What’s the Deal with Pinotage?

Whether you love to hate it, hate to love it, or have never tried it, Pinotage is one of the most divisive grapes among wine drinkers.  It is treasured in its native South Africa and trashed elsewhere around the world.  It is not on the wine list at many restaurants, and is one of just a handful of varietals that some oenophiles refuse to drink.

What makes Pinotage so polarizing?  The taste can be overwhelming and a bit unpleasant to the American palate.  Though it’s not my favorite red wine, I still like to enjoy a bottle every now and then.

Pinotage is South Africa’s signature varietal.  It was created there in the 1920s by crossing Pinot Noir and Cinsault (known locally as Hermitage), but wasn’t widely planted until the 1960s.  Though it’s rare to find Pinotage outside South Africa, several New World wine countries are trying their hand at the varietal including the United States, Brazil and New Zealand.

Done well, Pinotage can have great flavors of chocolate, coffee, red fruit and smoke.  Done poorly, Pinotage can taste gamey, with notes of burnt rubber, wood chips, rusty metal and paint.  The line between a good Pinotage and a bad Pinotage can be very narrow; it’s these bad Pinotages that have turned off many wine drinkers outside of South Africa.

If you prefer lighter-bodied reds like Pinot Noir or Gamay, Pinotage is probably not for you.  Pinotage is a bold, full-bodied red, closer in style to Petit Sirah and Zinfandel.

The meaty flavors in Pinotage make it ideal for pairing with grilled meats.  Serve it with beef, lamb, venison or any type of game meat.

Don’t let people with a bad Pinotage experience scare you away.  Pinotage is something you have to try yourself.  Here are a few bottles I recommend:

Nederberg Pinotage 2007 ($9)
A great introduction to Pinotage, this wine has just the right balance of fruit and earth without a dominating wood flavor.  Aromas of smoky dark chocolate and cherry introduce flavors of plum, red fruit, tobacco and spice.  Soft tannins make this wine very easy to drink.  I recommend decanting this wine to fully enjoy the flavors.

Zonnebloem Pinotage 2007 ($11)
This fruit forward wine has ripe flavors of cherries and blackberries, rounded out by cedar, vanilla bean and toasted coconut.  Well-integrated tannins give way to a warm, fruity finish.

Kanonkop Kadette 2007 ($17)
One way to introduce yourself to Pinotage is to try it in a blend.  Kanonkop Kadette 2007 has 34% Cabernet Sauvignon, 33% Pinotage, 27% Merlot and 6% Cabernet Franc.  Smoky plum and pepper aromas are followed by concentrated flavors of cherries, blackberries, smoke and chocolate with a spicy finish.  The other varietals enhance the flavors of the Pinotage without dominating the palate.