Pairing pinotage with the elephant in the room

One of the questions that I had going to South Africa was what gives some red wines, notably pinotage, a smoky, burned rubber smell. Pintoage is quite polarizing in the US; Lettie Teague of the Wall Street Journal, for example, categorically states that she loathes the variety.

So I attended a pinotage seminar last week at Cape Wine 2012 with an open mind, hoping to learn more about the causes of these polarizing aromas. The presentation focused on a history of the grape, a cross of pinot noir and cinsault that is grown as a bush vine, which, the presenter said, is made either by high-yielding vines for a lighter style or low-yielding style that has both higher alcohol and is aged in new oak barriques. After the presentation, much of the subsequent discussion focused on the food-friendliness of the wines and an extensive list of food pairings and serving suggestions such as grilled meats, chilling the wine for lunch on a warm day, and a couple of mentions of eggs cooked in pinotage as a particular delicacy.

The wines dated back to a Lanzerac 1964, which exhibited a pleasant tea-like quality that was still holding up surprisingly well. The wines since the mid-90s have been aged in oak While the wines poured largely demonstrated a lack of the offending aromas, when the question “love/hate” came up from the attendees, the panel participants surprisingly denied that the grape was controversial. After one panelist said he didn’t want to discuss the “love/hate” question, another speaker conceded that in 1977, a group of visiting Masters of Wine did come and tell them that many of the wines tasted like rusty nails, the equivalent of a “kick in the whatsits.” This MW voyage and their subsequent commentary back in the UK led to both a stagnation of plantings as well as lingering apprehensions about the grape in Britain. But the panelists said that the Benelux countries and the US were unaffected and pointed to a growth in plantings that now accounts for about six percent of South Africa’s vineyards.

So it was surprising that the pinotage pairing most prominently on display was with the elephant in the room. Or perhaps it was ostrich given the head-in-the-sand response? Surely, it would have been more fruitful to confront the issue head-on and describe what accounts for it.

During my week in South Africa, I had the 1999, 2009, and 2010 Kanokop pinotage and none exhibited any rubber or vegetal aromas (though a 1998 did); these were the best pinotages I tasted.

After the panel, I found Abrie Beeslaar, winemaker at Kanonkop since 2002 for further comment. He underscored that picking window for pinotage is small, about 48 hours, with it being underripe or overripe outside of that. He also punches down every two hours in open-top concrete fermenters during a quick, three-day fermentation, saying that even for high-end wines, the grape doesn’t take well to French-style extended macerations. Some of the large producers of the variety may not take as much care and some low-priced wines are shipped in bulk and bottled overseas, which could add to problems of the grape that is both high pH and high acid, which is unusual and could make it difficult for some makers. If the panel had captured some of this, it would have provided some helpful winemaking background as to why pinotage can be polarizing.

What’s your experience with pinotage? Have you ever had a higher-end one or one with age?

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27 Responses to “Pairing pinotage with the elephant in the room”

  1. I had my first pinotage experience in SA in 2005. Warwick & Simonsig are the wineries that immediately leap to mind. I honestly haven’t had a particularly bad pinotage, but have yet to find any of the excellent examples from SA here in the US.

    I also really enjoy pinotage blends such as the Three Cape Ladies and the Kanonkop Kadette (I prefer the Kadette to Kanonkop’s pinotage, actually).

  2. It’s not a variety, in the classic sense, is it? It’s a cross of two vinifera grapes, so not a hybrid either.

  3. Sean, we should drink together sometime! I was just going to mention how much I enjoy Three Cape Ladies from Warwick.

    Dr Vino, I love pinotage. Probably because South Africa was my wife’s and my first true wine trip. I’ve never experienced a rubber aroma. My favorite part about the wine is the occasional taste of bacon covered in that hard red stuff on candy apples.

    I’ve got a Kanonkop and a Primo from Fairview aging in my cellar. I hope to be able to wait a few more years for them.

  4. I love pinotage. It’s a favorite, low price red, especially when we’re having something like a veal bolognese. I’ve not had any with age on them, and most of the time, retail prices are $20 or lower. It’s on the list of things to do, though! Cheers!

  5. We were tasting the product, Wine Smoothing Drops, at the Society of Wine Educators in San Mateo recently and a South African gal opened a table not far away to sample several Pinotages. They had a very bitter finish. This was the second day of the meeting and over a hundred of the attendees had already tasted with our Wine Smoothing Drops in a tannic Cab and knew that it reduced astringency and bitterness. We were tasting with the Wine Appreciation Guild who represents us. So, some of them drifted over to our table and asked for a drop or two in their glass of Pinotage and sure enough it helped the wine.

