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From Pinotage purgatory to Pinot Noir heaven

The South African hybrid grape has changed dramatically in recent decades and is well worth another try

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Pinotage has changed dramatically in recent decades

Pinotage has changed dramatically in recent decades

Spice Route Pinotage 2019, Swartland

Spice Route Pinotage 2019, Swartland

Metzer Family Cabernet Sauvignon 2018, Stellenbosch

Metzer Family Cabernet Sauvignon 2018, Stellenbosch

Fairview Viognier 2020, Paarl

Fairview Viognier 2020, Paarl

Elgin Ridge 282 Pinot Noir 2015, Elgin

Elgin Ridge 282 Pinot Noir 2015, Elgin

Blankbottle Master of None 2020, Western Cape

Blankbottle Master of None 2020, Western Cape

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Pinotage has changed dramatically in recent decades

I remember the late-night moment that I became aware of my personal palate, though I didn’t think of it in those lofty terms at the time. What I thought was, oh wow, how can a wine taste that offensive (think burnt rubber-infused jam stirred into bad coffee) and where’s the nearest plant I can feed it to? It was the first time I twigged that some wines were very much not to my taste. This was back in the mid-1990s and not long after I had trained in a fine stomach for the cheapest ‘vino tinto’ in time-honoured backpacker style. But Pinotage was where I drew the line and, for years, I avoided South African wines as a rule.

I was not alone: this hardy hybrid grape developed in 1925 by Abraham Perold when he crossed Pinot Noir with Cinsault (known then as Hermitage) has an infamously chequered past. Challenges in the vineyard and winery can lead to faulty characteristics such as those burnt rubber and spray paint notes. Thankfully a better understanding of how these unpleasant aromas develop has allowed them to be increasingly avoided.


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