Many years ago my favorite red wine was Pinotage. And it had to be from South Africa. Some of my favorite brands were Kanonkop, Lanzerac, and Warwick, and when financially challenged, Simonsig. But especially Lanzerac. But more on that in a bit.
So just what is Pinotage?
Pinotage is its own relatively new grape varietal resulting from a cross of Pinot Noir and Cinsault, developed to bring the best qualities of the two varietals that would grow in the South African climate. The result was South Africa’s signature grape, Pinotage. The name came from a combination of Pinot Noir and Cinsault’s “other” name, Hermitage, which resulted in the concatenation of Pinotage. It’s unarguably a love/hate wine. While some people love its unique earthy character, there are others who call it worse than swill. With that being said, in my opinion when it’s true to its terroir, it is a terrific wine. If it’s off, it’s pretty bad and undrinkable.
So why was it my favorite wine?
Because the first Pinotage I had just rocked me off of my feet.
I remember it distinctly. It was on a Friday night when I stopped at Lee’s Discount Wine & Spirits (a well-known local chain), and decided to try out the wines at the wine tasting. It was not too many months after my divorce, and I was looking to refuel my then-dormant desire for wine. The pourer – who’s still a friend of mine! – had several wines available for tasting. Of course there were the usual suspects – Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Cabernet, Merlot, and a red blend. And then there was this red wine that was completely new to me, and it was named Pinotage. The wine was poured into a cup and I stuck my nose into it.
How is this possible? I don’t smell wine! I smell bacon! This was, by the way, long before I really learned how to differentiate aromas coming from wine. I was an olfactory virgin. So you know that this had to be distinctive.
I smelled smoke, plums, tobacco, pepperoni, and was that banana? And dirt. Lots of dirt. But in a good way.
Eloise looked at my face and chuckled. “Yeah. It’s pretty different.”
I sipped it and laughed. Everything that I had smelled had been transmuted directly to my palate. This tasted like bacon and pepperoni and plums and dirt. And maybe just a touch of banana, which was really weird. Its viscosity showed that it wasn’t just a light-bodied red, but had texture, depth, and just a hint of silkiness. I was in love.
Although I didn’t realize it at the time, I was also introduced to South African terroir, which I discovered later in some of the other South African red wines that I tasted, particularly Shiraz. It’s an earthy wildness, hard to define, but I seem to have a special knack for pinpointing South African wines, even during a blind tasting, even if the wines aren’t very good otherwise. This terroir distinction, by the way, is great with Pinotage and Shiraz. With Merlot, not so much.
The wine that I tasted was 2000 Lanzerac Pinotage. Though my wallet was skinny, I purchased a bottle of it and enjoyed it with some pepperoni pizza. Yeah, I know. Only I could think that a $25.00 bottle of wine would be a great pairing with pizza. And we’re talking 2004 dollars!
I later went back and bought about four more bottles of it and stored them in my cooler. I brought out a bottle from time to time to enjoy, but had expanded my experiences with other wines, and Pinotage had more or less taken a back seat.
Then on Labor Day weekend in 2008 (I have pics somewhere), The Wineaux Guy™ and I went to the Slow Food Nation convention in San Francisco. We stayed in San Jose with Bunny and took the BART up to the Bay Area. We had a great time enjoying the unseasonably warm but beautiful weather in downtown SF, and that evening when we came back to Bunny’s, we decided to open up a bottle of the 2000 Lanzerac Pinotage that I had brought. This was in the fall of the year, so I decided that a wine that was nearly nine years past vintage may be losing its fruit and should be drunk now.
I was wrong. It was rich, luscious, and if anything, the fruit was more pronounced than I had remembered. The funkier traits had faded away, adding personality, texture, and character, but not being “in your face” as they had been four and a half years before. In a word, it was delicious. The three of us literally fought over the last few drops!
I don’t know what happened to Pinotage after 2008/2009. It seemed that every bottle that I had after that point seemed to be just another red wine. Those from South Africa still had the distinctive terroir, but often lacked the earthiness, complexity, and texture I had come to expect. Those from other places were completely forgettable. It seemed that good bottles were getting harder to find or were basically unaffordable. So bit by bit, Pinotage dropped off of my list of must-have wines.
I did have one at a Vegas Wineaux Wine Club tasting last year which acted like a Time Machine, taking me back to my first sip of Pinotage. It was a 2006 Tukulu Pinotage, and was easily as delicious as any I’ve had before. In fact, I’m pretty sure I hogged the bottle, but there’s no truth to the rumor that I sat in a corner just swigging away. Really. Unfortunately, I didn’t follow up and buy more, and my coolers are still Pinotage-free.
So I MISS PINOTAGE and plan to have at least one bottle in my cooler by this weekend. Why do I love it? Let me count the ways!
- When it’s good and true to the terroir, it’s absolutely delicious and very distinctive.
- Barbeque? Pinotage can take on Zinfandel and Shiraz in that arena. It’s as good as any Zin or Shiraz I’ve had, and its inherent smokiness enhances the BBQ flavor.
- Fun to share with first-timers and watch their reactions.
- It’s from South Africa. What’s not to like! South Africa, by the way, is a “new world” region because it’s not Europe.
- There’s no other wine that pairs as well with pizza.
I will be buying a bottle of Pinotage this weekend and drinking it. Good or bad, I promise to share my thoughts and notes.
Right before I fire up the grill.