Pinotage – back to the future
Pinotage is certainly not a new variety to New Zealand. Far from it. In fact it was one of the varieties championed by the early winemakers of Auckland’s Henderson Valley as they gradually switched from ‘Port’ and ‘Sherry’ to table wines.
￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼If you were at an impressionable age during the late variety that was known in the Cape as ‘Hermitage’, and 60s and 70s you would have encountered a wide variety of cheerful reds from the mainly Croatian vignerons of Henderson Valley. The wines were favourites if you wished to appear at the student party looking a little more sophisticated than those who just turned up with quart bottles of DB Brown beer.
In those days many of those wines contained more sugar and water than anything else but some actually contained fermented grape juice of one variety or another. Albany Surprise was one suspect as was the famed hybrid Baco 22A.
But the slightly better wines, often used generous blends of Pinotage, a variety that had been increasingly planted in the early 60s as interest in table wines had grown. It cropped well and was robust.
But as demand for wines from the classical varieties increased and the doubtful practices of the past were not only unearthed but made illegal, Pinotage gave way to the ‘classical’ red varieties especially Cabernet, a variety that was not really suited to Auckland but nevertheless gave the wines some authenticity.
For Pinotage was not strictly a classical variety. It was a viniferous cross deliberately propagated in 1925 by South African Abraham Perold of South Africa’s Stellenbosch University. He crossed Pinot Noir with Cinsault, a vigorous planted seeds in his university experimental garden. However he left his post a year later and apparently forgot about them. In a story very similar to the rescue of our original Sauvignon Blanc vines in the Corbans vineyard by Ross Spence in 1974, the Pinotage vines were rediscovered and in 1935 were grafted onto established vines by Perold’s successor C J Theron.
Pinotage was born.
The variety attracted gradual recognition in South Africa and when a Bellevue wine from Pinotage took the champion wine spot at the Cape Young wine show in 1959 its reputation was confirmed. It became the country’s signature variety as major producers such as Kanonkop came on board. Today it makes up just 6% of the country’s national vineyard but still remains a patriotic rallying point for South African consumers.
The variety crops well and is very hardy, undoubtedly the reason it was originally targeted by Auckland’s winemakers who were still focussed on obtaining large volumes. And treated in this manner it certainly produces wines with little sophistication and often a dry ‘dusty’ character that is not always attractive.
But keep the crops low, afford it the same respect in the winery as other varieties, and it can produce a wine with considerable power and the ability to age as some of the 25 year old Pinotage wines from Kanonkop have confirmed.