Over the past decade, emerging New World wine regions have experienced tremendous success in branding themselves with specific grape varieties. Argentina burst onto the scene thanks to its Malbec, Australia is practically synonymous with Shiraz, Sauvignon Blanc is king in New Zealand and Chile is making a mark with both Cabernet Sauvignon and Carmenère.
Not only do many estates and winemakers embrace the synergy between variety and terroir, but consumers eventually come to rely on such established connections as well. Through consistent quality and savvy marketing, shoppers absorb the branding connection between region and grape, ultimately associating a sense of typicity and character to the wines of that country as a whole.
However, if you turn to South Africa and ponder what its vinous shining star would be, the answer isn’t as clearly defined. There are many options to consider, including Chenin Blanc, Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon, but for a country so rich in winemaking history, which produces a wide array of varying types of wines, it’s tough to pinpoint a defining variety or modern-day claim to fame.
It’s ironic, then, to consider that South Africa has one of the most logical and unique grapes to claim as its own and provide a greater sense of national wine identity: Pinotage.
What is Pinotage?
Pinotage is a grape variety that was created in 1925 by Abraham Izak Perold, a chemist tasked by the Cape government to venture overseas and find grape varieties that could be cultivated in the region. Perold returned with 177 samples, yet he wasn’t completely satisfied with his findings. He decided to crossbreed two of them to hopefully evoke the best qualities of both: the robust nature and growing ease of Cinsault (known locally as Hermitage) and the delicious refinement of Pinot Noir.
The first recorded commercial planting of the grape was in 1943, and the earliest wines were deep in color with a strong vinous character. Although Pinotage wines won championships at the 1959 and 1961 Cape Wine Shows, the wines were occasionally defined as acetone-like or tasting of chemicals or rubber, which was intriguing to some but intensely unappealing to others. This characteristic tended to disappear after a couple of years of aging, but for many, the perceived flaw was just too difficult to move past. This general opinion continued to thrive for years, as more mass-produced wine perpetuated the stereotype.