A GLIMPSE OF PINOTAGE
Created in 1925 in Stellenbosch University, in Western Cape wine region (South-Western coast of South Africa), Pinotage is a crossing between pinot noir and cinsault. Cinsault was called hermitage at that time in South Africa, hence the name of the grape pinot-age.
Pinotage gives small but concentrated berries (in colour and tannins) leading to a potential high level of alcohol and deep colour in the wine. Broadly two types of premium pinotage can be found in the Western Cape, depending on how these grapes are grown and handled in the winery.
First, a more subtle version, the modern one: medium colour, medium level of tannins and red-fruit aromas. Pinotage grapes are usually grown in cooler areas, for instance at higher altitudes, on hills with less intense sun-exposure, or in sites benefiting from cooler breezes. The maturation of grapes is slowed down and they will have less ripe aromas, less sugar and more acidity. At the winery, temperatures of fermentation will be lower to preserve fruity aromas and not extract too much colour and tannins. This style can be found in the Franschhoek region for instance.
The second style, more traditional, will be more powerful: deep colour, high level of tannins, high alcohol and black-fruit aromas. Pinotage grapes will usually be grown in hotter sites, harvested later to accumulate more sugar, riper aromas and tannins. At the winery, temperatures of fermentation will usually be higher, and the wine will spend few days macerating with the skins after fermentation to extract tannins. Some examples of this style can be found in Stellenbosch. I've tried great examples from Kanonkop, Lanzerac or Tokara wine estates.
Pinotage is often associated with chocolate and coffee aromas. For premium wines, it can come from a high proportion of the blend matured in new oak barrels, as well as a heavier toasting of these barrels (exposition of the inside of the barrel to fire when it is build). For inexpensive pinotage, as new oak barrels are not commonly used for maturing wines, adding too much costs, it can come from the level and toasting of oak alternatives (chips and staves) added during or after fermentation.
Pinotage is native to South Africa, and grown almost exclusively there. It covers only 7% of the surface planted in grapes, so it is rather a niche market in the South African wine industry. However, about 80% of its production is exported abroad.
With the development of very good premium wines, pinotage could definitely strengthen the image of South Africa as a quality wine producing country. Producers could target a rising segment of wine consumers, more and more interested in unique and indigenous grape varieties.