Chenin Blanc might be the most planted grape in South Africa but the true “native” South African variety is Pinotage. Why? Because it was invented in South Africa, back in 1925, and because it is hardly ever planted outside of the country, making it quintessentially South African. It doesn’t hurt that it’s a great wine for barbecuing, a staple of the South African way of life.
Pinotage was invented, the correct word is bred, in the XXth century in order to try and solve a problem. South African winemakers wanted to plant some Pinot Noir. A fine idea, except Pinot Noir is a temperamental, hard to grow, fragile grape. Results were not good. Enters Abraham Izak Perold, professor of viticulture at Stellenbosch University (Stellenbosch is the premium wine growing region in the Cape). Mr Perold decided to tackle the Pinot Noir fragility by crossing it with Cinsault, another French grape, known for its robustness.
The idea was to keep some of the Pinot character while making the vines sturdied. The result was something completely new. Another happy accident if you want. Instead of blending characteristics from two French grapes, Perold ended up creating a new, distinct variety that had nothing to do with its parents.
Since Cinsault was called Hermitage in South Africa then, the portmanteau word Pinotage was created to describe this cross of Pinot and Hermitage. It is the signature South African grape, used in a lot of red blends but also to make varietal wines.
Pinotage has high acidity and strong tannins which gives it potential for ageing. Pinotage has somewhat of a bad reputation because it can easily develop unpleasant flavors, mostly acetone. Normal and more pleasant flavors include smoke, bramble fruits or even banana. It’s an earthy wine that goes well with grilled meat.
I only tasted some recently and I quite liked it, finding it very distinctive. I bought a couple bottles and I will try to form a more informed opinion.