What Is Pinotage Wine?

The Signature Wine of South Africa

Vineyards in South Africa

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Pinotage is South Africa's signature red wine grape. A gutsy cross between pinot noir and cinsault rarely found anywhere else in the world, pinotage is a one-of-a-kind rustic red wine that is earthy, fruit-driven, and perfect for pairing with barbecue. It has slightly high alcohol levels for red wine.

Fast Facts

  • Regions: South Africa (Stellenbosch, Franschooek, Western Cape, Paarl, Tulbagh, Elgin, Citrusdal Mountain, Bott River, Swartland)
  • Origin: Stellenbosch, South Africa
  • Sweetness: Dry
  • Color: Deep maroon
  • ABV: 13–15% 

Pinotage vs. Pinot Noir

Even though pinotage and pinot noir share similar names and parentage, they are actually very different wines. Pinot noir is typically medium-bodied with lower tannins and higher acidity. It's redder in color with flavors of red berries and spice. Pinotage is a deeply colored and flavored wine, fuller-bodied with lower acidity and pronounced dark fruit flavors. Both pair relatively well with meat, but pinotage has the body to stand up against tangy barbecue sauce and strong spices.

Taste and Flavor Profile

Pinotage is a dry, full-bodied, high-tannin red wine that can vary greatly in quality. Low-quality, commercial pinotage often has the unpleasant aroma of nail polish remover or rubber. High-quality vintages can have a floral, earthy nose with juicy dark and red fruit flavors like black plum, cherry, and raspberry. The best examples are balanced and relatively low in acid with an enduring sweet, smoky finish. Look for notes of oak, red pepper, tobacco, and licorice.

Pinotage is also used in red wine blends such as the classic Cape Blend. The blend, which must contain pinotage, can also incorporate reds like merlot and cabernet sauvignon.

How to Taste Wine

Follow a few steps when tasting wine to ensure you have the best experience:

  1. Look: Take a good look at the wine, examining the color and opacity through the glass.
  2. Smell: Swirl your glass for 10 seconds and take a quick whiff. Then stick your nose into the wine glass for a deep inhale, taking in your first impressions of the wine.
  3. Taste: Take a small sip and let it roll around your mouth. Note the acidity, sugar, tannins, and alcohol content when first tasting, then move on to tasting notes (berries, spice, wood) and finally the finish.

Grapes and Wine Regions

Pinotage is a hybrid of pinot noir and cinsault grapes that was developed during the 1920s and rose to popularity during the 40s. The resulting fruit is so dark it is almost black, and it grows well in South Africa's Cape. Pinotage grows best in deep soil with good water retention and as bush vines on sunny slopes, but too much sun at the end of the growing season can cause undesirable characteristics. While the vine is hearty, it is also finicky and must be well-tended to produce the best wine. Because it is primarily grown in the southern hemisphere, the growing season begins in September with harvest typically occurring in February or March.

The best pinotage comes from well-run, low output vineyards. Some have tended the same vines for over 60 years, with single vineyard and even single block wines available. Some newer wineries and winemakers are working to distinguish pinotage as a worthy grape and wine by applying expert growing and winemaking techniques. A very small amount of pinotage is grown in California, New Zealand, and a few other countries.

Food Pairings

Good pinotage is dry, full-bodied, and well balanced, making it especially good for pairing with barbecued meats. Try serving with gamey dishes like venison, flavorful beef dishes like Korean barbecue short ribs, or punchy sausages like andouille. In addition to serving with flavorful dishes, a quality pinotage won't overpower a steak or burger, and some vintages even pair well with chocolate desserts.

Serve at cellar temperature (60 to 68 F) and decant for one hour before pouring. A standard red wine glass will do the trick.

Key Producers, Brands, and Buying Tips

Look for pinotage that is from respected vineyards since the quality can vary greatly by maker. It can be found or ordered at many wine shops, and when in doubt, consult the staff to find what you're looking for. While not commonly found in grocery stores, it can also be ordered online. The price will range greatly depending on the quality, but pinotage is typically under-priced.

Many of the best vintages don't make it out of South Africa, but some quality options can still be found. Especially good vintages are good for cellaring for up to 10 or even 20 years. There's nothing quite like pinotage, but if you can't find it, look for a fruity syrah.

Look for these easy-to-find, quality brands when shopping for pinotage:

  • Kanonkop
  • Beeslaar
  • Delheim
  • Radford Dale
  • Beyerskloof
  • Chamonix
  • Simonsig
  • McNab Ridge
  • Rijk
  • Diemersfontein