Pinotage Association devoted to it though, somewhat surprisingly, it only accounts for about 6% of the total plantings in South Africa. I decided to make an exception, though, in order to trot out a new feature that will probably be published erratically, but which I've been curious to try for some time: book reviews. I buy and read a lot of books on wine, many specifically for research for this site, and I thought it might be interesting to review some of them, especially since some are out of print and/or unusually expensive. I was initially planning to roll this feature out after reading the new Wine Grapes book from the OCW crew due out later this month, but I decided to move it up because it's my blog and I can do what I want.
I'm starting this new angle with a look at the Pinotage grape because I was recently contacted by Peter May after he was directed to my site via a post on a wine-related message board. Peter mentioned in his email that we shared an interest in fringe grapes and wines and that some of my posts were similar to his investigations into the Pinotage grape, which he had published in book form in 2009 (Pinotage: Behind the Legends of South Africa's Own Wine). If there's one grape that I definitely thought I wouldn't want to read about, it would be Pinotage, as I've not only disliked, but very strongly disliked every wine I've ever had from it. I went to Amazon.com to have a look at his book anyway and read the following description: "During researches in South Africa Peter F May was told information that differed from the standard definition of Pinotage in text books. Turning detective, May investigated various legends about Pinotage's parentage and origins." Whatever my thoughts were on the grape, May's angle for his book seemed to be right up my alley, so I immediately purchased the book and just finished reading it a few days ago (you can find the book on Amazon, but it is much cheaper on Lulu.com).
The book opens with May visiting South Africa on a business trip in the mid 1990's. While there, he decides to sample some of the local wines and comes away with a fondness for a grape called Pinotage. When he returned to the country the following year, he began to seek out wineries that made wine from the Pinotage grape and became more and more enamored with it. In 1997, he founded the Pinotage Club online and began to learn more about the grape. What he was finding, though, is what I have found in many of my own investigations, which is that much of the information available on the grape was conflicting, especially regarding the grape's parentage. Most people accepted that Pinotage was created by Dr. Abraham Perold in South Africa, but nobody could seem to agree on just when the grape was created, just who its parents were, or just why Dr. Perold created the grape in the first place. In the first half of Pinotage, Peter May goes about finding the answers to those questions.
May's research is thorough and his findings are very convincing. Given my interest in parentage studies for grapes, the part that most interested me was the section on finding the parents of Pinotage. In November 1924, Dr. Perold took the pollen from a Pinot Noir plant and used it to fertilize the flower of a vine called Hermitage (the name Pinotage is a portmanteau of Pinot and Hermitage). There was some question, though, over just what grape Hermitage actually was. Hermitage is a common synonym for the Syrah grape, especially in Australia, and given some of the characteristics of Pinotage wines, many believed that Syrah was the other parent. Hermitage is also a synonym for the Cinsaut grape, though, and after tracking down a copy of Dr. Perold's book A Treatise on Viticulture, May is able to show that Dr. Perold was, in fact, referring to the Cinsaut grape when using the term Hermitage.
One of the more interesting legends that May examines, and one that I wasn't familiar with, is that Pinotage is actually a hybrid vine. There are those who believe that Pinotage was not the result of a deliberate crossing of two vinifera vines, but rather an accidental crossing with a grape called Jacquez, itself a hybrid grape that was widely planted on the island of Madeira for a time after the phylloxera epidemic. The story goes that some stray pollen granules from a nearby Jacquez vine found their way to the Cinsaut flowers before Dr. Perold was able to pollinate them with Pinot Noir. Proponents of this theory pointed to characteristics of Pinotage that were seemingly absent in Pinot Noir and Cinsaut, such as thick skins, deep pigmentation and berry shape. May is ultimately able to disprove this particular legend and to prove the actual parentage of Pinotage by tracking down (and showing) the DNA data that proves without a doubt that Pinotage was the result of crossing Pinot Noir and Cinsaut.
