As the fourth wave of the pandemic rages on, my only human interaction has been sitting on a lawn chair in front of the open garage door with a glass of wine, and waving as people walk past. One of my double-vaxxed neighbours took a break from walking his labradoodle yesterday, pulling up another lawn chair for a socially distanced sippy cup of wine in the driveway.
As luck would have it, I had just cracked open a bottle to observe International Pinotage Day, the uniquely South African grape that only rarely makes it to these distant shores.
The Pinotage grape is a relative newcomer to the world of wine, with slightly less than a century under its belt. The story of Pinotage begins in 1925, when a professor of viticulture at Stellenbosch University was trying to breed a hardier version of the Pinot Noir grape, which is notoriously thin-skinned and difficult to grow.
By crossing Pinot Noir with the more robust Hermitage grape (also called Cinsault), the resulting grape was dubbed Pinotage, and the rest is history. The grape languished in obscurity for decades, largely unknown outside of South Africa. The world started to take notice after the apartheid economic sanctions were lifted in the 1990s, and then took off like a rocket in the first decade of the new millennium.
Pinotage remained the crown jewel of the domestic market for South African wine industry for several decades decades, with its distinctive earthy taste and smoky finish making it easy to pair with food, and the full tannic structure giving it excellent aging potential. Whenever I pick up a coil of spicy South African Boerewors sausage for a braai on the BBQ at a specialty meat shop, I make sure to have plenty of Pinotage on hand to help wash it down, with the fennel seeds in the sausage complementing the wine.
Interestingly, the international export market tells a different story, with consumer preferences leaning towards the more familiar Cab Sauv and Shiraz grapes, leading to Pinotage vines being uprooted and replaced with more lucrative export-friendly varietals. This has precipitated a wee bit of an identity crisis for South African wines, which are becoming less and less differentiated from Australian wines on the world markets.
I receive a case or two of Pinotage each year from my different wine club memberships, typically from suppliers that rarely export to Canada, and have always been impressed. We even have a small amount of Pinotage grown in the southern tip of the Okanagan Valley in BC, which I hope to return to soon after the end of the accursed pandemic.
In those carefree pre-pandemic days of 2019, I recall a visit to Stoneboat Vineyards just outside of Osoyoos, when I tasted a Canadian-grown Pinotage for the first time. Only the unique sun-baked desert-like climate of the southern tip of the Okanagan Valley is warm enough for the Pinotage Grape to flourish in our short Canadian growing season, so the winemaker tends these vines with loving care to coax the grapes to produce a full-bodied wine like no other.
Hints of sage and fennel on the nose bring the local terroir of the vineyard to mind, followed by lush fruits on the tongue and a smoky finish from the 15 months in oak barrels. A bargain at $25, I only wish that the annual production was larger, as they sell out quickly each year. Due to the limited production, there is sporadic availability at the Calgary Co-op liquor stores, so do not let a bottle get away if you spot one on the shelves!
The View Winery in Kelowna also produces a Pinotage, as does Inniskillin, an Ontario winery founded in Niagara-on-the-Lake during the swinging seventies, and later expanded into the Okanagan Valley in the naughty nineties. Both of these BC wineries put out a solid Pinotage in the $25-$30 range, also with fairly small annual production, due to the much higher demand for the better known grapes such as Merlot, Cab Sauv, Syrah, and the like.
If your pandemic tipples have largely been the same-old same-old, broaden your wine horizons with a lesser-known varietal like Pinotage, either from a local Canadian winery, or wander down the South African aisle of your friendly neighbourhood bottle shop for Pinotage from its homeland.