It's Okay to Like Pinotage

My first encounter with Pinotage is chronicled in a diary entry about a Thanksgiving in Chicago. Twas’ before I was even a food writer, much less a wine writer. Thanksgiving seems to have a knack for creating wine moments for me—it was one several years earlier that a Zinfandel had turned my head. But this year it was Pinotage that did it. The memory is all wrapped up in that weekend of Chicago ardor. Quite possibly the emotional heave of that weekend made my taste buds so ready to receive. I was there to celebrate with family, but also meeting up with a fellow I’d met when he was visiting Los Angeles. We were both attending a Jeff Goldblum jazz piano show in Beverly Hills—as one does in Lalaland in summer. He was so very very symmetrically handsome. I was confused and surprised by his interest in me. So when I came to Chicago we had to rendezvous. The night before Thanksgiving we had dinner, took a long freezing walk on old train tracks (but I felt so warm) and then repaired to his place and hung out for hours getting to know each other. The connection felt electric. Nothing ACTUALLY happened, just almost, but I was seeing a whole new world. The next day, in my love-stoned haze, I tasted the glory of a Pinotage my folks had brought from a trip to South Africa . It was intricate and fascinating and challenging. I wanted to embrace it and let it unfold into my life, layer by layer bit by bit. It could take its time. I could BE with this wine. Actually it was SO much I almost couldn’t quite finish a glass, a sentiment I tried to find words for the next day as I snuggled against the fellow’s radiator—not a metaphor— as one does in Chicago winter. The words that ended up coming out of my mouth to describe it were approximately “It was like oooh. Oh! Whoaaaa. MMMM. Huh! “ Despite my articulate banter, a deeper connection—whether physical or commitment-wise—was not made with my fella. We were passing souls in the cold Chitown night. And Pinotage was not to cross my path for a good long time either. When I became aware of it again, I’d forgotten that Thanksgiving glass and was formally studying wine. I learned that Pinotage had developed an unfortunate reputation. The worst of them are known to smell of rubber or nail varnish and ick. Supposedly that happens when it’s too hot at harvest, or the vines are overly water stressed. But the best Pinotage wines are berry rich and pleasantly perfumed. And of late, much wonderful Pinotage has come my way. These days, if a Pinotage lands on a wine list it has been vetted like crazy, thanks to its bad rep. Are there nail varnish ones out there still? Sure. But come on. There’s a boatload of shitty bubble gum Pinot Grigios out there and while not currently embraced by wineratti, it isn’t so reviled. Before we get into the goodies (and wrap up our tale of Chicago flinging), here’s a little Pinotage history: Pinotage was a created in 1925. Its maker was an irresponsible breeder who “forgot” about his creation. Ahem, papas—if you get a lady pregnant maybe plan on being there for your kid. Even if your child turns out to be a capricious one who is sometimes very very good, but when it is bad, it is wicked. At University of Stellenbosch, South Africa, Abraham Izak Perold, a viticultural professor, pollinated Pinot Noir with Cinsault , planted four seeds, then bailed for Paarl. Before he even knew if is vines were knocked up! A couple years later the vines were saved and taken to a nursery at Elsenburg Agricultural College. How did they get the name? Well, “Pinot” is for the Noir. The “tage” part comes from the fact that in South Africa they called Cinsault “ Hermitage ”, which is weird seeing as Syrah , Marsanne and Roussane are what are grown in that Northern Rhône appellation. You won’t find Cinsault until Southern Rhône . Ah, the joy of etymology. Pinotage didn’t hit the market until 1961. It was a 1959 bottle of Lanzerac . And it still has yet to really make a name for itself—see “sometimes tastes like rubber and nail varnish”. But it has been redeeming itself, at least in my eyes. Albeit Pinotage didn’t dream about me. Several years after that Chicago boy encounter, the fellow messaged me that I’d made an appearance in his dream. “You were at the house I grew up in and you ran out there down to the barn. You were wearing a coat that was too big for you so you rolled up the sleeves. Sorry I made you upset in my dream” he messaged me. Naturally I forgave him. And I really want to be in a dramatic movie scene with a barn and a big coat. I should maybe write Chicago boy to say hi. I’ll buy him a glass of Pinotage next time I’m in town. As for the Pinotage I’d take into the shower, so far Beaumont is winning. Is it that it is from Bot River? Water? Shower? It’s easy breezy. It’s f***ing sexy is what it is. I mean obviously, if I could I’d get my hands on the Pinotage that first turned my head. Seeing as it is wrapped up in sexy memories. But right now Beaumont works for me. Okay, now for my top four recently tasted Pinotage wines, curated for you to explore with those you have an electricity with. May the force be with you. ------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------ 2016 Beaumont Wines SixtyTwo Barrels Walker Bay Pinotage It is a very correct wine. It is right. It puts the Pinot in Pinotage! Based in Bot River, one of the better-known wards of Walker Bay, it has cool Mediterranean vibes keeping that acid high and that fruit fresh. It is the lighter face of Pinotage and I am here for it. All backed up by pepper and who doesn’t want THAT? 2017 Kanonkop Pinotage This wine is big stuff. It is an estate wine! So I like to imagine extra special care went into it tasting as fabulous as it does. That, and that delightful Simonsberg-Stellenbosch terroir and old vines. As big as this wine is, it has a reasonable bit of acid that keeps you sipping judiciously and happily. 2017 Beeslaar Stellenbosch Pinotage Smells and tastes like pricey winemaking, and I don’t mind. I taste that new oak and…again, I don’t mind. There is just…if you could make the winter holiday season a jam, then infuse with alcohol and take most of the sugar out but it is a bit spiked…this is spiked holiday punch, and I am in. 2014 Fort Ross Fort Ross-Seaview Sonoma Coast Whoa whoa whoa we have ourselves a California Pinotage maker?! Rich and ripe on the nose and significantly fresher on the palate. Very friendly. The tannins are a bit handsy but ripe and…dark grape-cherry jam? I feel this wine could appeal to people who don’t like heavy reds and also…ones who do. It is fun and will wrap you up and take you down ------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------ Want to read more from Ellen? Check out her recent articles: Fast Food Slow Wine: THE Taco Bell Oscars Gold Wine Winter Rosé Wonderland Winter Comes: Solstice Libations Super Natural: RAW WINE More Than Green Grapes You can also listen to Ellen's podcast with Shaughn Buchholz, The Wine Situation here . Check out her recent transcripts of the Final Five questions: Wine Situation Final Five! With Punam Patel Wine Situation Final Five! With Ronnie Pessin

