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Lou's Summer Passport - First Stop: South Africa by Lou Zant

Lou's Summer Passport - First Stop: South Africa by Lou Zant

For my first stop, my imagination took me to South Africa where a dark and fruity Pinotage was my guide. 

Never heard of Pinotage? Well, you’re not alone. It’s only recently been on my radar in a big way, but from the very first sip, I knew this was a wine I’d like to follow just about anywhere!

Let’s talk about Pinotage. For starters, it is a grape variety that’s an original to South Africa — however, it’s not native to that region — if you want to get technical about it. It’s a transplanted crossbreed from France. So to keep things simple, Pinotage is a cross between Pinot Noir from Burgundy and Cinsault from Southern France. 

These two varieties each contribute to the whole with the bold, dark fruit flavors coming from Pinot Noir, and the bright red fruit and black pepper notes from the Cinsault.

After I experienced this wine the first time, I had to do some research because the taste was so distinctive and alluring to me. But the story behind how this grape variety came into being is that Abraham Izak Perold, the first Professor of Viticulture at Stellenbosch University created this cross so he could bring the taste of Burgundy to South Africa. So he planted these seeds in 1925 and then…sort of forgot all about them when he moved on from his role at the university! (Whaat?)

But many years later, Charlie Niehaus discovered the vines in an overgrown vineyard near where Perold lived, and he resurrected the hope for this variety. Then later still, another professor (CJ Theron) replanted the vines and in 1941, gave the varietal the name Pinotage. Eventually, this truly unique red wine became a signature grape of sorts that people typically associate with South Africa — which is why this varietal is the perfect kind of tour guide for me!

Now. We often talk about all of the ways a wine can give you a true sense of place — thanks to the soils and deeper elements found in the terroir of where the grapes were grown. But for me, there’s something really interesting about the way the flavor of a well-made Pinotage expresses the larger story behind this wine’s journey.

 Hang with me, if you will, as I talk about my fascination with grapes.

If you subscribe to the Major Crush Winecast then you already know that I can get pretty specific when it comes to the clones used to make Pinot Noir. Sometimes all I have to do is smell a Pinot to instantly know what clone was used and which California growing region it came from. But I also feel like more than any other grape I know, I can taste the struggle in a Pinot Noir. These grapes love harsh and trying growing conditions, and it’s this striving element that imparts a complexity in the flavors that always stands out to me.

So when you consider the deeper history behind a South African Pinotage, you can’t exclude the struggle this varietal went through in the 60s when apartheid created boycotts and halted so many of the advances in winemaking techniques that the rest of the world was using to produce better and more technically perfect expressions of wine. As a result, it took close to 30 years for this variety to be perfected enough to be celebrated and honored as a wine South Africa can be proud to think of as a signature offering.

I will warn you that a Pinotage can be a finicky wine, and when it isn’t well made, it can get a little funky on the nose. Wine experts have called it out for smelling like wet paint, and I will confess that I have had a bad Pinotage or two along the way. But if you stick with a premium quality Pinotage from South Africa, I know you won’t regret it!

For me, it has all of the flavors and feels of a perfect Pinot combined with the bright acidity of a Cinsault that elevates the wine in a way that I can enjoy it with or without food. 

Tip: If you’re looking for a Pinotage that hits all of the right notes, start at your local wine shop, and seek out any South African Pinotage from the Stellenbosch Region. This growing region offers the highest quality grapes, which in turn promises the highest quality vintages!

Finally, once you get your bottle of Pinotage, you might want to fire up your grill and toss a lamb or chicken kabob over the flames. Something about the way the grill chars the meat and veggies pairs magically with this gorgeous red!

Cheers, or as they say in Afriakaan…

Gesondheid!

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