Pinotage Day: A Celebration of South Africa’s Own Grape Variety

The second Saturday in October has been designated Pinotage Day. Surely no wine grape is in greater need of its own day than Pinotage. The variety is either largely unfamiliar to wine drinkers or suffering from the misimpression that it only makes wine that smells like nail polish remover. We have four examples of Pinotage that will introduce you to the variety and dispel the impression that only unpleasant wine can be made from Pinotage. We received all four wines as tasting samples.

An Introduction to Pinotage

Pinotage is a cross between Pinot Noir and Cinsaut. The cross was created in 1924 by Abraham Perold, a Professor of viticulture at Stellenbosch University, South Africa. Earlier, in 1906, the Cape government sent Perold on a trip to collect grapevine samples with the idea of increasing the number of grape varieties already planted in the region. 

For unknown reasons, after creating the cross, Perold left four Pinotage seedlings (the name is a combination of Pinot Noir and Hermitage, which was the common name for Cinsaut at the time) behind in his garden when he left the University in 1927. 

Those four seedlings were subsequently rescued by Professor CJ Theron. Over time he identified the best specimens and vineyards were planted. Finally in 1961 the first Pinotage was released: 1959 Lanzerac Pinotage. 

From the Pinotage Association website:

There was general excitement at the results of the early commercial plantings of Pinotage vines. The grapes ripened early, high sugar levels were achieved easily and the vines stayed healthy and vigorous. The early wines also showed a deeper, more intense ruby colour than either parent did. Some tasters liked the vinosity of the newcomer, others were deterred by the acetone-like quality which was to bedevil Pinotage’s development for many decades.

Let’s Taste Pinotage

2017 MAN Family Wines Bosstok Pinotage, Coastal Region

2017 MAN Family Wines Bosstok Pinotage, Coastal Regiontranslucent ruby in the glass with red fruit aromas and flavors of cherries and blackberries backed by dried herbs, nice acidity and supported by smooth tannins. The body is on the lighter side of medium. 14.0% abv. SRP $11.99

This wine was inviting and delicious from first sip to the last. It is ready for consumption upon opening. Consider chilling this wine slightly in summer. 

Younger bush vines (similar to head-trained vines) in Agter-Paarl vineyards in Paarl are the source of Pinotage for this wine. Both alcoholic and malolactic fermentation takes place in stainless steel with subsequent aging of 25% of the wine in 20% new American oak barrels for 12 months. The wine was fined and filtered before bottling. 

2017 Lievland Vineyards Bushvine Pinotage, Paarl

2017 Lievland Vineyards Bushvine Pinotage, Paarllight ruby in the glass with aromas and flavors of tart cherries and blackberries. Gravely minerality adds interest. Juicy acidity and smooth tannins keep this wine light on its feet. 13.5% abv. SRP $18.99

Not as light in color as the first wine, but easy drinking, and would take a chill nicely. This wine label is perfect for Valentine’s Day! Here is the story behind the label:

“The first time we visited the farm, we were struck by two horses that had adopted a baby springbok. This touching scene inspired our label: Cupid, the god of love, riding a springbok, South Africa’s national animal.” 
Jose Condé, director

This is the only wine in the group that is not 100% Pinotage, with 9% Cinsault and 3% Shiraz added to the Pinotage.

After a two-day cold soak fermentation was started with the addition of commercial yeast. The wine was separated from the skins after fermentation and pumped into French and American oak barrels for 12 months of aging underground. Bottled May 2018.

Lievland Vineyards and MAN Vineyards have common ownership.

2018 Southern Right Pinotage, Walker Bay

2018 Southern Right Pinotage, Walker Baymedium ruby in the glass with aromas and flavors of cinnamon, red berries, soy and umami. Lovely tannins, juicy acidity, light side of medium body. Cherry flavors develop with time, along with blackberry flavors. This wine benefited from time in the glass. 13.5% abv. SRP $32.99 

Still light on its feet, this red wine has a bit more depth of flavor and a bit more weight on the palate. Love the combination of red fruit and acidity.

Hemel-en-Aarde Valley enjoys cooler growing conditions that those of the prior two wines, which allows for a longer growing season, that can translate to a more complex flavor profile.

The 2018 harvest finished in March (on time) with lower than usual yields due to cool, wet weather during flowering and fruit set. Ripening within vineyard sites was variable making multiple passes through vineyard blocks necessary. Overall, though, 2018 is considered an excellent vintage. 

Wine was matured in barrel with mostly third and fourth-fill French oak barrels.

2016 Ashbourne Pinotage, Hemel-en-Aarde Valley

2016 Ashbourne Pinotage, Hemel-en-Aarde Valleymedium ruby in the glass with aromas and flavors of tart red cherries, cranberries and spice. Dusty minerality develops with time as do flavors of dark berries with floral notes. Tannins are smooth and acidity is lively. This wine benefited from time in the glass. 14.1% abv. SRP $57.99  

Once again, lovely complex flavors with brilliant acidity and well integrated tannins. 

2016 harvest was early and short. While the rest of the Cape suffered through excessive heat and dry conditions, the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley did receive relief in the form of rain even if the temperatures were warmer. It was still a challenging vintage due to high humidity causing concern over oidium (powdery mildew).  

Once again, aging in French oak, but 40% new and 60% second-fill in 400 and 2000 L barrels.

Both Southern Right and Ashbourne are made by Hamilton Russell Vineyards known for their exquisite Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. If you have the opportunity to taste either, take it. And, if you visit South Africa, you must visit Hamilton Russell. It’s one of the prettiest wine farms we’ve visited.

With regard to food pairing, these wines will pair with a wide variety of food from roasted chicken, salmon, pork to lamb. Rich dishes will pair nicely with the lively fruit and acidity in these wines.

We discussed decanting these wines ahead of time, but ultimately decided not to. Instead we planned to give them time in the glass to evolve. If I were serving these wines with a meal I would decant the Southern Right and Ashbourne wines. Both developed considerably with aeration. 

We shared these wines with a group of friends, all of whom enjoy and appreciate wine. Most were unfamiliar with Pinotage or, like us, have limited experience with it. We didn’t taste Pinotage for the first time until 2013 — in preparation for our first trip to South Africa.

Our friends hosted the group and set the table with four wine glasses for each person. We poured all four wines and tasted through them in the order above. As you might expect not everyone was a fan of every Pinotage in this group. In general the first two wines were liked right off the bat. Neither changed appreciably with time in the glass. 

Initially, some tasters didn’t appreciate the last two wines — considering them not very complex or too sharp (acidic). But with time in the glass both wines evolved considerably and were favorably rated by everyone.

All four wines are imported into the US by Vineyard Brands, who sent us the wines for tasting. For availability beyond the US, see individual winery websites.


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