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The Controversy of Pinotage

Written by Jennifer Jordan
Filed Under: Wine Types

There are certain wines that everyone knows about: the Merlots, the Chardonnays, and the Champagnes are just a few of those popular enough to be invited to nearly every party. These wines are what the general drinking population has deemed the "Cool Kids." But, the "Cool Kids" aren't made so only because of their characteristics. Sure, Merlots are rich, Chardonnays are smokin' and Champagnes, especially when mixed with orange juice and accompanied by a side of toast, are known to be good in bed. But, it's not these reasons alone that make them popular. Much of their popularity must be attributed to the fact that they are extremely common; simply, they are well known wines.

On the other end of the spectrum are those wines that are unpopular; many of these wines aren't even allowed to sit at the same wine cellar as the "Cool Kids." But, just as stated above, it's not the characteristics of the unpopular wines that make them so: it's simply because they are not common; they are unknown wines. One of these great unknowns is Pinotage. A wine that many people ignore, if a drinker sat down and took a sip out of a bottle, they might discover that it's just their type.

Pinotage is a South African wine created by a Abraham Izak Perold. Perold, a professor at Stellenbosch University, was known for his skill in chemistry and viticulture. When the Cape Government decided that they wanted to plant a larger variety of grapes on their lands, they sent Perold on a journey to scout and explore; he returned with 177 grape varieties. In 1925, Perold decided to scout and explore on his own in at attempt to find a grape rich with flavor and strength. He found one by crossing two different grapes: Pinot Noir and Cinsault. It made sense that crossing Pinot Noir, a grape with wonderful wine making potential but difficult to grow, with Cinsault, a grape that is tolerant and flourishes easily, would produce a grape filled with all the important qualities. This experiment resulted in a wine love child: Pinotage.

The production of Pinotage was initially marked by controversy: these grapes met wrath. While the controversy stopped just short of grapes protesting to chants of "Hell No, We Wont' Grow," it left many wine consumers refusing to take part in sampling. One reason for this was the erroneous belief that Pinotage was a hybrid, a wine made by breeding two grapes from two different species. In actuality, Pinotage is a viticulture cross, a wine made by breeding two grapes from within the same species. Both Pinot Noir and Cinsault are related to vitis viniferous, a European Grapevine.

Pinotage, though it still has its fair share of opponents, has begun to gain ground over the years. In 1959, it became available commercially, but was generally only known inside of South Africa. Its popularity, while dismal in the first years of existence, began to grow when, in 1961, a Bellevue red wine made from Pinotage was named the champion at the Cape Wine Show.

Popularity Emerges

The crown Pinotage wore proved to be revoked rather quickly; it was a short reign. Suddenly, Pinotage was again a faceless wine. However, another wine competition would soon give it a reputation. In 1991, a winemaker by the name of Beyers Truter entered a Pinotage in the International Wine and Spirit Competition. Upon sampling the Pinotage, the judges named him "Winemaker of the Year." He was the first South African to ever be bestowed this honor.

Pinotage started to grow on the rest of the world when the unjust system of Apartheid fell; with its removal , international boycotts were also removed and Pinotage began to be sold and traded outside South African boundaries.

True fans of Pinotage attest that it can go well with any type of food. However, its flavor tends to really thrive when paired with certain entrees. A medium-bodied Pinotage, for example, goes considerably well with fresh fish, sushi, and thick soups. A heavy-bodied Pinotage goes well with red meat, venison, barbequed dishes, and oysters.

There are two things about Pinotage that many people must determine on their own: its taste and its ability to age. Fans of Pinotage describe it as tasting of loganberries, blackberries, earth, and banana; to them, it has a flavor that is fruity, distinctive, and refreshing. On the flip side, opponents of Pinotage state that it tastes like "rusty nails." While the opposition does admit that they have tasted some very good Pinotage, they attribute its success to the skill of the winemaker, not the greatness of the grape.

In regards to aging, Pinotage is not typically a wine that is thought to age well. However, this is a bit of a conundrum: most red wines age as well as Dick Clark. The age question has also been addressed by wine drinkers: many connoisseurs have stated that Pinotages that have aged a few years exhibit stronger and more notable flavors. In general, certain Pinotages were made to age and can sit for up to eight years; others were made to be drank within a year of bottling. When purchasing a Pinotage, a sommelier should be able to tell you which vintages you should keep in your cellar and which vintages you should open up and start drinking on your way to the cash register.

Pinotage, like all types of wine, isn't for everybody. Some people love it, some people think it's decent, and some people would rather (gasp!) drink no wine at all. But, the same can be said for just about anything consumable. When it comes down to it, Pinotage is worth a try, if nothing else, to see what the controversy is all about.