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Pinotage is one of the signature grapes of South Africa, and is truly homegrown. It owes its existence to curiosity and chance, and the passionate beliefs of a few ardent fans. Initially slow to gain popularity, it is now the second most widely grown red variety on the Cape. It just goes to show what having the courage of your convictions can do.
Back in the 1920's a professor from a leading South African university tried crossing Pinot Noir with Cinsault, locally known as Hermitage. Only four seedlings grew, and he planted these in his back garden, promptly forgetting about them. After he changed jobs the garden became overgrown, and eventually the university sent in a gardening team to clean up. At the precise moment a spade bearing down on the young plants, fate intervened, and one of the only other people to know what the plants were happened to pass by on his bike. He saved Pinotage for the world. What a guy!
Initially ignored, a few experimental makers fiddling about quietly in the background caused interest to slowly grow. After a Pinotage won the Cape Wine Show in the 1950s, everyone suddenly wanted to make this new and interesting wine.
Unfortunately, although Pinotage is easy to grow, it's not easy to make well, and a profusion of cheap, poorly made wine flooded the market. People reported it tasting sour like nail-varnish remover and interest waned.
Once again, a competition saved its skin, at the International Wines and Spirits fair in the UK in 1993 that a Pinotage blew away the competition. The end of Apartheid meant that trading sanctions could be lifted, technologies and vine stocks imported, and winemakers could capitalise on new interest in all things South African. The problem with wine tasting like nail varnish remover was identified and dealt with, wines weren't being fermented hot enough, and Pinotage took off!
As Pinotage is a relatively new wine there is always an element of discovery when tasting wines from a new maker. Existing wines vary in style from young and fruity, like Beaujolais, with bubblegum and banana flavours, to rich, dark, meaty and smoky. Many have an element of earthiness about them. They all should have good depth and structure, as well as well-balanced alcohol. Make sure you try Pinotage from more than one maker. They differ widely in style and if you like your red wine, you are sure to find one to suit.
Pinotage is a fantastic food wine and there are many suggestions for possible food matches. The fuller bodied Pinotages match well with rich meats such as Beef, Venison, or as suggested by one South African winemaker, Ostrich.
Lighter Styles, known as "lifestyle Pinotage", are perfect with fresh fish, Sushi, or Oysters. If wine at breakfast is your thing, then Pinotage is a great accompaniment to Bacon and Scrambled eggs.
There are some great Pinotage Ports, Sparkling Pinotage Reds and Pinotage Roses being made in South Africa. As we are still very much at the forefront of Pinotage discovery, there will be increasingly interesting things being done with this homegrown grape. If you've tried the reds and liked them, then keep your eyes peeled for these exciting new Pinotage innovations.