in wines from the Southern Hemisphere, has his doubts about Pinotage serving as South Africa’s flagship. Or at least he believes that there are other grapes that are equally—if not more—valid representations of the country’s winemaking talents.

“My conflict with this grape is that it has been written and spoken about for way too long as a grape that helps to define the South African category, almost to the point of rendering the category a proverbial ‘one-trick pony,’ ” he wrote in an email, comparing it to Mendoza Malbec from Argentina and Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand.

Mr. Gorman suggests to retailers that they should not make Pinotage their “first port of call” for customers looking for the wine but focus on other South African varietals. Indeed, South Africa produces a wide range of notable wines from grapes such as Syrah, Sauvignon Blanc and, of course, Chenin Blanc, aka Steen—once South Africa’s most important grape.

Mr. Gorman would be pleased to know that Pinotage represented but a small percentage of the South African wines at the two where I went shopping recently. At Astor Wines & Spirits there are seven Pinotage or Pinotage-based wines out of 46 South African selections, or 15% of the total wines, and about the same percentage at Union Square Wines. Jesse Salazar, wine director of Union Square, told me that most people who sought out Pinotage were “wine beginners” who had read about but never tried the grape, or people who had recently been to South Africa. It was, in that way, perceived as a sort of “tourist varietal,” not a serious wine.

And yet Pinotage incites undeniable passion among its producers. Linda and Lester Schwartz of Fort Ross Winery grow Pinotage in the unlikely location of California’s Sonoma Coast and are quite keen on the grape—although they also cultivate more “expected” varietals like Pinot Noir. Though the budwood for their Pinotage came from South Africa, Ms. Schwartz said the wine has none of the unpleasant aromas but “remarkable vibrancy and lively acidity.”

The Fort Ross Pinotage was one of 24 wines that I purchased, at prices ranging from $7 to $70 a bottle. Most of the wines were made in South Africa, though there were a few domestic examples as well, including the wine from Fort Ross and a wine from Virginia. (Alas, the Stoneboat Pinotage from Canada isn’t currently available in the U.S.)

The final result was mixed. Sure enough, there were aromatic clouds of rubber tire wafting from many of the wines. There were some wines marked by pleasingly smoky, earthy notes as well—altogether, seven didn’t announce themselves as “Pinotage” but simply as good wines made well. The wines I admired ranged from a polished Pinot Noir-style Pinotage from Aaldering to a big, rich, concentrated Pinotage from Beyerskloof, rather unfortunately called “Diesel Pinotage” after the late Beyerskloof family dog. The Warwick Three Ladies was a juicy, pleasurable Pinotage blend; the 2008 Steytler Kaapzicht Pinotage was well-balanced and modern; the Fort Ross was full of dark fruit notes and earth; and the Durbanville Hills Winery Pinotage was a smoky, earthy Rhône-style red. There was even an attractive Pinotage from the House of Mandela.

I was particularly relieved to have enjoyed the Pinotage from Mandela. How could I live with myself if I disliked a wine bearing the name of one of the world’s greatest leaders? In fact, I wondered if Nelson Mandela himself was a Pinotage fan. If anyone could make wine drinkers around the world (and skeptics like me) love the grape, it was him. Did Mr. Mandela drink Pinotage? I asked the winery’s press representative. She replied that while Mr. Mandela no longer drinks for health-related reasons, when he did drink wine he preferred the sweet wines from South Africa (such as Vin de Constance).


Does Much-Unloved Pinotage Deserve Another Look?

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