While New Zealand has its claim to fame with sauvignon blanc, Australia its shiraz and Spain its tempranillo, South Africa has pinotage. This unique variety, interestingly enough, is a cross of cinsault and pinot noir. It is an intriguing combination of two grape varietals that produce a unique profile.
The question is: Is the whole greater than the sum of the two varietals? This is an ongoing debate, but most South Africans would reply with a prideful “yes.” It was viticulturist A.I. Perold, from Stellenbosch University in South Africa, who crossed the two grape varietals in 1925. The resulting pinotage makes its home in South Africa but is also sparsely grown in California, New Zealand and even Zimbabwe.
To understand this relatively new varietal, it is helpful to learn about the varieties that combined to produce it.
Cinsault is a black grape variety predominantly grown in the Languedoc region of southern France. For lovers of French rosè, this variety is commonly used in Provence and red blends from the southern Rhone Valley. On its own, the cinsault grape produces light- to medium-body wines that offer notes of red currants and spice with a smooth tannic structure. For production of rosè, the wines are typically very light in color, body and offer aromatic notes of watermelon, strawberries and rhubarb. For Cotes du Rhone red wines, cinsault makes an excellent blending grape because of its soft and silky texture.
Pinot noir, meanwhile, is among the greatest single-varietal wines in the world. While it originated in France, it is now planted just about everywhere across the globe. Pinot noir is known for its soft, rich and supple tannins when from California, Oregon or New Zealand. However, when from Burgundy, France, the wines have inherently higher acidity and firm tannins when young.
Most grape varieties produce more than one style of wine. Pinotage is no different. It can be rich, fleshy and structured or lighter, brighter and fruitier, similar to Beaujolais. Over the past several decades, winemakers have been experimenting to find the new varietal’s best expression. The consensus appears to be that higher altitudes, sloped vineyards and cooler, longer growing conditions are conducive to allowing the grape to produce its best-balanced components.
While the lighter and juicier style lacks any sort of tannic structure, the longer-ripening, richer style offers better tannin development, which then produces a denser, darker and more structured style of wine that benefits from the use of French and American oak barrels. As always, barrel-aged wines offer more complexity, body and nuance while simultaneously increasing cost. The lighter juicier styles are considerably more affordable and can be found starting at $10. Either style works well as a cocktail wine, and both will accompany an array of foods.
Alan Cuenca is an accredited oenophile and owner of Put a Cork in It, a Durango wine store. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.