If you have a taste memory of Pinotage, chances are it’s a little long in the tooth and, shall we say, less than pleasant. In the 1990s, after Nelson Mandela was released from prison in South Africa and international embargoes were lifted, many wine lovers jumped on the novelty of Pinotage (whose genetic parents are Pinot Noir and Cinsault, which is called “Hermitage” in the Rhône and South Africa, and thus the moniker mashup), only to be put off by more than a little astringency and bitterness. By the mid-aughts, the red had been presented as South Africa’s signature, but the damage to its reputation was done.
Interestingly enough, signature or no, Pinotage is not the country’s most widely planted red grape; it’s third, behind Cabernet and Shiraz (Syrah). But the variety has undergone a remarkable quality transformation and deserves a revisit from serious wine explorers.
Jim Clarke—sommelier, educator and author, whose new book is Wines of South Africa—maintains those early problems weren’t flaws in the grape; they came from misguided winemaking. Pinotage has some quirks in both the vineyard and the cellar that take astute management to produce elegant, appealing wines, and there were simply no models to follow. The fruit ripens at a prodigious rate at the end of the season, with sugar levels spiking and acids dropping, so picking decisions must be made on a dime. Likewise, the juice ferments very quickly, and extraction from skins and seeds has to be micromanaged to avoid that astringency and bitterness that was the early tell.
But, as Clarke says, South African producers have learned much in the last couple of decades, and their wines now are very seriously fighting the headwinds of early clumsy impressions. Running the gamut of structured and classically styled (one might almost say Bordeaux-like) to newer fresher and medium-bodied profiles (sure, Burgundian), when done right, Pinotage offers a whole maze of appealing traits, from plum and berry through savory tobacco, leather and tea to sweet spice, with an edge of pleasant minerality. Here are seven bottles that get a range of styles right.
L’Avenir 2017 Single Block Pinotage Stellenbosch
Intensely aromatic, this Pinotage from L’Avenir embraces its savory side. Exotic spice notes (look for coriander) are layered over dried florals, dark cherry, cocoa and gravel. A long, silky palate offers up juicy berry and plum fruit, finishing with a kick of citrus and earth.
Kanonkop 2017 Estate Pinotage Stellenbosch
If aromas can be textural, this Pinotage from Kanonkop—from dry-farmed older vines and fermented in open-top concrete—manages it. Tobacco leaf, cigar box, licorice and Asian spice mingle with dark fruit. The texture theme continues on the palate, with plum edged by brambly red berry and earth and leather against a structured and vibrant backdrop that suggests serious ageability.
Beaumont Family Wines 2016 Pinotage Walker Bay
This medium-bodied, almost Pinot Noir–like red from Beaumont underwent an intriguing series of treatments—concrete tank fermentation, 18 months in 25 percent new French oak, then eight months in stainless steel. Beautiful florals open on the nose, blended with pretty berry notes, forest and loam. The flavors that follow are fresh and juicy—plum and berry layered with spice through a savory finish.
Barista 2019 Pinotage South Africa
Consider this red from Barista—the product of a winemaking accident in years past—a deal of an adventure. With fruit coming in and space needed, the Pinotage was moved into heavily charred barrels for fermentation. When the winemaker walked in the next day, he reports, the wine had soaked up so much char, it was like walking into a coffee shop. And thus a style was born. The 2019 is indeed layered with espresso, dark chocolate in spades, tobacco and cigar box. But juicy fruit flavors—berry and plum—float over the darkness. Look no further for the perfect barbecue wine.
Ashbourne 2018 Pinotage Hemel-En-Aarde Valley
This boutique-level, cooler-weather Pinotage from Ashbourne leans toward the savory, brooding side, with loam, tobacco, espresso and pine swirling around dark berry aromas. The palate extends the savory personality, with resiny herb, sage and bay notes layered under lovely dark fruit. Impressively structured, long and complex, this one lingers with lovely minerality.
Kaapzicht 2018 Pinotage Stellenbosch
This full-bodied, concentrated Pinotage from Kaapzicht comes from low-yielding, dry-farmed vineyards. Violets and spiced plums open, interwoven with touches of licorice, anise, leather, earth and a hint of bitter walnut skin. The impressively structured palate offers generous, juicy dark fruit—plum and cherry—with just a hint of red berry and orange peel backed by integrated oak (38 percent new French for 18 months) and firm tannins.
Southern Right 2019 Pinotage Walker Bay
With almost 30 vintages behind it, this Southern Right has honed the cool-weather character of Walker Bay. Briary red berry aromas are intertwined with dried oregano, loam, tobacco leaf and a hint of mocha. Ripe red berry flavors—raspberries, strawberries—continue, layered with herbs and spices (sage and cinnamon) against a fine-grained tannin structure.