Hybrids are awesome. The Prius. Frisbee golf . The jackalope. And a little grape variety called Pinotage.
Chances are you’ve seen Pinotage on a wine list lately, and you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s some sort of Pinot Noir blend. It sounds like a mix between Pinot Noir and Meritage, which U.S. winemakers call their red Bordeaux-style blends in which no one variety is dominant enough to be on the label.
You wouldn’t be far off. Pinotage is, in fact, a hybrid created from Pinot Noir and another French variety called Cinsault, which also went by the name Hermitage. Hence
The grape had its very own Frankenstein moment (sans lightening rod) way back in 1925 when a chemist at South Africa’s Stellenbosch University named Abraham Izak Perold was tasked with finding good grape varieties to cultivate in South Africa’s Cape region.
Not satisfied with the performance of existing varieties, he decided to cross the popular Pinot Noir grape, which is notoriously hard to grow and make good wine from, with the more robust if less refined Cinsault grape from southern France, where it is usually used in blends.
Lo and behold, the variety took root (so to speak) and became extremely popular thanks to how vigorously it grew. That was also part of the problem since starting in the 1940s, a lot of folks made a lot of cheap wine from it.
However, these days, you’ll find a lot of great Pinotage on the market and on wine menus near you. It has become South Africa’s signature grape variety thanks to lovely perfumes of red and purple berries, evident but easygoing tannins (from the almost-black grape skins), and smoky, leathery undertones that make it a particularly good fit for barbecue and other delicious things cooked over a wood fire.
Having a few last barbecues of your own this summer? Pick up a bottle to try along with your chicken and ribs and see what you think. Or just hop on the plane to Cape Town and head out to the vineyards of Stellenbosch and Franschhoek to try it at the source.