    I thought that I’d mention this. I’ve sent you an email to see if you want to sample this product.

  6. Wino- it is a crossing of two Vitis vinifera grapes, just like Cabernet Sauvignon- it’s real

    Dr. Vino- I tasted quite a few Pinotages back when I worked at Wine Enthusiast magazine, and had a few more on a trip to SAf in 2007, but since I’ve been shy on the variety, though our shop carries the Kanonkop, which seems to be one of the top examples, though I’ve enjoyed others from Simonsig and Beyerskloof (off the top of my head), which are worth seeking out. The off-putting (for some) rubbery aromas come from naturally occurring pyrazines (at least I think they’re pyrazines, I don’t hold a degree in enology) that winemakers have learned to tame by harvesting at the correct time and careful winemaking (I believe oak helps as well). Either way, I’ve had some examples that I was not a fan of but definitely seek out the better producers who seem to have mastered the cultivation and fermentation of the grape.

  7. i have only tasted a few pinotages, mostly inexpensive, and never really tasted one that blew me away. most of the best South African wines I’ve tasted have been Bordeaux varietals or white wines.

    As for the burnt rubber aromas….that sounds like reduction to me. I haven’t tasted it in pinotage, but when I taste reduction in other wines, I usually describe it as either “burnt rubber”, or simply “funk”.

  8. Hi Tyler, my experience of pinotage is precisely the same as yours – it’s a room splitter, and I am generally in the side of the room which wouldn’t invent it if it didn’t exist. First off, the ’77 MW trip did indeed highlight many issues with pinotage but, crucially, the ’94 trip praised the grape and its wines highly, suggesting that pinotage could be a USP for SA wines. On the ’04 trip we had a tasting courtesy of the Pinotage Association for which I was the official scribe.
    My overall impression was of a group of producers trying so hard to convince us that it felt like they were really trying to convince themselves. My best wine that day was a rose, followed by a serious top-end wine. That range sounds great but hides the fact that a lot of pinotage, from the less-capable, is pretty poor stuff. However, my main problem is that it is seriously one-dimensional. Beyers Truter figured out how to make good pinotage over 20 years ago – pick at optimum but nor over-ripeness, oak it in American oak etc. Consequently, all the good ones look like Kanonkop!
    I have tasted some good pinotage wines but nothing that warrants the hype the South Africans put into it. The fact that plantings are barely growing says something in itself.
    For me, it really comes into its own in a Cape Blend but I think it lacks the finesse that aged cabernet or shiraz can produce. The really amazing thing is, given its light-coloured and soft-tannined parents, it’s deeply coloured and heftily tannic!

  9. Dermot, I don’t know whether you were able to make it to Cape Wine 2012 but I wish you had! There are plenty of problems these days with Pinotage but most of them come from the way it is portrayed and not the way it actually tastes. The big debate these days is between warm and cooler climate versions, the latter wines emphasising their Pinot Noir heritage to great effect. SA has also made great strides in offering it as an inexpensive, soft, fruity, easy-drinking option which offers far better value for money than Merlot or Cab and then – of course – we have the whole world of the Choc/coffs which is another discussion altogether! Add in rose and bubbly and I think there may be a few new styles of Pinotage which it would be fantastic if you could get to know at some point – the most important, in my opinion, being the cool climate wines. They have an elegance and grace which hark back to their parents in more ways than one.

    The biggest problem however, is definitely with how we portray it and communicate it to people. My article on which is linked here has raised some of the points touched on by the good Doctor here, but the comments show (sadly) that we still have a long way to go and there is no agreement or even acceptance that something needs to be done. Something does however, because the fact remains that when people think of SA wine, they generally think of Pinotage, and to have our national grape perceived as anything less than outstanding is not an acceptable or sustainable option for our industry.

  10. I enjoyed your article on Pinotage, a variety that I have not had very good experience with but will give an other try.

    I do have one nit to pick. You state that Pinotage is a “grape that is both high pH and high acid, which is unusual”. It isn’t just unusual; it is impossible. pH is a measurement of acidity/alkalinity. If a wine has a high pH (i.e., above 7) it is alkaline and thus can not be acidic. An alkaline wine could give a mouth experience that made one think it was highly acidic wine. That said I have never heard of a wine with a pH of even 7 much less above. Wine is inherently acidic.

  11. I’ve had pinotages I’ve enjoyed and pinotages I haven’t, but mostly to the point, I’ve had non-pinotages with that offensive character and almost all jn the UK rather than in the Cape, so maybe something happens in the bottle during transportation.

