Pinotage is a Brady Bunch grape. It was created by enmeshing two previously unrelated grapes to create a brand new entity which possesses its own compelling characteristics. In viticultural language this is called a crossing. If you really want to get technical, a crossing results when two grapes, both grown from vitis vinifera parent seed, are melded into a single being. (This differs from a hybrid. A hybrid combines two separate species, one of which may or may not be vitis vinifera.) When Pinot Noir meets Cinsault, together they create Pinotage. In honor of International Pinotage Day on October 10th, we take a look back at the history and peek into the future of Pinotage.
Sometime in 1925, Stellenbosch University professor Abraham Izak Perold sought to create a wine grape that would be disease resistant, friendly with South African soil, easy to grow, and taste just like a Burgundian Pinot Noir. He targeted the amiable Cinsault as a crossing partner for Pinot Noir. The former grape would lend its easy growing, supportive spirit to the growth cycle; the latter would provide highly desirous, classically perfumed bright red fruit qualities. On their own, the tight clusters of thin skinned Pinot Noir can be prone to rot and difficult to ripen. A few different names were considered for the newfangled grape, all combinations of the words “Pinot Noir” and “Hermitage”. Cinsault was once known as Hermitage in South Africa, hence the name Pinotage (rather than Herminoir) was born. These days, South African’s refer to Cinsault as Cinsaut. (Note the missing ‘L’.)
That said, Pinotage was developed in South Africa as the country’s patron grape. The first varietal Pinotage wine was released during the 1959 vintage at Bellevue Estate in South Africa. While the vast majority of Pinotage is from South Africa, the United States’ boutique wine market has begun to embrace the grape. Keep your palates peeled: all signs point to trend. You will find small lots of Pinotage in Virginia, North Carolina, Michigan, Maryland, and Texas -- but the highest concentration of Pinotage is in California. According to the USDA 2014 Grape Crush report, 2013 California Pinotage saw a 16% year-over-year increase and set an all-time record of 115.1 tons. That’s a 400% increase in California Pinotage since it first appeared on the report in 1997. Pinotage is being grown in eight out of the seventeen California Wine Districts; forty-four percent is grown in California’s mid-central coast, the San Joaquin Valley.
Both South Africa and the United States are churning out a range of Pinotage styles. It’s not uncommon for South African Pinotage to appear in complex blends with a variety of other grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Shiraz and more. These are referred to as Cape Blends. They tend contain at least 30% but no more than 70% Pinotage, but there are exceptions. In terms of varietal bottlings, younger vines create Beaujolais-style wines jam-packed with fun and frizzy berry fruits. Old bush vines (most of which date back to the 1960s and 1970s) create full-bodied masterpieces with curiously smoky flavors. Some noses uncover coffee, sausage, rubber and banana in their glasses. Suffice it to say, Pinotage can be a pungent wine that make you think. It is a true demonstration of varietal character in combination with place.
From the light and fruity to deep and hazy, Pinotage has a lot to offer palates of all stripes. While the United States can provide a number of boutique offerings, South Africa often provides value. And much of that value is age-worthy. The following selection offers a range of choices that will fully acquaint the Pinotage novice, or reengage the Pinotage pro. What are your Pinotage picks? Tell us in the comments. Happy International Pinotage Day!
The Paarl district is north of Stellenbosch. (District is a South African term for a wine-growing area that shares environmental features, similar to an American Viticultural Area.) Temperatures tend to be hotter in Paarl, as the district is further inland. The area has been producing quality Pinotage for decades, and Fairview is a classic example. Fairview was established in 1693 and passed to the current family owners in 1937. This old-vine style Pinotage is rife with value and flavor.
Warwick Estate is yet another old guard in South African wine. It is located in Simonsberg-Stellenbosch, a ward within the Stellenbosch district. Wards cover areas within districts where smaller pockets of soil and geography work to create especially distinct wines. The decomposed granite, red clay, and shale around and within the Simonsberg mountain range account for the wine’s unique character. 
The Pinotage vines in Swartland are relatively young; they were planted in 1997. That’s because the relatively large Swartland wine district, just north of Cape Town, is experiencing a quality wine revolution led by young and determined winemakers and vineyard owners. The district began to carve out its name in the late 1990s. Spice Route led this charge and is thus one of Swartland’s flagship wineries. Previously, Swartland was a little-known producer of food crops. Secure the value while you can: The 2013 received 89 points from Wine Spectator.
Premier Russian River Valley producer J Vineyards holds 2.8 acres of Pinotage on the south side of their winery. Proprietor Judy Jordan discovered it growing there when she purchased the property in 1986. The winery is renowned for its sparkling wine, but clearly demonstrates their range of talent with the 2013 (technically old vine) Pinotage.
Loma Prieta is the self-proclaimed largest Pinotage producer in the United States. Winery owner Paul Kemp became besotted with Pinotage after discovering it in a Lodi vineyard. He has since torn out his estate Merlot and Cabernet to plant Pinotage and grafted over all of his estate Pinot Noir. As demand for his award-winning Pinotage has grown over the last few years, he’s been grafting over more vines to Pinotage. A panoply of praise has been heaped upon this wine, including Platinum status at the 2012 Monterey Wine Competition, Gold at the 2012 San Francisco Wine Competition, and many more.