South Africa has produced wines in the area of Cape Town since the 17th century, but the country's significant place in the U.S. market is far more recent. During the era of apartheid, trade sanctions imposed on imports from South Africa kept these wines out of the U.S. and many other markets, with the effect that local South African winemakers had little incentive to produce wines that could compete in a global setting, and had limited experience with new developments in the world of wine. In fact, during apartheid most of the country's grape growers sold their fruit to co-ops, who turned it into distilled alcohol on the one hand, and sherry and port on the other. With the end of sanctions in 1991, the U.S. market was suddenly flooded with mostly low-end, mediocre wine from South Africa.
Little more than a decade later, the quality of South African wine has soared, thanks in large part to widespread replanting of virused vines and grafting over new vines onto virus-free rootstock. Replacing virus-weakened vines has enabled grape growers to producer riper fruit that is less likely to show the green or tea-like flavors that plagued South Africa's wines in the past. Then, too, a new generation of winemakers has benefited from more extensive contact with the outside world, and the country's producers now know what they must do to compete in an international arena. Today, South Africa is the world's number eight producer of wine, supplying everything from crisp, vibrant Sauvignon Blancs and Chenin Blancs to structured, serious Cabernet Sauvignons, Syrahs, and red blends. The best of these are satisfying and characterful wines that are midway between Old and New World in style.
Black fruit flavors with spicy, gamey nuances
Hearty soups, game, ratatouille
Pinotage is a recent addition to the wine world, having been created in South Africa in 1925, by Stellenbosch University Professor A.I Perold. Perold crossed the Pinot Noir and Cinsaut grapes with the aim of acquiring the best qualities of both parents: classic Pinot Noir flavors with a bountiful crop from sturdy, disease resistant vines.
Initially, Pinotage failed to meet this promise, and was largely ignored. Now that the grape has been "rediscovered," starting in the 1990s, and is now widely planted in South Africa, its current appeal stems from the uniqueness of its flavors. As a replacement for Pinot Noir, it was not a success. Instead, the grape provides a range of styles: from old-fashioned, dry, and somewhat baked to sweeter, spicy, and more obviously fruity. Expect flavors of mulberry, blackberry, and tobacco, often with rich spiciness and gamy nuances.
Pinotage may be easier to cultivate than its fussy parent Pinot Noir, but viticulture is not without challenges. When grown under conditions of high water stress and high temperatures, the wine may take on characteristics of spray paint or rusty nails. Not so good. Once cultivators discovered that these charateristics could be avoided by growing the grape in "softer" conditions, the profile of the grape began to rise, and the wine became more successful in the international marketplace.
Even still, Pinotage remains a great value. We think the finest examples still come from the grape's birthplace in the beautiful Stellenbosch region, and we especially like releases from Kanonkop Estate and Ken Forrester.
Pinotage is a versatile and food-friendly wine: pair it with a hearty winter bean soup, game, or ratatouille.