  12. I have never smelled burned rubber in a Pinotage! Have I missed it? Maybe. I personally love the Pinot Noir heritage but with more body. Beyerskloof, Kanonkop, Welbedacht, Springfontein etc….. Make stunners! Too many scribes are having a gay time knocking this variety. I have tasted terrible Pinot Noirs, Cab Savs from top producers but that does not make the variety bad!
    Move along scribes of wine ……. give credit to the good Pinotages, they can be found.

  13. I co-organize a small blind tasting with wine consumers in Beijing each year and Pinotage outperforms all other red grape varieties. We gather a dozen casual wine consumers to taste ~40 wines that retail for less than rmb100 / USD15 and many of them are surprised to find — when we remove the bottle covers — that they gave high scores to a South African wine let alone one made with a grape most of them have never heard of.

    Also, at a recent blind tasting in the Ningxia region, ~800 km west of Beijing, we tried 39 local wines, including quite a few made with a grape popular there, Cabernet Gernischt, which some say is Carmenere. One of the tasters, Liz Thach, called it an “acquired taste, like a Pinotage” and cautioned against it being used as signature grape and suggested it would be better for blending given that is has a spicy character.

    Cheers, Boyce
    Cheers, Boyce

  14. In general, Pinotage stinks. We have not sold one in years, and have no real desire to do so.

  15. Just a comment on that of Nevin. What you said re pH and acidity is true in water, but it is entirely possible to have a high pH high acid wine. It’s a common occurrence in warm climate wines. The reason is that wine contains stuff that works as a buffer – High potassium ion concentration in a wine will allow a high pH high acid wine to occur.

    Re Pinotage… I saw a parody of “wine glass manufacturer designs glass specifically tailored for Pinotage”. When I opened the picture it was a wine glass with a hole in the bottom. I got it. Most that I have tried have been not particularly exciting and some have been quite bitter. If you have Carignan in your heritage you have to be on the back foot.

  16. A wine that no-one dislikes is a wine that tastes of not much, consider the recent mass-market success of bland Pinot Grigio.

    If a wine is characterful then it will have those that love it and therefore thus must also have those that don’t. That doesn’t make a variety controversial, we all have likes and dislikes. What is unusual is how vocal the dislikers are.

    Regarding ‘burned rubber’, yes some South African Pinotages were badly affected by this, but at the same time so were many other South African reds. It is not a characteristic of the variety. The cause is unknown, though thought to be microbiological, and there is a team at the University of Stellenbosch investigating because of complaints raised about a whole slew of top South African red wines in 2007 and 2008 – though it’s worth pointing out that no Pinotages were among them.

    Seems to me this item focuses on the bad – it refer to someone who loathes the variety, not someone who loves it, it mention the negative comments of visiting MWs in 1977 but not the positive comments of visiting MWs in 1994.

    Going to a wine seminar with an open mind and then wanting winemakers to focus on examples of poor winemaking and problems in the past and asking what they’re doing about it seems to invite the answer – ‘taste what’s we’re making now. That’s what we did, why dwell on the past?’

    Yes, there are some unexciting Pinotages being made – name a single variety where that is not true, but there are also some real good Pinotages, something recognised last month by Decanter when they awarded the Trophy for Red Single Varietal over £10 to Bellingham ‘The Bernard Series’, Bush Vine Pinotage 2010 at Decanter World Wine Awards.

  17. I second Anthony’s comment. I have noticed the quality is Shirazes, blends, and varietal Cabernet bottlings too. I figured that is was a function of reduction and some sulfur compound, but the comment about pyrazines is illuminating. Will have to do more research.

  18. Sorry Richard but what you say is not true. Wine is a mixture and it may have components that have a high pH and ones that have a low pH but they will react. Not only that but the wine will have a pH that indicates it is acidic or basic, not both.

    Buffering does not separate chemicals of different pH rather it adjusts the pH of the overall mixture.

  19. […] Vino tastes Pinotage in South […]

  20. @Nevin- You’re right, wine is considered acidic and the pH is never at or above 7. What I assume Richard is referring to when he says “high pH and high acid wine” is pH >=4.0 and 0.8 g/100ml acidity or higher(as tartaric). And it does happen a lot in warm (or hot) climates, heavily alkaline soils, and when vines are overcropped. I would know- it happens all the time in Texas where I make wine.

  21. The fact that Pinotage was, and remains, very popular within South Africa isn’t surprising, nor is the statement that the “panel participants surprisingly denied that the grape was controversial.” To them, it isn’t.

