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Pinotage: give it a (second) chance!

Pinotage: give it a (second) chance!

Jonas Muthoni

Pinotage: give it a (second) chance!


Wine lovers, it’s time to talk about Pinotage, South Africa’s signature red wine variety. No, not Pinot Noir. The name might sound similar, but they are worlds apart. Rich in color, bold in tannin, it has all the hallmarks of great wine…

Yet, it is often missing from wine menus in restaurants. Why? Well, Pinotage grapes grow easy and abundantly. This meant that – in the ’80s and ’90s – it was often used in very low-quality, cheap wines. Fortunately, those days have (almost completely) passed.

Winemakers are exploring the full potential of Pinotage, now it’s time for us – wine lovers – to taste its potential too!

How was Pinotage created?

Abraham Perold ©

Time for a quick history lesson on Pinotage. Don’t worry, I won’t bore you with a full account of how the wine was created, but it’s useful to know some basic facts:

Pinotage is the brainchild of scientist and professor of viticulture Abraham Perold who, in 1925, set out to create a wine as delicious as Pinot Noir. The latter didn’t exactly thrive in the South African vineyards, as some locations were simply too warm and humid. Perold got experimental and successfully crossed Pinot Noir and Cinsault (also known as Hermitage) grapes. The result was a wine rich in tannins like Pinot Noir, but also as easy to cultivate as the Cinsault.

Trivia: South Africans have actually figured out how to maximize their luscious Pinot Noir quality and crop yields. The answer was moving production to vineyard sites near the coast or at high-altitude where the climate is cooler and more accommodating.

The good, the bad and the ugly

Now, as I mentioned earlier, Pinotage used to have a bit of a bad rep amongst wine lovers. And I’ll be honest: I’ve tried a very cheap bottle of Pinotage in the past that was less than stellar. Dare I say, it even tasted a bit as hot tarmac smells. Burnt rubber. Not good. However, with winemakers now investing heavily in the optimal cultivation of Pinotage; your chance of getting a great bottle is much, much higher.

The flavor profile of a ‘good’ Pinotage

Pinotage typically results in rich red wines with a flavor profile that includes smoky and earthy notes. These are often complimented with aromas of red, purple or black fruits such as raspberries, plum, and blackberry. However, it is also not uncommon to also encounter tropical fruit in the blend, though this can cause it to smell and taste slightly tart (which might not be your thing).

The fun thing about this wine variety is that winemakers can be quite adventurous with it. It is not uncommon to find other, non-fruit flavors in the blend, such as dried leaves, rooibos, red bell pepper, and pipe tobacco.

Some labels can even read like your local takeaway menu: containing sweet & sour sauce or hoisin. Yes, those can actually be found in Pinotage blends. It might sound a bit strange, but both add a unique touch to the wine that you simply have to taste to understand.

Oh, and vegetarians beware: it can also contain hints of bacon flavor. Though for meat-eaters this could serve as a great excuse to open a bottle during a boozy brunch (bacon notes in wine count as breakfast right?)

Pssst: I know wine flavors, tannins, and acidity can sometimes sound a bit daunting. That is exactly why has a special Wine Chart; perfect for helping you make sense of all the wine-related terms.

The tannins and acidity

Pinotage is mostly classified as a dry, moderately tannic red wine. It has a well-balanced Pinot Noir-like acidity and is often noted for its smooth finish. Winemakers do apply maceration time to the Pinotage to bring out more of its flavor, complex tannins and improve the body of the wine.

Trivia: Maceration, as mentioned above, is the process of soaking crushed grapes, stems and seeds to extract more color, aroma, and tannins. Though it can be applied to all grape types, it is mostly used on red varieties (which is also why white wines are very light in color and low in tannins.)

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When Pinotage goes bad

A downside to maceration is that it can simply go wrong. During this process, it is possible that there suddenly is a ‘formation of volatile acids’. A nasty bacteria called acetobacter can cause a wine to become high in these volatile acids – resulting in a less than pleasant odor and taste. How do you recognize a wine high in volatile acids? Well, it will smell sharp and a bit chemical – think: nail polisher remover, instead of fruity and/or earthy.

As Pinotage is a bit of a fickle grape to macerate, it may be more prone to fall victim to this unwanted side-effect. If you can’t remember all of this when tasting a Pinotage, simply try to remember: if it smells pungent and unappealing, don’t drink it.

Trivia: Did you know that fans of this wine have even declared a day in October as ‘International Pinotage Day’? Yes, it has its own unofficial holiday. Well, there is no shame in celebrating early right? Screw it, literally, I am raising a glass of it this evening!

Why you should try Pinotage

Though Pinotage has received a bad reputation in the past, winemakers are working hard to turn its image around. Investing heavily in the cultivation of the grape, getting experimental with unique aroma-combinations and aiming to erase their pasts errors; most Pinotages are great wine choices for any occasion.

Yes, there are still brands on the market that produce less than stellar bottles. Yes, Pinotage can go in the wrong direction during maceration. But every wine variety has its good and bad qualities; and good and bad labels.

Plus, we would not be very open-minded if we still judged wines based on how they tasted 20-years ago. Pinotage and its makers deserve a chance to redeem their image. Now, it’s up to you wine lovers to spread the word and take action: let’s bring Pinotage back in fashion.


“Cheers!” Or, as they say in South Africa: “Proost!”

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