Wine - The Comeback of Pinotage

By Chris Losh

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: South africa, Wine, Cabernet sauvignon

There has probably never been a grape that so divided opinion as Pinotage. There are winemakers who have built their career on making it, and those...

There has probably never been a grape that so divided opinion as Pinotage. There are winemakers who have built their career on making it, and those who have forged a reputation for colourfully slating it; consumers who sing its praises and others who can't imagine drinking a mouthful, never mind a glass, still less a bottle.

It was created in the Cape in 1925 by a certain Professor AI Peroldt, a cross between Pinot Noir and Cinsaut (or Hermitage as it was called in South Africa - hence the name). The former was classy, the latter was hardy, and it was hoped that the Franken-wine's monster would combine the best characteristics of both grapes.

It was largely ignored for 40 years until a Pinotage scooped the top award at a Cape Wine show. Suddenly everyone wanted to buy it - and everyone wanted to plant it. Which is where the problems started.

Pinotage is a naturally vigorous variety, and greedy growers overcropped it, while most winemakers didn't know how to vinify it properly.

Words like "paint", "nail varnish" and "rusty nails" were the sort of terms the wines were attracting. In spite of this, the grape's uniqueness (just about nowhere else in the world has it) led to many in the Cape trumpeting it as the authentic flavour of South Africa - a controversial (indeed, self-defeating) strategy since so many people thought the wines were rotten.

There has, though, been a genuine revolution, pioneered by people like Beyers Truter. As well as keeping an eye on yields, the biggest change has been vinifying it less like Cabernet Sauvignon, and more like Pinot Noir, which, given the grape's lineage, makes sense. Done well (which means fermented quickly) it can give wines that are open, well-fruited and cheerful, and the more ambitious wines are excellent.

Done badly it remains awful - much like its aristocratic mother. At only 6% it isn't quite South Africa's answer to Californian Zinfandel, Aussie Shiraz or Chilean Carmenère, but it's a lot better than many sceptics (this one included) thought five years ago.

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