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The underdog grape

MANY of us have a soft spot in our hearts for the underdog. The wine world is no different, especially in the case of the much-maligned, mix-breed grape Pinotage, a controversial South African original.

The first Pinotage wine was made in 1941 at Elsenburg Agriculture College by professor and wine maker CT de Waal. The first vine was planted 16 years earlier almost by accident.

Abraham Izak Perlod, a South African of French heritage with advanced degrees in mathematics and physics and a doctorate in chemistry, was sent to Europe by the Cape Town government to collect vines from the continent's major wine regions. He returned with 177 different varieties and was appointed the first professor of viticulture at the University of Stellenbosch.

In 1925, he crossed a male Cinsault flower with a pollen donor Pinot Noir. The cross resulted in only four seeds which he planted in a garden next to his home. In 1927 when Perlod had moved from his home, the four seedlings were rescued from being plowed under by a university lecturer named Dr Charlie Niehaus.

He replanted and grafted the seedlings to new rootstock at the Elsenburg Agricultural College and years later the first glass of Pinotage was tasted by de Waal.

Why Perold chose to cross Pinot Noir with Cinsault remains a mystery. Pinot Noir is one of the most finicky vines to cultivate and is extremely sensitive to soil and weather conditions while the early-ripening Cinsault is a prolific variety that can be grown almost anywhere.

Perhaps he thought he could combine the elegant and finesse characteristics of Pinot Noir with the hearty nature of Cinsault. However, this was not the result as Pinotage rarely exhibits the old world delicate aromatics and sophisticated flavors of its Pinot heritage and tends more toward weighty dark fruits, tar and tobacco flavors.

Occasionally, some delicate red fruit can be sensed, but it is usually dominated by ripe dark fruit flavors and abundant tannins. Most examples of Pinotage resemble their Cinsault father much more than their noble Pinot Noir mother.

Until recently most wine drinkers outside of South Africa had never heard of this grape. South Africa under apartheid was a pariah nation with trade embargoes that kept their wines from reaching foreign shores.

No middle road

Another curious aspect about Pinotage is that drinkers tend to love it or hate it, and this is especially true with South African wine makers. Some have embraced Pinotage and championed it as passionately as they do their Springbok rugby team, while others have utter disdain for the grape and will have nothing to do with it. Seldom in the wine world can you find such a schism of beliefs.

Overall impression

After tasting several Pinotage wines, my overall impression was positive. At their best, Pinotage wines are rich with flavor and texture typically featuring an abundance of plum, blackberry, blueberry and mulberry flavors often with intriguing notes of chocolate, tobacco and spices.

They are also big, high-alcohol wines with plenty of tannins and good weight in the mouth. If you're a fan of action movies and full-flavored foods, you will probably be a fan; however, if you are a lover of all things delicate and light, these wines aren't for you.

All the Pinotage wines I tasted were good but none was great. The wines scored well in power but lacked the subtle elegance and sensual nature that is so typical in their mother grape Pinot Noir. Nonetheless, I enjoyed the wines as they offer a lot of distinctive flavors at affordable prices. Top Pinotage producers with wines available in Shanghai include Warwick, Kleine Zalze, Fleur du Cap and Nederburg.


One essential when enjoying a good Pinotage is to serve it at the proper temperature - in other words, not too hot. Because they are big, exuberant and high in alcohol, Pinotage wines should be served slightly chilled, about 14-16 degrees Celsius. This will mitigate the effects of alcohol and accentuate the bold almost wild flavors.

The foods you enjoy with Pinotage should also be robust in flavor. Because of the abundance of ripe, almost sweet, dark fruit flavors the wines have a particular affinity for spicy Hunan and Sichuan meat dishes and when nicely chilled they even pair very well with spicy fish dishes.


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