Pinotage South African Wine History and Review. You’ll never guess how it was discovered.

Pinotage and South Africa

South Africa is world-famous for its excellent wines, historic vineyards, and elegant wine-tasting experiences. The making and enjoyment of fantastic wine is an integral part of South African culture, and locals are eager to share their adored wines with tourists visiting Cape Town and surrounds, with a passion for introducing pinotage.

Pinotage 2015 African Java
African Java Pinotage 2015 Van Loveren Family Vineyards

Most South African wine is made from foreign grape varietals (e.g., Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, etc) that are grown locally, but the country does have one proudly South African grape varietal. Through experimentation by horticulturists and a dash of sheer luck, the red wine-grape varietal Pinotage was created in 1925, and subsequently became South Africa’s unique signature grape. Pinotage wine is still considered a must-try for anyone interested in exploring South African winemaking.

How Wine Culture Came to South Africa

Wine-grape cultivation was brought to South Africa by European settlers. Vineyards were initially planted in Cape Town by the Dutch in the 1600s, and the grapes were grown to ward off scurvy in sailors rounding the Cape on their way to India.

The temperate Western Cape quickly became the preferred region for planting vineyards. The first South African wine estate to be established was Groot Constantia in the Cape Winelands, and many more vineyards were established in the Western Cape over the next few hundred years. Trial and error was used to find out which grape varietals would grow in the new colony, and many wine makers experimented with their grapes by crossing different varieties and making wine from the resultant new grape types. One of these new varieties was Pinotage, the cross between Pinot noir and Cinsaut (also known as Hermitage).

Perold – The Father of Pinotage

Capetonian by birth and French by heritage, Abraham Izak Perold was the first Professor of Viticulture at Stellenbosch University, and the accidental founder of the Pinotage grape. Perold obtained a PhD in Chemistry whilst studying in Germany, and returned to work at the University of Stellenbosch in South Africa. The Cape Government funded an expedition that sent Perold to Europe with the goal of collecting as many grape varietals as possible, and to bring them back to South Africa for study and cultivation. He returned with an impressive 177 grape varieties which he introduced to South Africa!

The combination of Pinot noir and Hermitage was unconventional, but inspired – Pinot noir makes great wine but is notoriously tricky to grow, whereas Hermitage is more robust and reliable. Perold crossed the grape varieties and planted them in the garden at his residence, and not the botanical nursery at Stellenbosch University.  The cross-breeding had only produced four viable seeds, and so there were initially only four Pinotage seedlings planted by Perold. He subsequently moved to take a teaching position at another university, and left the seedlings behind. It was through the efforts of other viticulturists that the vines were found and cultivated, and the first Pinotage wine was only made in 1941!

Pinotage wine from South Africa
Pinotage from South Africa. A tasty glass of the unique wine.

Tasting Notes for Pinotage – Swirl, Sniff, Sip!

This can be a temperamental wine in its single varietal form (as opposed to a Pinotage blend), and it has been criticized for sometimes having an “acetone” nose, but in general it is a unique and pleasant wine to drink. It is usually a dark, mostly opaque red wine with garnet highlights, and  the grapes are very dark in colour.

A good Pinotage will have a complex bouquet including overtones of prune and plum, and occasional undertones of oak spice. A bad one will be instantly recognizable as it will have a strong, sharp acetone smell!

Flavours include: plum, blackberry, rooibos, sweet tobacco, raspberry, bacon, and even licorice. The purple, black, and red fruits create a rich and well-rounded initial taste, with soft tannins and a pleasant, lingering aftertaste to follow.

Pinotage is best paired with rich winter dishes like venison stew, traditional goulash, meat pasta / pasta napoletana, lasagna, leg of lamb, or even a good dark chocolate!

Where to do a Pinotage wine-tasting

  • Bellevue Wine Estate

Bellevue is a wine farm located in Stellenbosch wine country, and it offers some exceptionally good Pinotage, Sauvignon Blanc, Malbec, and Petit Verdot produced under the Morkel wine range. Wine tastings and sales are offered at the estate, seven days a week.

  • Beyerskloof

Beyerskloof Wine Estate focuses primarily on producing excellent Pinotage wines and Cape Blends, and they have a fantastic tasting room and knowledgeable staff to guide you through your tasting experience. Beyerskloof is also situated in Stellenbosch.

  • Kanonkop

This historic, Pinotage-oriented Stellenbosch wine farm provides an elegant and pleasant wine-tasting experience that will definitely be one of your holiday highlights! Their wines have accumulated numerous international awards of excellence, so you are in for a real treat should you pay them a visit.

  • Nederburg

Situated in Paarl, Nederburg is another of South Africa’s premium wine producers – their wines have received more awards than any other South African producers! The beautiful thatched-roof manor house and expansive vineyards are well worth seeing.

South African Country Scene
A beautiful South African mountain scene

Red Blends – Pinotage Today

Most Pinotage wines produced today are blends. The Cape Blend is particularly popular – this signature Cape Town blend always has Pinotage as a contributing varietal, as well as other reds such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, or Cabernet Franc. Coffee Pinotage wine is currently very popular in South Africa, although it’s bold coffee flavour is disappointing to some critics who prefer Pinotage to remain simple and traditional.

The grape is primarily grown in its home country, South Africa, but it has also been cultivated in Australia, Brazil, Israel, Canada, New Zealand, the US, and Zimbabwe. A visit to Stellenbosch, a small university town about 45 minutes drive from Cape Town, is a great place to start exploring the home of Pinotage. Enjoy this unique wine on a trip to Cape Town, South Africa!

Editors Note: Pinotage is a rare varietal but it is becoming popular and some countries have begun to set up wineries to grow it. While hardy in nature, the grape is still an acquired taste due to its unique characteristics. If you’ve tried it, please leave a comment below about your experience so that others may either discover the grape or help them to consider whether it is suitable for their taste or not.

  • Carmen is a Capetonian travel blogger and photographer who is currently seeking wanderlust and whimsy in Europe. Visit her blog at: An Incurable Case of Wanderlust