Pinotage

Pinotage is South Africa's signature grape variety. It is grown almost exclusively there, making everything from low quality table wines to rich, concentrated wines with flavours of black and red fruits, spice, leather and chocolate. Pinotage has suffered from a bad reputation for much of its life, but determined South African producers are currently seeking to reverse this trend with thoughtful viticultural and winemaking processes.

The variety, a crossing of Pinot Noir and Cinsault, was first bred by scientist Abraham Perold in 1925, although the few seeds the crossing yielded were planted in his garden and consequently forgotten. The vines were found by another researcher some years later, grafted onto disease resistant rootstocks and the first commercial plantings were made in 1943. The name Pinotage is a portmanteau of its two parents, as Cinsault was then known in South Africa as Hermitage.

Pinotage is a hardy, productive variety, but has issues with viral diseases and can be fussy about both terroir and winemaking. The best examples of the wine come from bush vines: a form of vine training that is common in southern France, Cinsault's home. Pinotage likes sunny sites but too much heat at the end of the growing season can cause the grapes to develop an unpleasant acetone aroma or take on a burnt rubber character. A lot of care is needed during the process of fermentation as well: if this is too hot, it can encourage the acetone-like flavours to develop.

History has also played a factor in Pinotage's rocky journey. Throughout the 20th century, national winemaking conventions (led by the South African Co-Operative Wine Growers Association, or KWV) favoured quantity over quality. The naturally high yielding Pinotage variety was made into countless insipid wines, and popularity reached a low during the 1980s. Fortunately, a surge in popularity in the 1990s following the lifting of sanctions imposed during apartheid has seen a move toward quality. This has been helped along by the establishment of the Pinotage Association in 1995, a group of producers who seek to champion the variety.

Well made Pinotage wines range considerably in style, from easy drinking table wines to dense, concentrated wines that have some ageing abilities. The variety is often employed alongside Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz to make high quality blends, particularly in Stellenbosch, where it was first propagated.

Outside South Africa, Pinotage has had little success. It is grown in small quantities in New Zealand's North Island, particularly in the Hawke's Bay and Auckland. It is also grown in parts of California and in Israel.
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