Pinotage (pinno-tahj ), the distinctive South African wine, is a work in progress.
The variety is viticulture parvenu invented in 1925 when Stellenbosch University wine whiz A.I. Perold crossed pinot noir and cinsaut (san-soh). Cinsaut is called hermitage (French pronunciation) in South Africa, thus the portmanteau “pinotage.”
With pinotage, the professor groped for grapes with noble flavors of pinot noir and sturdy, heat-resistant qualities of cinsaut. He achieved some of his vino vision, but grapes seldom are easy. Pinotage proves no exception.
When it is good, pinotage presents a unique flavor blend of mulberry, blackberry, and tobacco, sometimes with wild game and spice tossed in.
When it is bad, because vines are vexed by heat and water stress or when the juice encounters high temperature during fermentation, pinotage displays characteristics described as spray paint, rusty nails, or raspberry vinegar.
South African growers pray pinotage will achieve status of Argentine malbec, Australian shiraz, and California zin. Hasn’t happened, but experiments continue with clone refinement, berry ripeness, maceration times, and finishing methods in French and American oak.
Pinotage styles include light and fruity a la Beaujolais; deep and rich in the manner of syrah and zinfandel; even Bordeaux/Burgundy elegance. You also can find pinotage in bulk blush, sparkling wine, and Port-style offerings.
Pinotage enjoys some success as a blending grape, especially with syrah, where there are values, if not yet world-class winners.
Hard to find, worth a bottle if for no other reason than checking it off your wine bucket list.
• Sebeka Shiraz-Pinotage Cape Blend 2007. Jammy, fruit-forward; blackberry, cherry, shiraz spice, smoky earth; buttery palate; good value; only easily available pinotage play in local stores. $9
• Spier Savanha Steen. Chenin blanc is South Africa’s most-planted grape, except they call it steen, except that is changing to call it chenin blanc for world markets. Crisp, fresh, clean, light; tropical fruits, guava, apple. $12