The second half of May's book is devoted to exploring Pinotage today, and is probably aimed more at fanatics and devotees of the grape, which I admittedly am not. He looks at Pinotage in the vineyard and the winery through the lens of a few South African producers, and also examines the rising popularity of Pinotage in other countries. I was not aware that New Zealand has almost as long a history with the Pinotage as South Africa, and that many New Zealand Pinotages rival those from the grape's birthplace in terms of quality. The chapter I was most looking forward to reading is titled "Isn't it Rubbery?" as I have never been able to really enjoy Pinotage based wines because of strong burnt rubber, acetone and farmyard smells and flavors. The acetone, it turns out, is a result of fermentation temperatures (hot fermentations reduce the presence of isoamyl acetate in the finished wine), and is something that is becoming less and less of a problem. The accusation of rubberiness, though, is more difficult to explain. May points to a particularly virulent strain of brettanomyces yeast that is found in South Africa that is a possible cause of some of these flavors. I will admit that I've found many of these off-flavors in a range of wines from South Africa, not just in Pinotage, and so I buy his explanation to some extent. The Pinotage aroma wheel, created by the Pinotage Association referenced above, doesn't include rubber or acetone, though whether that's a marketing lie of omission or a good faith representation is hard to say.
As mentioned above, I've never been a fan of Pinotage based wines, but after reading May's book, I was inspired to give the grape a second chance. I decided to give Pinotage another shot in two different ways. First of all, I was going to really try to find a high-end Pinotage from a producer that was known for making exceptional wines from the grape. After reading May's book, I had a good sense of who those producers might be. Secondly, I was going to try a wine made in a slightly different style, namely a rosé wine, to see what characteristics might be present in each wine. If both wines were rubbery and nasty, I felt that I could be pretty confident that it was actually the grape itself that I was objecting to, given my previous experiences. Others may enjoy those kinds of flavors or be less sensitive to them, and that's fine, but they definitely aren't for me.
Curtis Liquors, and picked up two bottles of Pinotage, one a rosé ($15) and one a varietal wine ($35), from Kanonkop, a very highly regarded South African producer profiled in May's book. Kanonkop boasts that their winery is the South African equivalent of a Premier Cru or First Growth on their website, and I figured if these guys couldn't convince me, then I was a lost cause as far as Pinotage was concerned. I tried the rosé wine first, and it was a fairly deep pink color in the glass. The nose was fairly intense with fresh strawberry, raspberry and rainier cherry aromas. On the palate the wine was medium bodied with medium acidity. There were flavors of fresh cut watermelon and strawberry as well as some rainier cherry and a little bit of leesy funk. It clocked in at a whopping 14.5% alcohol, and wore it a little clumsily. The high alcohol gave a sweet, almost creamy kind of texture to the wine that was interesting, but it also contributed an unwelcome heat as well. All in all I found it very enjoyable and was relieved to find that none of the negative flavors I had found in previous Pinotage based wines were present here.
I wouldn't call myself a Pinotage convert after reading May's book and trying the wines above, but I do have a new respect for the grape and for the wines it is capable of producing. May is an eager guide, bursting with information and anecdotes, and his enthusiasm for the grape is a bit contagious. This book is a must read for fans and fanatics of the Pinotage grape, or for those interested in South African wine in general. The tone is casual and the reading is easy-going, but the information is thoroughly researched, as evidenced by the 230 endnotes scattered throughout the text. It's a fun and informative book that I very highly recommend.
As noted above, my copy of this book was purchased by me and I was not asked by Peter or his publisher to review it. My standards for book reviews are the same as for my wine reviews and all opinions expressed above are mine and mine alone. I have received no compensation for reviewing this book, and suspect that Peter may not even know that I've reviewed it until I send him an email about it in a few minutes.
A blog devoted to exploring wines made from unusual grape varieties and/or grown in unfamiliar regions all over the world. All wines are purchased by me from shops in the Boston metro area or directly from wineries that I have visited. If a reviewed bottle is a free sample, that fact is acknowledged prior to the bottle's review. I do not receive any compensation from any of the wineries, wine shops or companies that I mention on the blog.