Kanonkop Estate

Simonsberg Stellenbosch Pinotage 2017

Delicious delicious estate wine! Heady heady estate wine. With lively enough acid to dance off the richness. Purpley things, flowers, black cherries, and potpourri all do their darnedest to take you down but it has a lift that keeps you up. And drinking more of it. — 4 years ago

Daniel P., Paul and 15 others liked this

Beaumont Wines

Sixty Barrels Pinotage 2016

NOTE this should be SixtyTwo Barrels not Sixty...So totally correct. If blind tasted (which I was) I’d have said—new world slightly-better-than-average-not-expressive-but-balanced blend‽ it is tasty. And balanced if not expressive. Just fun, well made fun. It is a wine a lot of people would love and wine jerks like me would say “goooood! I’d buy it!”. It kind of puts the Pinot in Pinotage. — 4 years ago

Aaron, Daniel P. and 10 others liked this

Fram Wines

Citrusdal Mountain Pinotage

WOW. Loved. And the people I was serving at a South African event loved. It is sturdy. This wine will support you. And not go away. It will feed you all the fresh red plums and raisins you need to stay healthy. Then such juiciness at large and then it will wave air on you ( in the name of medium acid and 14% abv alcohol) to keep you chill. Essentially this wine is a side piece. Keep it in your life boo, — 5 years ago

Aaron, Robert and 17 others liked this
MaJ CappS

MaJ CappS Influencer Badge

The combination of Cinsaut and Pinot noir has been severely underrated. There are amazing examples of this hybrid, bred, forgot, then rediscovered as a tribute to the SA wine scene. This grape is pure punk.
Ellen Clifford

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@MaJ CappS oh yeah I’ve turned my nose up at way too many novelty pinotage but this is The Good pay attention thang...

Fort Ross

Fort Ross Vineyard Pinotage 2014

Fabulously surprising! This wine is one of those warm robust bear humans who wraps you in a hug that doesn’t smother you, it frees you. It’s fresh. Oodles of dark berries and plums plus vanilla and a very herbal earthy thing and something like leather. So very very good. — 4 years ago

Sharon, MaJ and 10 others liked this


Stellenbosch Pinotage 2017

Smells and tastes like expensive winemaking aka the new french oak is rife but you wanna know‽ I don’t mind. It makes this Pinotage nummicious (industry lingo). It. Is. Friendly. And tasty. Let us parallel it to to my unabashed love for Taylor Swift. Is it designed for all to love? Sure. Does it have a hearty that wants the best behind it? Yes! A lot and it fucking rocks. Not sure of this wine’s politics. But.
I love it even though it clearly wants the masses to buy in. This is not eccentric or out of the box Pinotage but it is excellence.
— 4 years ago

Robert, David and 12 others liked this
Ellen Clifford

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@Trixie thanks! I may or may not have just watched the Taylor Swift documentary when writing this 🤣
Tyler Martinelli

Tyler Martinelli

Stellenbosch is an amazing wine region. I’m in love 🥰
Ellen Clifford

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@Tyler Martinelli I’m always learning about it!