    But no one can deny that Pinotage is prone to developing isoamyl acetate, and smells like — not “burnt rubber” to me, but latex paint. I have had any number of wines from Pinotage since 1969, when I entered the wine trade, and I can count the number of wine that *I* thought were very good on one hand: three, one of which I thought was excellent.

    That one excellent wine was never sold in the US, but hand-carried back from South Africa by a friend. But it ended up being like when one plays golf for the very first time: the one shot you hit that was great leads you to think, “Wow, this could be a fun game!” while every other time you swing a club, you really just want to toss the entire bag of clubs into the nearest water hazard and walk away, never to return.

  22. Anthony Rose – Interesting that you flagged transportation. One Swede I saw in South Africa said that one of his colleagues in Sweden was convinced that the South African reds at a burned rubber and/or pyrazine character *only in the northern hemisphere*. He said the guy took a box wine that had those notes in Sweden back to SA and the notes disappeared. While something may happen in transit north, it’s hard to explain how it could disappear if returned to SA.

  23. Dolan and Peter May – thanks for your comments. I did not know about the 1994 MW trip; only the 1977 trip was mentioned during the seminar. (In fact, I didn’t even know that MWs toured the wine world, issuing reports!) Peter, I attended the seminar with an open mind, thanks. But, like Dolan, I didn’t find anything that blew my mind, that’s all (And only a couple in the tasting had a hint of vegetal rubber). There was quite a bit of hype and chest thumping and not a lot of good discussion at the panel that seemed to squander the precious 60 minutes of the session.

    FYI – Beyers Truter was the one from the panel who most vehemently rejected any discussion of pinotage’s controversial character and twice mentioned the succulence of eggs cooked in pinotage.

  24. @Jason, thanks for the clarification. As a scientist, I am a geologist, I find people in the wine world often use scientific terms without understanding them. It drives me nuts. Now back to Pinotage.

    I can’t say my complaint with the variety has been just the off smells but also the lack of balance. Interestingly the balance has not been off in only one direction. Some have had high alcohol but a thin body and some have had a big body but insufficient acidity to provide balance. The worst of the lot just tasted like a bad cup of coffee.

  25. I’d always heard that the key to good pinotage was severe pruning as well as picking within a rather narrow time window for ripeness. I’ve also read that many pinotage vines in South Africa suffer from leafroll (this may be out-of-date by now, I hope?), a virus that among other things prevents grapes from fully ripening.

    I’ve tasted decent pinotage from Warwick, Kanonkop, and Southern Right, and a surprisingly pleasant cheapie from Ken Forrester called “Petit Pinotage.” The best pinotage I ever had came from Mendocino–John Parducci’s McNab Ridge.

  26. Hi all,

    Cathy, I think you’ve missed my point somewhat. I have tasted a number of good wines either wholly or partially pinotage. However, I don’t think I have tasted any such wine which is ever likely to be excellent. I pointed out that I rated a rose best on the ’04 trip, as well as also rating highly a top-end wine. However, I believe the South African industry is making a mistake to use pinotage as a USP cultivar for the simple reason that I don’t think it’s good enough to do so. I’d much rather see effort on promoting chenin, semillon (of which is very little but a lot seriously good), Bordeaux-blands (Ken Forrester’s views notwithstanding) andRhone wines (bearing in mind the aforementioned Ken’s views LOL!). The really interesting thing is to look at the graph of plantings in South Africa in the last 20 years: under-planting of reds generally and pinotage, the alleged star of the show, static or dropping as a % of total. This suggests that many South Africans are not overly keen on the grape.
    In re the peripatetic nature of the Institute, we visit the world all the time in organised groups (the collective noun for a group of MWs is either a nose (you like us) or an arrogance (you know us well!)) but the reports are solely for the members – one good reason to become an MW!
    All in all, I find that carmenere, for example, is a far more widley acceptable cultivar than pinotage and I think the South Africans could learn a huge amount from the Chileans in re marketing.
    Anyway, quite an interesting post, given the number of responses. I cannot, however, agree with the comment that I wouldn’t sell any; I can think of 5 to 6 solid producers who get the best out of pinotage whose wines I would both happily sell and drink.


  27. Dolan – Ken is hilarious, isn’t he? Great fodder for journalists. Also makes some v good wines.

    Funny to learn that they IMW group trips (as an “arrogance” – LOL) are written up but the accounts are not made public! So how did the 1977 and 1994 trip reports wield such influence outside the Institute?


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