Out of South Africa, again

By Celia Strong

Having started something last week, it only makes sense that I finish it this week. Last week, in discussing wines from South Africa, I briefly mentioned a new grape variety and just left it kind of hanging there. So now we must learn more about this red wine grape called Pinotage.

Pinotage is in South Africa what Cabernet Sauvignon is in Napa and Malbec is in Argentina. Unlike Napa and Argentina, though, who both imported their signature varieties, South Africa “created” its. In 1925, it was bred as a cross between Pinot Noir and Cinsaut, a variety from the Rhone Valley. Cinsaut was known as “Hermitage” in South Africa, a connection to the great Rhone red wine with the same name. (Because it is a blend of two “vitis vinifera,” this grape is not considered a hybrid.) Pinotage, the name, is a combination its two parent varieties names. A typical Pinotage wine is deep red in color, with smoky, bramble and earthy flavors. Sometimes there are tropical fruit flavors like bananas, sometimes sweet and jammy flavors close to those of Zinfandel, sometimes raspberry liqueur, sometimes  berries and meat and smoke like red Cotes du Rhones. All of which shows us we need to try more than one Pinotage. Before we decide if we like it or not.

In 1925, Abraham Izak Perold, the first Professor of Viticulture at Stellenbosch University, was credited with this new grape. He was trying to combine the best qualities of the two grapes he used. He planted four seeds from his new variety in his own garden. Having done that, though, it seems he forgot about them. In 1927, he left the university and went to KWV, a wine co-op, and his garden was overgrown. The university sent in a crew to cleanup, and, luckily, a young lecturer, walking by at the time of the cleanup, knew about the plantings and saved them. The vines were given to Perold’s successor, CJ Theron, who grafted the vines to stronger rootstocks, and, when Perold visited, they looked at the newly grafted shoots, picked the best one for growing and named it Pinotage.

The first Pinotage wine was made in 1941. In 1959, at the Cape Wine Show, a Pinotage wine was the champion and Pinotage was established. In 1991, a surge in Pinotage growing and popularity occurred. That was the year a Pinotage wine maker, Beyers Truter, won “Wine Maker of the Year” at England’s International Wine and Spirit Competition. Now, in addition to South Africa, Pinotage is grown in Brazil, Canada, Israel, New Zealand, the United States (California and Virginia) and Zimbabwe.

In South Africa, Pinotage accounts for about 6 percent of the total vineyards planted. In all Cape blended wines, it is required to be 30 to 70 percent of the blend. It makes a full range of wines from rosés to easy-drinking, quaffing red versions to barrel-aged wines that can be cellared. It also is used for red sparkling wines and fortified, port-style wines.

Perold created this grape to enhance the best qualities of the two parent grapes, and to diminish the difficulties with each. Pinot Noir can be very difficult and fussy about its surroundings when it grows. (Remember way back when we talked about how difficult with a Russian River, California, Pinot Noir?) True to its lineage, Pinotage is dependent on a winemaker’s skill and style to help it show its best in a wine. Well-made ones are big, deep colored, fruity and can be drunk young and aged — up to 25 years.  Aging is possible because there are a lot of tannins in the skins of Pinotage. Again, good winemakers can control the amount in their wines.

Now, since we know a little bit about Pinotage, we can look at our three wines for this week. Yep, three.  We did say we should try several because there is so much variety in the styles of these wines.

And, our first one is from Hill and Dale, last week’s label from Stellenzicht Winery. Guy Webber, the winemaker for Hill and Dale, is renowned for his Pinotage wines. This wine is a deep, rich ruby color with hints of purple at the edges, it is complex, with sweet, spicy flavors — a modern style wine with up front fruit flavors and a long finish that shows hints of vanilla. For $9.99. Lovely.

Pinotage wine number two, and these are in alphabetical order only, is Nederburg. Nederburg is one of the oldest, best known and best quality wineries in South Africa. It dates back to the 18th century. This Pinotage wine is in its winemaker’s tier, where all the wines are labeled for their grape variety. Remember, by WO laws in South Africa, they are 100 percent that grape variety.  This one is also deep red in color, dark ruby they call it, and its aromas and flavors are definitely the New World, fruit-forward style.  Dark cherries and black currants (cassis) fill the glass, and your mouth when you try it.  And, the hint of vanilla behind all the fruit is there again.  Very nice, for $10.99.

And, wine number three?  Zonenbloem Pinotage. This winery also goes back to the 18th century and is still owned and operated by the third generation of the founding family. (Makes sense, their name is still on their bottles!) At the 1943 Cape Wine Show, two years after the first Pinotage wine was made, Zonenbloem won nine gold medals for their Cabernet Sauvignon wines. They were said to be “magnificent, superb wines.” Their winemaker, now, for their red wines is Bonny van Niekerk. Another woman in what used to be a man’s world. Yay!  Her Pinotage is bright red colored, with intense cherry aromas and flavors. Like our other two wines, this one also has vanilla notes. For $13.99.

So, there we are. Three new wines from a new grape variety, for most of us. Even if it’s not our favorite, which may change at any time, we need to keep it in mind for some of our meals. Besides having all the nice cherry and vanilla flavors, most Pinotage wines have a slight sense of earthiness to them. This makes them automatically nice matches  with grilled food, smoke and earth go really well together. And also with certain spices — paprika and curry powder both have earthy notes in them, so they’re no-brainers with Pinotage. The good news, obviously, is none of our wines this week cost too much. And we all know what that means. Trying all three is way easier. Even for one meal with a couple of friends! Enjoy.

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